Home » , , , , , , , » Light and Dark: A First Chapter Sampler by Ari Thatcher

Light and Dark: A First Chapter Sampler by Ari Thatcher

Two days later, thunder exploded above the Quay House Bed and Breakfast, rattling the windows. Jasmine jolted so hard she fell against Joey on the edge of his bed.

“Hey, watch it. You almost made me drop my phone.” Joey leaned into her, pushing her upright.
Light and Dark: A First Chapter Sampler
Light and Dark: A First Chapter Sampler by Ari Thatcher
“As if I did it on purpose!” Thunder crashed again and the lights flickered. She walked to the window, holding out her phone. “Come on, there has to be a signal somewhere. Do you have service?” “No. Not on my phone or my tablet.” “Perfect. How do we check in for our flight?” Jasmine had enjoyed the last week, but she was ready to go home. “We should have left yesterday with Chaz and Kenzi.” “That would have defeated the purpose of Chaz and me not being seen together, to cut down on the paparazzi.” “Seriously, who doesn’t recognize him?” Joey raised one of those dark, expressive eyebrows at her. His deep brown eyes hinted at laughter behind that deadpan face. She realized what she’d implied by leaving Joey out of her question. “Sorry. Who doesn’t recognize either of you?” He laughed like he’d been teasing her. “I don’t have half the problems he does when traveling. Thank God.” Sitting beside him on the bed again, she checked her phone once more for a signal. “So what do we do? Just go to the airport and check in there?” “You crack me up.” Joey stretched and then rubbed his neck. “I never know if you’re for real or not. Yes, people who don’t have Internet have to check in in person.” “We’ll have to leave early.” She looked at the time. “In an hour? We’ll need to add extra time for traffic in the rain, plus checking in.” “Sounds about right. I’m all packed, so we can go whenever you’re ready.” She gave him a blank look. “Of course you are. And you’re probably expecting me to run back to my room in a panic and throw everything in my suitcases. I’ll have you know I’m ready, too.” “Then let’s hit the road.” Walking out of his room as casually as she could, she shut the door behind her and rushed to her room. She was mostly packed. She hadn’t decided which pair of shoes she’d rather sacrifice to puddle jumping. Her runners would have to do. Most of her makeup was already in the makeup case. Rolling the cord of the flat iron, she tossed it in, too. After a quick scan of the room, she grabbed her purse and suitcases and went downstairs. Joey waited at the foot of the steps. Marny O’Neal, the owner, joined them in the entry. “So you’ll be leaving, now?” “Yes. We’re getting a head start because of the weather.” Joey shouldered the strap of his carry-on bag. “You take care. The roads will be bad.” “Thanks, we will.” Before following Joey out the door, Jasmine pulled up her hood. The front of the B&B sparkled with colorful Christmas lights, and garlands of greenery draped the porch railing. If it weren’t for the downpour, she might be in the Christmas spirit. Joey threw his bag in the trunk and left it open for her while he climbed behind the driver’s seat. After slamming the trunk closed, she jumped into the passenger side. “I hope the car rental company doesn’t charge us extra for water damage on the seats.” Joey grunted. He drove silently, only the swishing of the wiper blades filling the car. She pulled her phone from her pocket and tried again to get a signal. No luck. She had two or three hours ahead of her on the road with a guy sitting in his cone of silence, and no service on the phone to keep her entertained. Good thing she kept a good selection of books downloaded. Leaning back, she opened that app. ~*~ Joey followed the arrows around the airport to the rental car return. Once they’d turned in the key, he led the way to their gate. “Oh, damn.” Jasmine stopped in her tracks. Following her gaze, he saw the flight status display. All flights were delayed or canceled. “What the hell?” The crowd grew thicker the closer they got to the counter. In front of him, travelers asked the same questions repeatedly. “What do you mean, there are no alternate flights?” “What are we supposed to do now?” “You people can’t fly in a little rain?” That one made Joey chuckle. If they were smart, they’d all be building arks. Jasmine set down her bags and stood beside him in the line that wasn’t moving. “What do we do now?” “I guess we pray there are a couple of chairs free while we wait.” Of course, the seats were all taken, as was much of the wall space. They squeezed into a small spot. Jasmine had her phone out. She always had it in her hand, like it was permanently attached. At least he put his away once in awhile. Now wasn’t one of those times. He sat way too close to Jasmine. Her thick black hair kept brushing against the side of his face. It smelled like mai tais, like coconuts. All she needed was a little pink umbrella tucked in her hair. His silent laugh shook his body. “What?” “What what?” No way would he admit he’d been thinking about how good her hair smelled. “Fine.” She went back to her phone. “I feel trapped.” “Feel free to get up and move around.” He wouldn’t mind the extra space. “No, I mean not being able to use my apps. If we could get a signal, we could find alternate transportation. Maybe we can fly out of Cork or Shannon.” “This island is only so big. From what I saw on the weather map before my service disappeared, we’re going to be stuck for days.” “We can’t. I want to spend Christmas with my family, not with…” He cleared his throat, knowing where her sentence was headed. “An airport full of strangers?” “Um, yeah, that’s what I was going to say. I think we should see if the train will take us to Shannon.” “So we can sit in a different airport? I’m all for a change of scenery, but that seems like a waste of time.” Instead, they wasted a good part of the afternoon sitting against the wall. Feeling his right foot tingling, Joey stood to get his circulation going. “We should get another rental car and go back to the B&B. It’ll be easier than trying to find a room around here. They’re probably all booked by now.” “That doesn’t get us closer to home.” “I think you need to face the fact we’re stuck here until after Christmas.” He didn’t like the idea any more than she did, but at least no one was waiting for him back in the States. “Let’s go, then.” No whining or moaning. She surprised him. The line at the rental car place was as bad as the airline counter. The customers were no more pleased than Joey was to hear the cars were all taken. “How does that happen?” Jasmine’s voice was now on the verge of a whine. “Let’s take the shuttle to the train. There might be a long line, but at least another train will be coming shortly.” The porter told them there wasn’t a shuttle. Taxi or bus were the choices. “But I doubt you can get a cab today. You can wait and try, but I’d take the Airlink, myself.” He directed them where to board one. Thankfully they arrived at the train station without much hassle, even if they did have to wait forever for the Airlink bus to show up. After another long wait at the train station in Dublin and at the bus station in Wexford, they were finally back in Kilmore Quay. And it was still raining. “Now what?” Jasmine stood beside him looking at the waterfall pouring off the roof of the bus station. “The pub isn’t far. We can use the phone there to call Mrs. O’Neal and get our rooms back. Besides, it’s not like we aren’t wet already.” Joey grabbed the handle on his bag and shouldered his carry-on. “Ready?” She grinned and shrugged. “Why not?” He looked down at the suitcases at her feet. “I suppose I should do the gentlemanly thing, huh?” “Don’t strain yourself. Why change now?” Her lips tilted in a wry grin. He picked up the suitcase without wheels and ducked through the waterfall. They ran across the street and down the block, practically diving into the pub when they reached it. They were soaked to the skin, breathing hard, and laughing. After shaking much of the water off their coats, they hung them on the hooks by the door, dropped their bags near a table and crossed the dim room to the bar. Ned, the bartender, came down to their end. “What’ll it be? A tall ale, or a warm toddy?” “We’d prefer a flight home.” Jasmine sighed and sat on a stool. “Sorry. I used up all the magic the leprechaun gave me when I found his pot o’ gold. I can do fish and chips along with that drink.” Joey sat beside Jasmine. “A phone would be great. Our cell phones have no service.” “Phone’s against the wall.” He tilted his head to the right. As Joey walked to the phone, he heard Jasmine order a coffee. Well, she ordered a latte and Ned offered to load a mug of coffee with fresh cream and sugar. “Quay House,” came the voice on the other end of the phone line. “Hi, this is Joey Hughes. We checked out this morning. We can’t get a flight. Do you still have our rooms available?” “Sorry, but we close down for the holiday weekend. You’ll have to try somewhere else.” He hung up and returned to the bar. “Our bad luck continues. There’s no room at the inn.” Jasmine’s face remained blank. “How many years have you been waiting to use that line?” “Hey, I thought it was funny.” He sat down again, fighting a grin. “Ned, where can I find the numbers for the local hotels?” Ned set a phone book on the counter. “It’s two days before Christmas, lad. I doubt you’ll be finding a place to stay tonight.” The man was right. No rooms available anywhere since no one could leave Ireland. Joey hung up after the last call. “I’ll take that ale after all,” he said as he walked back to his stool. “Where are we staying?” Jasmine held her mug with two hands as if keeping them warm. “On the curb, I guess. Or we can sleep in the bus station if they don’t kick us out.” Her eyes glistened with tears for the first time in all this chaos. “Seriously?” He didn’t bother to answer. Handing Joey a glass of ale, Ned said, “Did I hear you have no place to stay?” “No rooms available,” Joey confirmed. “Boys,” Ned called to a table where three old men sat. “This couple is needin’ a room until the storm passes. Who’s got a room to spare?” “Not me.” “The wife would kill me if I brought home a pretty young thing.” The three men chuckled. “What about that flat over Gilmore’s shop? It’s been empty since Kieran went off to uni.” “Aye, give ol’ Gilmore a ring.” Ned made the call and came back smiling. “You’d be in luck. It might be a bit dusty, but the room is available. Their shop is at the end of the block.” Joey clenched his teeth. Please let room be Irish for apartment. “Thank you so much!” Jasmine jumped up. “Come on, Joey. I want to put on dry clothes.” He and Jasmine ran through the downpour to the last building, a small storefront with a second floor above. He slid to a stop when he saw the name on the door. Gilmore’s Fresh Fish. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. “Fáilte.” A round-faced older woman wearing an apron over her sweater and jeans greeted them. “You’ll be the couple Ned called about.” “Yes,” Jasmine said. They introduced themselves. Joey bit his tongue. All this use of the word couple where he and Jasmine were concerned made him itch. “You’re lucky, we were just about to lock up.” Mrs. Gilmore pulled a key ring from her pocket. “Come ‘round to the back and I’ll show you the place.” The door behind the fish shop opened to a tiny entry and a staircase leading to the second floor. Mrs. Gilmore unlocked the door at the top of the stairs. “Here we are. It’s been closed up tight for a few months, but it’s dry. There’s wood in the fireplace, and I’ll have my daughter bring more ‘round. That’s the only heat.” She pointed to the door in a corner. “The water closet’s there. There’s a tub, too. No stove or refrigerator, but you’ll find a hot plate in the cupboard.” “It’s perfect, thank you.” He hadn’t even thought about where to buy food. The light through the windows was fading, so stores would likely be closing soon. If they hurried, they could at least hit the pub for fish and chips. He took the key from Mrs. Gilmore and he closed the door behind her when she left. Jasmine was staring at the single bed against one wall. “Uh-uh. No how, no way.” “Fine with me, you can sleep on the floor. You’ve got more padding than I do, anyway.” “Thanks, loads.” He rolled his eyes. “Curves. You know. If I said you had no padding you’d still be insulted. Hell, take the bed. I don’t care.” With the smirky grin of a girlfriend who’d won an argument, she said, “Cool.” She threw her bags on the bed. He scratched his arm. Couple. Room. Girlfriend. He was getting hives from all this talk. Just because Jasmine’s best friend married the lead singer in the band, she’d better not get any ideas for herself. He didn’t do relationships, much less marriage. The Rock Star’s Wedding Chapter One Her first cup of coffee had never tasted so good. With the warmth of the tropical early morning sun beating down on her, Kenzi Packard inhaled the rich hazelnut aroma while watching the rolling waves in the distance. After several years of vacationing locally, she and the girls had splurged and dusted off their passports. Sitting at a hotel on St. Thomas with a view of the ocean, she had her best friends there to share this week in heaven, and no work phone calls to deal with. What more could a girl want? “Chaz Marino is here,” Jasmine Wright said with a gasp. “On the island.” Kenzi rolled her eyes. “Where did you get that info?” Jasmine held up her smartphone. “It’s all over Gossip Ho’s website. He and Vanessa Edwards are getting married Saturday.” Bree Simmons stretched her arms in the air and yawned. “How can you read that crap? Do you really think if Chaz was getting married he’d have told anyone?” She tipped her face up to the sun, closing her eyes with a sigh. “The part that I don’t get is why he’d marry her after she and Harry Cabrera were so hot and heavy on the set of Drifting 3. Talk about foolish. I mean, he should have dumped her ass when those naked pictures first appeared.” Jasmine tapped and scrolled her way to who knew where on her phone. Kenzi rose to refill her coffee from the little hot-drink maker the hotel provided, pausing with one hand on her hip. “I have two things to say about that. A, there’s no proof they actually slept together, and B, maybe he’s the forgiving type who believes in second chances. Isn’t that sort of romantic?” “Romantic, or door mat?” Bree questioned back. Kenzi walked away before she could hear what else they said about Chaz. She wasn’t about to admit she still had feelings for him‑she hadn’t even admitted to knowing him, much less dating. When he’d dropped out of college at the end of their sophomore year to pursue his music career, she’d been sad, but not heartbroken. They’d talked and accepted the fact they wanted different things from their careers. She loved programming, anything to do with computers, really, and he lived music. Ate, slept and dreamt it. Now she had a job she loved, working for a gaming company, and he…well, he was Chaz Marino. Her friends would freak if they ever found out she and Chaz had been a couple long before he and Joey Hughes formed their band, Marino. It wasn’t something she could just throw out there in the middle of a conversation, like, “Oh, you know, I used to do him.” And when they talked ex-boyfriends, there’s no way she could bring him up. He wasn’t some creepy-ass, cheating schmuck she wanted to forget. On the contrary, he’d been so good, he still showed up in a lot of fantasies. And damn, he was superhuman there! Yeah, she definitely was not mentioning her relationship with him. After her second cup of coffee, she was ready to run. Moving through her stretches in their room, she called out to the balcony, “Who’s running with me?” Her question was met with groans and gripes, but they both came in to stretch with her. They took the elevator to the lobby and stretched again when they reached the street. The air smelled so good, clean and salty. The air in Oakland was probably just as clean, with it being so close to the Pacific Ocean, so maybe it was just the idea that she was in the Caribbean that made her think it smelled better here. The three were silent as they gained their stride. Then they broke into the usual complaints. “You’d think on vacation we could give up the routine,” Bree said. “Sure,” Kenzi replied. “As long as we give up eating.” “And drinking,” Jasmine added. “Not likely.” Kenzi sidestepped some broken glass on the road without breaking stride. “Just think, running in the morning, snorkeling in the afternoon and dancing at night. We’ll actually lose weight!” “And sleep for the entire week when we get home.” Bree jogged ahead so they could move single file as a car passed. They followed the narrow road all the way out to the point before turning back. In the distance, Kenzi noticed a single runner coming toward them. A tall, slender guy, to be more precise. Creamy dark skin. Closely shaved hair. He had on large sunglasses, so who knew what he really looked like, but the rest of him was drool-worthy. Broad shoulders tapering to a narrow waist, chiseled upper arms. She could easily picture that body poised above her on the sheets. He swiped the butt of his palm on the side of his face in a move worthy of an exotic men’s cologne commercial. His teeth flashed in a smile before disappearing behind full lips. Kenzi’s heart rate sped up. No way, it couldn’t be him. She only had Chaz on the brain because Jasmine mentioned him. This guy was leaner. Not scrawny, but wiry. Definitely buff. And he was wearing Spandex running shorts. The Chaz she knew would never be caught dead in those. The closer he got, the tighter her stomach muscles knotted. It was Chaz. Did he even remember her? Should she acknowledge him as a friend or play it cool? He was probably trying to avoid attention. Avoid cameras and shrieking fan-girls. She voted for cool. “Hey.” And kept jogging past. “Lady K?” Oh, shit. She turned and jogged in place. “Omigod, Chaz!” She sounded like a nerd. She felt like one. She had no makeup on. Her hair had last night’s mousse in it, yanked back in a ponytail to keep it from flapping in her face. And, her running shorts showed every ounce of the five pounds she’d gained since college. “I thought that was you. It’s so cool to see you.” He stopped running and put his sunglasses on top of his head. “Are you staying long?” “Until Sunday.” “Cool. Maybe I’ll run into you again and we can catch up.” “Sounds great.” She ignored the piercing stares her friends were giving her. “Great.” He turned and jogged away. Kenzi did the same. Hopefully she could outrun the questions she knew were coming. “Do you know who that was?” Jasmine nearly squeaked, her voice was so high. Here it comes. “Um, yeah, I did call him by name.” Bree trotted in front of Kenzi, spinning to jog backwards. “I’ve known you four years and not once did you mention him. He calls you by a nickname! ‘Lady K.’ What’s up with that?” Jasmine punched her arm playfully. “You didn’t even say anything when I said he was on the island.” Kenzi looked up at the crystal blue sky in frustration. “Will you guys keep it down? He can hear you. And how was I to bring up something like that without sounding like I was name-dropping? It’s not that big a deal.” Bree turned around again to jog forward. “Not that big a deal. Hello. Chaz-freakin’-Marino.” “Did you sleep with him?” Jasmine always got straight to the point. “What kind of question is that?” “I thought it was pretty straightforward,” Bree said. “All right. We dated in college. He moved away and I stayed to graduate. That’s it.” “Dated. Are we talking Cokes in the coffee shop or dinner followed by a little headboard banging?” Jasmine had such class at times. There was no way they were just going to let this die. Rolling her eyes, Kenzi spilled the truth. “God, you guys drive me crazy! Okay, it was a real relationship. Could have turned out to be something if we hadn’t been traveling different paths. Do I need to remind you he’s engaged to Vanessa? I have no intentions‑nor do I think I could accomplish‑stealing him from her. There’s no point talking about what might have been.” Thinking about him had never been painful, even after he became the name on every girl’s lips. He was a happy memory, nothing more. Now if she could just convince Jasmine to leave him there. ~*~ Chaz ran a towel over his head, tossing it in a corner of his room before padding out to the living room in his sweatpants, where he found Joey sitting on the sofa with his feet on the coffee table. “Dude, this isn’t your apartment.” “Huh?” Pointing to Joey’s feet, Chaz twisted his lips into a wry grin. “With what we’re paying for the villa, the least you could do is act like you grew up in a house, not a barn.” “Whatever.” Joey dropped his feet to the floor. “Have you heard from Vanessa?” “Yeah. She’s flying in tomorrow night.” “Wow, keep your excitement under control.” Chaz shrugged. “I save it for her. She needs the adulation.” “She’s so many levels beyond high maintenance. I’d get exhausted just trying to keep her happy.” “She’s happy without my help. Ease off her, man. I know you don’t like her, but she’s going to be my wife so she’s going to be around awhile.” He went to the kitchen and grabbed a bottled water before sitting in a chair that looked out onto the narrow bay. Joey had done a great job finding this place. It felt private while being close enough to the banquet hall to make it easy to slip away after the wedding. He remembered seeing Kenzi jogging down the road. “You’ll never guess who’s on the island.” “Who?” Joey didn’t even look up from his phone. “Kenzi.” “Really?” Joey smiled. “Please tell me she’s gone pale and plain after spending too many hours in front of a computer screen.” Chaz’s mouth pulled to one side in a smile as he pictured her. Her hair was a shade lighter, blonder than ever, and looked as long as he remembered, in her ponytail. She had curves now. Nice ones, especially the fuller breasts. A waist that looked small enough to span with his hands. “Not hardly. If anything, she’s even hotter. She was out jogging with a couple of friends.” “Jogging, huh? On St. Thomas? She’s the one you should be marrying.” Chaz had considered it once, for all of a few minutes. He hadn’t been thinking marriage back then. Any hours he wasn’t supposed to be in a classroom, he and Joey had been writing songs and playing their guitars. In fact, a lot of the hours he should have been in class, he’d been doing that, too. And writing lyrics during a lecture or three. Some of his classmates had glared at him when he started humming a tune he wanted to remember. Kenzi was the complete opposite. She took her books seriously, but she didn’t look down on him for being free-spirited. She admired his drive, she’d said. With his voice, his talent, she’d been sure he’d make it big. She’d encouraged him to audition for Star Launch and sat in the audience cheering when he made it through round after round. He finished in second place, but it was enough to get him going. With Joey, Devin, Nate and Travis backing him, he’d never looked back. And when it was time to move to L.A., Kenzi had let him walk away. That had stung. He’d weaned himself from her slowly, calling, texting, just needing her to celebrate with him. Then life got so wild he had a different girl in his bed with each album. Well, there’d been four albums and six girlfriends since Kenzi, including Vanessa. Sometimes Vanessa pissed him off enough to make him think about how things had been with Kenzi, but it wasn’t in Vanessa’s makeup to just sit by and be supportive. She had her own career in the public eye. It was part of what made them work together as well as they did. Between them they were in a different state, a different country, each month. Reunions made for hot sex. Joey continued with his train of thought, a track he’d hopped on when the wedding became imminent. “Kenzi wouldn’t have fucked around on you.” Chaz gritted his teeth and counted to ten. “I’ve asked you to let that go.” “I’m game, but is Vanessa? Have you seen the pictures of her and Harry hitting the clubs when shooting ends for the day?” “When they finish shooting, she’s too wiped out to go clubbing.” At least, that’s what she said when she filmed in L.A. They only went to the popular spots when she was between movies and wanted to be sure no one forgot about her. He could care less about being seen. Having his songs get airplay was what mattered. “Oh, right,” Joey continued. “I forgot those paparazzi guys Photoshop her picture on all those other girls Harry is sleeping with.” “She apologized for that. We got past it. Why can’t you?” Joey tossed his phone on the sofa. “I don’t know, man. You’re like a brother to me. You’ve got everything perfect in your life. I hate to see you throw it all away on Vanessa-fucking-Edwards.” Chaz took another swig from his bottle. He’d convinced himself Vanessa was capable of monogamy, in spite of being the latest “it” girl cast opposite the guys who fought for Sexiest Man of the Year. He’d been a runner up for that title last year; maybe that would keep her happy for a while. “I love her.” He was telling Joey that, not himself. “And she loves me.” “In her way, yeah.” Joey scratched his head, staring out the window. “You did get her to sign the prenup, though, right?” “I’m in love, not brain dead.” “Okay fine. Just checking.” Chaz grabbed the soft pillow from behind him and threw it at Joey. Joey laughed as he ducked behind raised arms. “Hey, we’re not in your apartment, remember? Act like you grew up.” His Wedding Date Chapter One Bree Simmons held the collar of her wool coat closed as the wind off the ocean blasted past the front of the office building. She should have worn pants to work, but her little plaid skirt was so much more fun. More fitting to the mood she’d been in when she woke. Flirty. Dangerous. It was Friday, the end of a long week, and she planned to make the most of the beginning of her weekend. “Bree, wait up!” Ash Uberman, the hunky graphic artist who worked two cubicles away from hers trotted up. His straight brown hair danced in the blowing air. “Whew, this wind is crazy.” “Yes, and thanks for making me stand in it longer.” She grinned to show she was teasing. “What’s up?” He smiled and she forgot how cold her legs were. “I need a favor. Huge favor.” They were friendly enough to have lunch on occasion, often with a few other coworkers, but other than the major crush she had on him, she wouldn’t call them friends. Still, with the right kind of favor, that could change. Or she could hope so. “Depends. What kind of favor?” “I need a date.” The laugh that escaped her was loud and brief, and she snapped her mouth closed a moment to regain her composure. “You need a date? I hear you on the phone all the time, baby this, sugar that. Someone stand you up?” He glanced around then took her elbow and walked toward the parking lot. “It’s a long story. I don’t want to keep you out here in the cold. Can I buy you a drink?” Dying to find out what was going on, she said, “Sure.” She followed him in her car to a small pub not far from the office and he found them a small table in a corner near the fireplace, which she was very grateful to find burning brightly. She took off her coat and draped it over the chair while Ash went to the bar to get their drinks. She was a bit surprised when he came back with her favorite, a strawberry stripper. The man paid attention at their happy hour gatherings with their coworkers. He sat and poured his bottled ale into a frosty glass. “Now, then. The favor. I need a date to a wedding.” She raised an eyebrow. “One of your sugar babies can’t help you out?” “I don’t want to ask any of them. This is important.” She sipped her drink while she let that digest. It was too important to ask one of his bimbettes, so he was asking her. She shivered, and blamed it on the cold drink, not the thrill of excitement that he would ask her to do him an important favor. “So, when’s the wedding?” “Next weekend.” “Weekend,” she repeated. “Not next Saturday or next Sunday. They have some special ritualistic ceremony or something?” “No. The wedding is at the Snowshoe Mountain Lodge. They picked the location so we can get some skiing in while we’re there.” A weekend at the lodge, and all she had to do was show up at a wedding and reception. Hello. She’d be nuts not to go. If Ash wasn’t interested in warming her bed, she was sure she could find a lonely skier who’d be game. “I pretend to be your date and you pay for the weekend?” His cool blue eyes locked on hers as if searching for something. “Well, yeah, if you have to pretend, I guess that still works.” Aww. That cute puppy sound went off in her head and tugged at her heart. He wanted her for a real date. He was too cute, and she was more than willing. “I’m sorry, you said you needed a favor so I assumed pretending to like you was the favor.” Shit! She should just shove her whole boot in her mouth, since her foot was so far in. “Wait, I didn’t mean that. I meant—well, I don’t know what I meant. I’m a bitch, what can I say. I know, how’s this? I would love to be your date for the wedding.” He smiled and took a quick swig of his beer. “Thanks. I can’t tell you how important this is.” “You know, you could have saved me a lot of embarrassing moments here if you had just asked me to go as your date.” He looked around the room, avoiding her gaze. “I wasn’t sure you’d go. I mean, I guess I should tell you I’m the best man, so everyone is going to be looking at who I bring to the wedding.” She was a trophy date. This kept getting better and better. “And you think they’ll be impressed that you’re with me?” His eyes widened and mouth went slack, as if she’d lost her mind. “Well, yeah. Have you looked in the mirror lately? Looked around the room?” Unable to help herself, she glanced at the other patrons and caught more than a few guys watching her. Okay, so in her little red plaid schoolgirl skirt, tight sweater and killer boots, she could turn heads. She knew that. But she was far from the most beautiful girl around. When she turned back to Ash, she caught him staring at her boobs. They swelled in acknowledgement and sent waves of warmth through her belly. “So, who are the happy couple?” She toyed with her straw to have an excuse to put her arms in front of her. She knew her nipples had to be visible. “Greg, the groom, went to UCSB with me, and he’s marrying the girl he met there. They dated a bit in college, went their separate ways, but met up again recently and really connected.” “How sweet. And all your college buds will probably be there. The bachelor party ought to be wild.” He nodded. “It had better be. I’m in charge. It’s been hard to set up a party at the lodge but we’ve reserved the main room for the night and I’ve arranged for porn and a stripper.” “Just add alcohol and stir.” She raised her glass in a toast before taking another sip. “There’s something else I should tell you.” Something in his voice gave her pause. He had a girlfriend? He’s gay? The bride was a celebrity? She hated when people used that warning tone over nothing. “Greg’s sister is my ex.” She made a sympathetic face. “Ooh, you have to see your ex-girlfriend. That hurts.” “Ex-wife.” She choked on the peanut she was chewing. “You were married? I didn’t know.” She didn’t know anything about him, now that she thought about it. He could be an ex-con, or president of a biker gang. As she watched the emotions working over his face, and really looked at the sweetness there, the scroungy, reddish-brown facial hair that refused to become a five-o’clock shadow no matter how many days he grew it, and the gentlest baby-blues she’d ever seen, she knew he couldn’t hide any sort of wicked past. “It was brief. She wanted a CEO and I was just a guy who drew cartoons for games.” Her jaw dropped. “Does she know the awards you’ve gotten for those cartoons? How the gamers go on about your characters?” The woman was blind if she didn’t see the talent Ash had. He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I’m happier without her. She’s happier with Pierce Henderson, the son of the CEO of Middleton Finance.” Bree wanted to hug him, but instead she just smiled. “Her loss.” “Thanks.” “You know,” she said, toying with her straw, “if you really want to make an impression on your ex, we could pretend we have a thing going on. Something more than just a first date. I need to know everything about you since she last saw you.” Ash reached for his beer, keeping his gaze down. “There’s not much to know. I buried myself in work, didn’t date for the first year after she left. That was during Warrior Kingdom. You came to BA Games just as we wrapped up that game, so you know what I’ve done since. You’ve worked on some of the same projects.” “Yeah, but all I know is what you do at work. She’s going to expect details. What side of the bed do you sleep on? What brand toothpaste do you prefer?” He looked up. “You really think she’s going to grill you at her brother’s wedding? I can’t see her even noticing I’m there. She’s done with me. And I’ve moved on. I’m glad she’s not in my life.” She believed him, but didn’t want to give up her shot at learning more about him. “We’ll be there for the whole weekend, she’ll have plenty of time to grill me. And she sounds like the type to want to feel she made the right decision in leaving you. I think we should look like old friends, at the very least, at the reception. Unless you don’t want them to think we’re dating. In which case, I understand completely and—” “No, no, us being together is great. So, what do you want to know?” ~*~ As Ash answered Bree’s questions, he had difficulty concentrating. Thank God he wasn’t going to have to face Jillian alone. It wasn’t like she was a bitch, but her superior attitude really ground him down. He kept trying to tell himself Jillian’s opinion of him didn’t matter anymore. Kept putting her out of his mind when he received recognition at work for some award he won, or they reported record-breaking sales on a project he’d been the lead artist on. Yet when there was no one at home waiting to hear how his day went, his thoughts naturally drifted to what might have been. What if he’d gotten recognition sooner? If his fans had taken to social media a year or two sooner? Would it have been enough to save his marriage? Then he remembered how quickly Jillian remarried. She obviously hadn’t loved him much, if at all. “You know, you’ll pull this off better if you actually pay attention when I talk. Or were you going for old married couple?” “Huh?” Shit, she’d been talking while he was moaning to himself about Jillian. Way to impress a girl. “It wasn’t important.” He looked in her eyes to determine if that was the typical female brush off or the truth. He hadn’t known her long enough. Well, maybe well enough, as they’d worked together for a couple of years. “Do we need to figure out how we met?” Bree asked. “Why make it more complicated. We met at work. Jillian and her husband live here in Oakland, so we need to keep it as close to factual as we can.” “Just lengthen the time we’ve been together. And…pretend that we’ve slept together.” Her lashes lowered and she reached for her drink. His dick jumped. “Yeah. Pretend.” Or they could practice a few times to make it look real. But he wasn’t going to blow his chances with Bree by suggesting it. “Tell me something. How did you end up with a girl who didn’t appreciate your artistic talent?” He shrugged. He’d asked himself that a few times, usually after too many beers. “I think she thought I’d outgrow it by the time we graduated.” “So you guys never really talked about your future.” He glanced at another table, unwilling to meet Bree’s eyes. “She talked. A lot. There’s no telling what I was agreeing to when I grunted.” She laughed. “Typical. Okay, are we talking future yet? The pretend us?” “I don’t know. Jillian ran into my mom last spring so she knows I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time.” “That’s cool. We’re taking it slowly, seeing where it goes.” She took a sip of her drink. “Since we work together, it would get really awkward if we had a big blow-up, so we want to make sure this is the real thing. That will make you sound responsible, grown up.” Ash nodded. It sucked he had to pretend to be somebody else to prove he had any kind of value as a person. His mouth tightened and he reached for his beer. “What’s wrong?” Bree asked. “Nothing.” He sighed at the lie. She was doing him a huge favor so she deserved the truth. He shifted in his chair but it didn’t make him feel any more comfortable with the situation. Maybe at some point he could talk to Bree. Assuming she wanted to see him again after the wedding trip. Love Me Forever Chapter One Jennifer Pearson sipped from her pink mai tai and toyed with the paper umbrella as she scanned the beach. The late April sun made her muscles melt into the sand, it felt so heavenly. How many inches of snow had they gotten back home in Missouri from the storm that blew in just as she flew out? She didn’t even care. Home was not what she’d come to Maui to think about. In fact, thinking was also not on the agenda. Sun, silence, relaxation…that’s why she was here. The sound of waves lapping against the sand was like a massage to the stress-out parts of her brain. Settling back against the sand chair, she released a slow, steady sigh. She should have done this years ago. A few young men rode their boards in the surf, maneuvering the small waves for the longest ride possible. A pair of girls, teenage or a few years older, splashed closer to shore. At some point, Jen planned to go in the water, but not today. She slid lower in the chair, only her shoulders propped up above the sand. A nap would be so heavenly. Her eyelids were heavy. Letting them drop, she stuck the base of her glass in the sand so it wouldn’t spill. The waves continued their lullaby, only an occasional voice in the distance breaking the peace. She lifted her face to the sun, the heat purifying her soul. Just before she dozed, a strange inkling made her open her eyes. A tanned god rose from the water, a board tucked under his arm. She sat spellbound, watching his approach. Water rolled off him, sprayed off his longish brown hair when he shook his head. Jen licked her lips at the sight. His wet shorts clung like a second skin, riding low on his narrow hips. A bare, flat abdomen begged to be explored. He had swimmer’s shoulders, broad, strong, defined. Damn, picture that arched above me in bed… That was another thing she hadn’t come here for. Sex. Men in general. She’d had enough of one man in particular to last this lifetime and the next few. Still, just once, it would be so tempting to have a man like the surfer between her legs again. The water god smiled, his teeth bright against his bronzed complexion. He looked familiar…Her heart stopped. It couldn’t be. He couldn’t still be here after, what, ten years. No, he’d gone back to college when that summer ended. Just as she had. Gone back to college and had never called her like he’d promised. Closing her eyes, she forced the image of Matt Brashiers out of her head. Maybe she should have picked a different resort. One without so many memories. Focusing again on the beach, she saw the man in question walking toward her. As he grew closer, his features became clear. Dear God, it was him. There was no denying it. Her heart jumped. “Matt?” That familiar smile of his grew. “Jen? I thought it was you. I thought I was imagining it. It’s good to see you.” “Yeah, you too.” He looked good enough to eat. What she wouldn’t give to nibble on those pecs one more time. Stop it. He planted the end of his board in the sand a few feet away and sat down beside her. Just as she remembered, his essence filled the space around him, a wild, carefree energy that warmed her and sent goose bumps across her skin at the same time. Pushing his hair off his forehead, he asked, “Are you here with friends?” “No. I, uh, came alone.” “Ah, well. Maybe we’ll have a chance to catch up while you’re here. How long are you staying?” “A week.” Maybe she’d be lucky and he’d be leaving soon. Taking that tempting body with him. “Great.” He rolled to his feet showing if anything, he was even more athletic now than he’d been in college. Not really beefy, not in the steroid sense. But enough definition to tell her he worked at it. She glanced down at the wedge of pale, soft thigh peering from the opening of her sarong. She looked pasty after a Missouri winter. Heck, she looked pasty year round. At least she went to yoga classes regularly enough that she could still wear the bikini she’d worn ten years ago when she met him. Matt’s smile was friendly. “I have to run, but I’ll call your room later and maybe we can hook up.” “Sounds like fun.” Biting back a small groan, she watched his tight ass as he walked away. Hook up? Was he kidding? Like she would consider hooking up after what he’d done. More directly, what he hadn’t done. Or did I’ll call mean something different in California-speak than in Missouri? Had she come here hoping to run into him? No, she always figured he had stayed in San Francisco or gone to New York. Followed the money. He’d been studying finance in college. As far as she knew, no one traded stocks or whatever from the beach in Maui. She would never have figured him for the beach bum type. He was too young for a midlife crisis. Her curiosity grew the more she pondered. He had a lot of story to tell. ~*~ Canned Hawaiian music filtered through the speakers above the dining patio as Matt walked toward where Jen sat at a small table. In her hand she held a computer tablet. With amazing coordination, or much practice, she managed to eat her salad without looking away from the gadget. With her thick, curly brown hair loose past her shoulders, she looked like she hadn’t aged since he saw her last. She was even more beautiful, though. Memories stirred and he glanced past the tables at the edge of the clearing. His groin tightened remembering her lying beneath him, the two of them hidden in the trees that night, just beyond the clearing. Just a pair of horny college students intent on sharing a moment of bliss. And what a moment it had been. The way she’d touched him had fed his fantasies for years afterward. Her firm, ripe breasts. Those slender legs wrapped around him, pulling him deeper inside. Her cries as her passion grew. Damn, he could still hear the sound in his head. Shaking off the erotic vision, he stopped at Jen’s table. “Is this seat taken?” Jen jumped, flipping her tablet into her salad. Glancing up, she smiled. “Um, no, it’s not,” she said as she wiped dressing off the device. Matt signaled the server and ordered a light meal of fish and vegetables. His eyes swept over her as he sipped from his glass of water. “I still can’t get over seeing you.” Pushing aside her salad plate, she took a deep breath. “I’m a bit surprised, too. How long are you here?” Tipping his head slightly, he said, “I live here now.” “Still doing the water sports thing?” “Yeah. I discovered I couldn’t stay out of the ocean.” She studied him silently, her lips turned up just at the corners. He saw nothing in her expression to tell him her true feelings about seeing him after so long. If she was free to renew their passion or if she had a man waiting for her back on the mainland. Leaning back so the server could set down his salad, he asked, “Are you still in Missouri?” “Yes, still living in the county I was born in, isn’t that sad?” “No.” He waited until she picked her fork up again, then lifted his own. “You always had a strong sense of family. I’m guessing you’ve got a houseful of kids, a dog and a position in the Parent Teacher Association.” “No. Not yet. Maybe not ever.” Her eyes welled and she looked up at the thatched roof over the patio. Blinking, drawing in a breath, she continued. “I’m newly divorced.” She sipped her drink and turned her head toward the beach. Her pain was obvious in the tension lines on her forehead. “I’m sorry. That’s hard to go through no matter what the situation is.” He dug into his meal, grateful for the distraction, hoping he hadn’t shut her down completely. “The resort hasn’t changed much in ten years.” Her tone was light, polite, not giving her emotions away. “No, although the staff has either been promoted or they moved on to other jobs.” They continued the conversation of strangers, like classmates at a reunion. In his mind she was the lover he’d kissed goodbye just hours ago. But reality had taken them down separate paths. How do I bring those paths back together? When their server asked, Jen turned down dessert, and the young man brought their checks, which Matt quickly picked up. “My treat.” Nothing in her smile said this was anything more than a business meal. To him the time meant so much more. It was a beginning. Whether she knew it or not, she came here for a reason. “Would you like to walk down on the beach with me?” Her eyelids fluttered and she reached for her purse, tucking the tablet safely inside. “I hate to be rude, but I think the flight and the sun have worn me down. I wish I could stay and catch up on life, but I’m going to go lie down. Maybe we’ll run into each other tomorrow.” I’ll make sure of it. He watched the gentle sway of Jen’s skirt as she walked away. The lightweight fabric draped off her heart-shaped ass. Her tank top hugged a waist that didn’t appear to have gained an inch since college. Grinning like an idiot, he signed the meal tickets and handed them to the hostess as he left. Jen was single. Single, and even more beautiful than the memories he’d clung to even after he knew he’d lost his chance at her. How often does a guy get a second chance at his first love? A week. He had a week to remind her of what they shared. A week to convince her they belonged together. There was no way on this earth he was letting her leave without a promise of coming back. And unlike that summer they shared, he wasn’t waiting until the last night to make his move. ~*~ Shortly after she woke the next morning, Jen answered a knock at the door. The hotel porter handed her a delicate glass vase with an orchid, a small card dangling from a pink ribbon tied just below the lip of the vase. She set the flower on the small table near the door, dug out her wallet and tipped the man. Turning back to the orchid, she didn’t need to read the card to know who sent the vase. Who else knew she was there? Who else even knew she existed? With a loud snort she berated herself for sounding so pitiful. She’d been on her own for just over six months. If no one knew she existed, it might be due to her being holed up in her house all that time. She slipped the card out of its envelope. Good morning, beautiful! Call me when you get this. He’d signed simply with his name and phone number. Hardly the romantic overture she’d been hoping for. But what did she think he’d say? I’m an ass for never calling you. I realize my mistake and never want to let you out of my sight. Yeah, right. Only in her romance novels. Still, he’d sent a flower when he could have just called her room. She picked up her cell phone and dialed. His voice held a smile as he answered. “Did you sleep well?” Jen’s throat suddenly went thick, as if she’d just wakened next to him. “Yes, surprisingly well. I needed it.” “That’s good. I’m not sure what your plans are for the day, but I thought you might like to hike the trail to the waterfall. The short hike, if you prefer.” She sighed. That’s what she got for scheduling activities over the Internet when she booked the hotel. “I’m going on a helicopter tour. I booked a few tourist-type activities that I never got around to doing while I worked here.” “Oh, I see. Maybe we’ll run into each other during the day, then.” “Yes, I’m sure I’ll see you at some point.” The old Jen might have skipped the tour just to be with him, but she wasn’t that girl anymore. Not that she wouldn’t prefer spending time with him. Her life was planned out now, centered on her goals. Not a man. No matter how amazingly, heart-stoppingly hot he was. He seemed in a hurry to get off the phone after that, rushing through trite polite-isms before hanging up. She set the phone down with a shrug and headed for the shower. A few hours later, Jen got out of the shuttle van and checked in with the helicopter tour desk. She was directed toward a copter where a couple of men stood talking. A friendly, pimple-faced young man helped her into the rear seating area and demonstrated how to buckle herself in. As she adjusted her seat belt, she was aware of someone slipping into the seat beside her. A familiar, whiskey-smooth voice spoke. “Beautiful morning for a flight over the island, isn’t it?” She snapped her gaze up to meet Matt’s. “What are you doing here?” Ducking his head, he looked past her out the window toward the center of the island. “I haven’t seen the mountains from above in a few years.” “I was asleep when I flew in so I missed seeing them from the plane.” The pilot and a young man climbed in front, while someone handed headsets to Matt through the door. He showed her how adjust the volume as she placed the earpieces over her ears. Jen clutched her purse as the rotors began spinning. Matt placed his hand on her forearm. “Ready for liftoff. Did you bring your camera?” “Oh, I forgot.” She opened her bag and dug out the flat digital camera she’d bought just for the trip, and pushed the power button. Grateful for the distraction, she pointed it out the window and took some test photos. Lowering the camera, she leaned toward the glass, her lips parting in a silent gasp. The ground dropped away beneath them, her stomach briefly following. She felt Matt’s warmth before she saw his arm reach past her to brace against the base of the window. He brushed her shoulder and she fought the urge to rest her arm on his biceps. She continued to watch the scenery, pretending not to notice the tingling in her veins brought on by his nearness. Only in her mind had years gone past since their summer together. Her body recognized and remembered him and craved his touch. Below them, the green valley came to a sharp point, where a narrow waterfall spilled into a pool at the base. Jen gasped at the beauty. As the helicopter leveled, Matt didn’t shift away after the turn pushed him against her. “An incredible view, isn’t it?” “It’s…breathtaking.” She glanced over her shoulder. “I was going to say awesome. Funny, I come back to Maui and lose my grown-up vocabulary.” “Hey, that’s a good thing, going back to a more innocent time.” Immediately pain stabbed her stomach. Damn, how long would must she suffer before the ache faded? Before she quit picturing her husband’s arm around his pregnant girlfriend. She closed her eyes and prayed for peace of mind. Matt’s hand came to rest on her knee and gently squeezed. “Look, there’s the Iao Needle. Remember when a bunch of us took a road trip tour?” “I do.” She met his gaze. “That was the first time I was in the mountains. Surprising, huh? Not just these mountains—any mountains. We didn’t travel much when I was a kid.” “We can come back to this spot by car and hike. The trail is pretty easy and it’s not to be missed.” Those were fighting words. She grinned. “Pretty easy? Do I look like I can’t get my fat ass up a hill?” Sure, she wasn’t anywhere as fit as he was, but she was a long way from being out of shape. “I wasn’t sure if you came to relax or get a workout.” He put his hand over the microphone on his headset and spoke directly in her ear, his voice a seductive invitation. “I’d be happy to help with either.” Warmth pooled low inside her. Jen bit her lip before turning back to the scenery. The pilot continued to point out items of interest. Swinging out over the ocean, he said, “Shall we see if there are whales or dolphins around?” She nudged Matt’s arm. “You know, that summer I spent here, I never saw a whale.” “I don’t think whales were high on our priority list back then.” Remembering where her head was much of that summer, her face grew hot. The other girls seemed to be sampling each of the guys, bouncing from bed to bed. Or dick to dick, since they usually had sex out under the trees or in the back of a car. Her eyes had been on one man—the one beside her now. He’d been her best friend, with the emphasis on friend for so long she’d decided he wasn’t interested in her as anything more. At the party on their last night on the island, she’d sought him out, practically demanding he make love to her. What had he thought of her after that night? She’d believed him the next day when he said he wanted to get together over the holidays. Hinted that they had a future, or a chance at one. He’d kissed her goodbye as she left for the airport. And then not a word. Ten years of no phone calls. No texts. No looking her up on social media. Months passed before she was able to write him off as a vacation romance. But she’d never been able to erase the spot where he’d etched his name on her heart. After the helicopter landed and they disembarked, Jen looked around for the man from the shuttle van, her ride back to the hotel. Matt’s arm pressed against her back just before he spoke. “Would you like to join me at the luau tonight?” Visions flashed through her mind of him dancing in tropical-print shorts beside the other young men they had worked with. But this time he’d join her in the audience. What was Hawaii without a luau? “That sounds like fun.” He grinned. “Let’s get you back to your room, then, and find out what time the party starts.” Love Me Now Chapter One He was late. Only five minutes. Since that was a good fifteen minutes earlier than he usually arrived, that meant he was early, technically. But he doubted his sister would see it that way. The meeting with one of their gallery managers had run long, but he didn’t think his presence was necessary every time his sister met with a new artist. Seth Ventura swung his car into the parking aisle searching for an empty space. Out of nowhere, a tiny woman with a huge box in her arms stepped into his path. He hit the horn and swerved to his right, slamming on the brakes. He jumped out of the car and ran to her. “Are you all right?” She didn’t answer as she bent to pick up the pile of brightly colored crocheted items scattered at her feet. Without warning, she straightened and kicked his front tire. “Move your big-ass meathead gas hog off of my shawls!” She hopped and shook her foot, never looking his way. He got back in the car and inched it back, avoiding her feet. He walked up behind her, staying far enough away to avoid that foot of hers. “Are you okay? I didn’t see you until almost too late.” “Look at this,” she cried, holding up a fuchsia and green shawl, her back still toward him. “You left tire marks. Do you know how many hours it took to make this? To dye the roving and spin it, then crochet the shawl?” Seth glanced at the pink and green thing in her hands, but couldn’t keep his eyes from traveling down her frame to the kitten heels below her low-waist skirt, and back up to the straight black hair hanging just below her shoulders. It was a short trip, even with his hesitation at her curvy ass. With her arms raised, her top was pulled, baring an inch or so of tanned skin, the strings of her thong resting just above the waistband. He realized she continued to berate him, and was relieved that she appeared more concerned over the things in her box than any injury she might have received. “Look, I’m sorry. You scared the life out of me when you stepped out in front of me.” “I can’t show ’em these now. They’ll never let me in the exhibit. I’m toast. God, why did you have to ruin so many?” She picked at some of the strands of yarn in the shawl as if she could scratch the dirt off. His gut clenched. This had to be Lily Astor, the fiber artist his sister had been nagging him this past year to book in their gallery. The person he was supposed to meet in about fifteen minutes. Mina would never forgive him for ruining Lily’s stuff, much less running the risk of her deciding not to enter the mixed media art exhibit starting next month. Lily had to sign a contract or he’d be in shit with the family. Lily still ranted, her voice thicker, as if she were fighting tears. Great, that’s all he needed. With three sisters, he was a sucker for waterworks. He had to get Lily into the gallery before she lost control and he bought her entire collection himself. “Look, I’ll pay to have them cleaned. It’s just surface dirt for the most part, a good brushing might take care of them.” She turned, absently wrapping the crocheted thing around her hand and clutching it to her chest. For the first time, he noticed a tattoo on her left upper arm, a sort of tribal band of woven lilies done in greens and the palest vanilla white. He wondered if she had other tattoos hidden beneath her tank top, which led him to wonder about body piercings… “Hello, eyes up here!” She fisted her hands on her hips and glared. “Don’t stress yourself about my shawls. Cleaning solutions are too harsh for the fibers. I’ll take them home and do it myself so I know they won’t be damaged. I’d better get these inside, I’m going to be late for my appointment.” Inside, right. He could carry her box inside, maybe appease her that way. He could admit to her right now that he owned the gallery and just tell her to bring the stuff back in time for the exhibit. Something in the daggers shooting from her eyes told him he’d better keep his mouth shut and let his sister do the talking. “Well, then. I’m glad you’re okay. Can you make it inside with that?” “Yeah, I’ve got it.” She straightened the lid, lifted the carton and teetered for a moment on her heels. Seth flung an arm out to be sure she didn’t lose her package again, then slunk back into his Charger and told the car’s wireless phone to call his sister. “Look, that Lily person is headed inside and here’s how I need you to handle her. “First, don’t mention me at all. Second, sign her. I don’t care if you look at her stuff before you do. Just keep her happy. Offer to have the damaged ones cleaned, whatever.” “Damaged ones? What are you talking about? Seth, what did you do?” Mina’s voice rose into those sharp tones she tended to use when he’d done something stupid. “I’ll fill you in later. Just make sure she leaves with a smile on her face.” He disconnected the call before she could question him more, and pulled into a parking space. He would wait for Lily by her car, if he could figure out which it was. He couldn’t say why, but it was suddenly important Lily had a good opinion of him. If she were anything like his sisters, she wouldn’t appreciate knowing he’d said to sign her without reviewing her handwork. Now he just needed to keep his eyes above her neck. That would be a good start, but her tiny waist and that pear-shaped ass begged him to look. And savor. To wonder if her tan was painted on and how low the lines, if any, sat. He swore under his breath and rubbed his palms over his slacks to quell the itch to find out just how soft her skin was. She wasn’t even in front of him and he couldn’t keep his mind off her curves. On the other hand, he didn’t know anything about her other than she was his sister’s favorite fiber artist, so there was nowhere else for his thoughts to go. What was it his sister had told him about Lily? He wished he could remember. He needed to get to know her, and quickly. Then he could get her out of his head. The tip-tap of her heels announced her return. They had a light clip, not an angry stomp. Good sign. He straightened and walked toward the car she stopped at. “How did it go?” ~*~ Lily looked up with a start to find the macho car driver waiting for her. She recognized him immediately, and swallowed back the burning that rose in her stomach. What were the odds that Seth Ventura would be here to ruin her day? Talk about coming full circle. She squinted as she studied him, shifting her carton on one hip to unlock the car. “Fine.” “So they liked your stuff.” “Yeah.” She recognized his voice as the guy who’d almost hit her. Good thing she hadn’t actually looked at him before going inside. L.A. Artisans was one of Ventura Family Galleries, so he probably had a vote on whether her work was accepted. He couldn’t be worried she’d report him for hit and run if he didn’t wait around. He hadn’t even hit her, just startled the crap out of her when his horn blared. After setting her shawls inside the back of the car, she closed the hatch and turned to check him out. Her stomach quivered like the first time she’d seen him six years ago, and she allowed her gaze to travel up his lean, GQ model length. Tall, almost too tall. She’d have to stand on a stool to kiss him. Wouldn’t be a problem if they were lying down, though… Stop that. There was no point getting ideas she didn’t plan to follow through on. His white button-front shirt was tucked neatly into khaki-colored slacks. He wore business casual like he’d designed it. His hair, thick and a rich brown with just enough wave to make her want to run her fingers through it, sparkled gold where the sun hit. His eyes looked pale, maybe hazel. He wasn’t model-pretty, his strong features too commanding, intense. He smiled, and she took back the model thought. That smile could sell granny panties to the tabloid starlet of the month. He cleared his throat. “Uh, are you sure you won’t let me pay for cleaning the ones that fell?” She noticed the earnest set to his brow, his lips now pressed tightly together. Was he afraid she’d gotten his license plate number? “Look, you don’t need to pay for anything. I wasn’t hurt, nothing has any permanent damage and you didn’t ruin my day.” Yet. “Then will you let me buy you a drink to celebrate your exhibit?” He stepped closer and the breeze carried his scent to her. Damn. He smelled so yummy. Clean, unadulterated, one hundred percent male. No perfumey stink. She could imagine how he’d smell all worked up in bed. No, she wasn’t getting into bed with anyone. Life was going too well. She didn’t want to mess it up with entanglements. “I really don’t—” “I don’t bite, snore or squeeze the toothpaste from the middle.” He moved another foot closer, but his essence surrounded her, wrapped its arms around her and caressed her. She inched back. “Toothpaste? I thought you were offering drinks, not a sleepover.” “Sorry, I’ve been told I move too fast when I see something I want to acquire.” Lily rose to her full five-foot-two-in-heels height. “I’m not for sale. Now please move so I can get in my car.” Her thumb slid over the panic button of the alarm remote on her keychain. Backing beyond the driver’s door, arms raised in a calming gesture, Seth persisted. “Look, I promise to keep my lame sense of humor in check, but I would really love the chance to sit down and talk with you.” That stopped her. It wasn’t a come-on, just plain, honest interest. No threats of attachment. No promises of a good time. What could it hurt to have a quick meal with the guy? It was obvious he didn’t remember her. With a sigh and a roll of her hips, she opened the door and stepped one foot into the car. “Okay. Mauricio’s on Riverside, do you know it?” His grin took ten years off the mid-thirties she guessed his age to be. “Sure do. See you there.” ~*~ On the short ride to the restaurant, Seth tried to remember what he’d heard about Lily. For his sister to know who she was, she had to be making some kind of splash in the L.A. art scene. How had he missed her? Would she still want to see him if she knew he owned the L.A. Artisans Gallery? Or would she be concerned about sleeping with the boss? Because if her personality was anything like her body, they’d definitely be getting naked, and not for art’s sake. He decided to play it by ear, find the right moment to fill her in. She stood by the restaurant door when he pulled in. The late afternoon sunlight through the trees hit her like a spotlight. She smiled when he walked up, after giving him the once-over. She’s interested. He tried to keep the gloating grin off his face as he led her inside, fighting the urge to reach up and toy with her thick, straight black hair. She didn’t seem the touchy-feely type, at least not toward guys who ran her down in the parking lot, so he kept his hands to himself. “I’m Seth,” he said as he held her chair for her. He dropped into the one opposite her at the small table and signaled the server. “I’m Lily.” “I know.” Her gaze snapped up from the menu, but her thoughts were unreadable. “My family owns the L.A. Artisans Gallery. That has nothing to do with being here, and being here has nothing to do with your participating in the exhibit.” She sat back in her chair, but didn’t speak. “Did Mina offer you the contract?” “Yes…” “She’s excited about your work. She’s been talking about you for at least a year now.” He tried to tear his gaze from her and decide what he wanted to order. Forget about food, he wanted her. After ordering drinks and mozzarella stick appetizers, he again apologized for his earlier mishap. “It’s okay,” she said. “I should be able to clean the one that landed under your tire. The others will be fine, for sure. I was just so afraid I had lost my chance to show them. There is no way I could make more in time for the opening.” “Maybe you could tell people it was part of the design.” “Not likely.” She moved her hands to her lap when the bus boy brought water glasses. “The tire mark creates a shadow on the highlighted area of a rose.” He grunted and decided to change the subject, if he could only think of something intelligent to say. Hell, even something stupid would be better than sitting here with his tongue hanging out, wishing she’d lean forward so he could see just how loose the neckline of her shirt was. What was it about this woman? He felt like a high school kid around her. Can I hold your hand? Can I touch your boob? Grow up! He stalled by taking a drink of ice water. “Do you do anything besides your craft? For a living, I mean.” “Yes, I’m a school secretary. It gives me a couple of months in the summer to travel around to art and craft shows to sell what I make. I also sell painted silk scarves and clothing in a boutique near here.” He dropped his eyes to her shirt, this time noting the fabric, the fluid blend of mauves and dark greens. “Is that one of yours?” “Uh-huh.” As if his gaze were a solid touch, she brought her arms together, folding them on the edge of the table to shield her breasts. Her neck reddened and she cleared her throat. “So, you work at the gallery?” “I handle promotions, PR, marketing, that kind of thing.” That was what he loved, bringing in the customers and sending them home as the happy owners of a new piece of art. His sister Mina researched the Los Angeles art market for upcoming artists, and Sylvia, the youngest, was the family accountant. Only Gail, the oldest, had not stepped into the family business. “Sounds stuffy.” “No, not if you do it right. It’s about people. Finding out what people want and where to reach the ones you want to sell to.” He pushed the plate of mozzarella sticks her way when they got down to the last one. “I used to do a small amount of that myself, but then realized I need to create what’s inside me, not what I think will sell.” He leaned forward. “But you still have to find the right market.” Her eyes cast down and her smile softened. “After today, I am hoping the market has found me.” She looked like a little girl who still believed in the possibility that dreams could come true. His gut tightened. There were no tears involved, her words alone made him want to ensure she experienced those dreams. Seth continued to try to draw her out of her shell as they ate, getting frustrated when her answers were brief. The longer he sat there, the more he needed to find out what made Lily Astor tick. What was her favorite food? What kind of movies did she like? Had she ever explored the beaches of Mexico? He was in unfamiliar territory. The ability to draw people out was his livelihood. How else could he guarantee a successful showing, and know both the artist and the customer were getting what they wanted? Why couldn’t he talk to Lily? She toyed with her empty glass before she set it down and reached for her purse. “I should be going. Thank you for this.” He jumped up to pull out her chair. “Thank you for trusting me with your time.” She glanced up at him with a shy smile, then pulled her purse strap over her shoulder and walked toward the door. When they stepped outside, he looked for signs she was interested in him. Acting as if he were certain she was, he said, “I want to see you again.” “You will, at the exhibit.” “You know that’s not what I meant.” They reached her car door and she turned to face him. She searched his eyes for the longest moment and he held his breath. “I have so much going on right now.” “So much, as in you’re involved with someone?” “No, no relationship.” Still she hesitated. “You can’t work all the time, even when you are on the brink of breaking into superstardom.” He stroked her arm. When he saw gooseflesh spread from his touch, he moved in and brought his fingers to her chin, lifting her brown eyes to his. Seth brushed his lips across hers, and another light touch, then sucked in a deep breath and captured her small gasp. His tongue slipped in to dance with hers. She tasted indefinably sweet, with the warm tang of her drink. Heat shot through him. His hands grasped her arms, fighting to keep from exploring her curves in such a public place. He deepened the kiss, his tongue stroking hers. The blend of her light scent and sweet taste drove him on. Lily’s fingers curled around his biceps, neither drawing him in nor pushing him away. She stretched on her toes, allowing him deeper in her mouth. His breaths became shallow, short panting bursts, and he realized he needed to stop. He lifted his head and pulled her tighter against his chest. His hand tangled in her hair. “I shouldn’t have done that, but I couldn’t resist. Say you’ll go out with me.” She nodded against his chest. “Okay.” Loosening his grip on her and her warmth, he pulled away. “There’s a reception at the 3rd Street Gallery in Santa Monica on Saturday. Grace Slick will be showing some of her paintings.” “The Grace Slick? Of Jefferson Starship?” He laughed. “And Airplane before that. Yes, that’s the one. Would you be interested in going?” “Yes!” She laughed, then said in a composed voice, “I mean, that sounds fun.” “I’ll pick you up at five, and we can grab a bite after the reception.” Lily dug in her oversized purse and slid a business card out of the case. “I’ll see you then.” He took the card and gave a little tweak on the tip of her nose before he walked away. Immortal Temptress Chapter One He is the one. The raspy, windblown voice of Death snaked into her head, identifying the next assignment. Enya Morgan bit her lip, looking from the raven who spoke to her toward the man crossing through the yellow beam of light in the parking lot. It was a shame to see a man like that die. Even from a distance, she knew he would tower over her small stature, and he was broad enough to fill the doorway. His walk, his open chest and sure steps, proclaimed him a man who had life by the reins. Slipping closer to the entrance of the Rusty Bucket pub, she cast his features to memory. The lights on the outside of the building revealed them. His ash brown hair slicked back off his face, showing a hairline just beginning to recede. Faint lines traced across his brow, and his goatee was trimmed close. Her universal knowledge gave his age as thirty-seven. He was so young to have run out of time. Noise spilled out the door when he went inside. She waited a few moments for him to find a seat before she followed. The small room held the typical crowd, half a dozen or so gathered around the pool table, three sitting at stools along the bar, the rest laughing and slamming down their beer bottles on tables. The air stunk of booze and too many bodies, with undertones of stale cigarette smoke reeking off clothing. The jukebox blasted out a crossover country song, guitars and drums pounding a rock beat for the traditional lyrics encouraging the listeners to drink more and love less. Enya smiled and nodded at familiar faces as she searched the room. She wiggled her finger at the waitress to signal her usual drink on her way to the back booth where Talon sat. "Hey." "Hi." He slid the bowl of peanuts across the scarred wood table. His long black hair hung loose tonight, combining with his high cheekbones to make him look like the native warrior he'd once been. He needed a good woman, she thought, but hadn't shown interest in anyone in all the years they'd worked together. "You following a new mark?" "Yeah. Him, at the bar. Kane Sullivan," she added, sharing information the raven had given her. "I've seen him around. He's a good guy." She sighed as their subject laughed at something the bartender said. "They usually are. The good always die young, right?" "When?" "It's scheduled for some time this weekend." While fate could choose a time for a death, free choice had the power to adjust it by a day or two in either direction. Talon nodded, took a handful of peanuts and began to peel one. He crunched quietly. Enya looked around the room again. In the next few months, how many of these people would need her services? Probably only one or two. Her territory was large, covering several counties around Willow Mills in southwestern Missouri. On a rare occasion, she drifted into Oklahoma or Kansas, wherever the council sent her. A cold breeze washed the room. A tall, top-heavy blonde teetered in the door wearing tight jeans, an even tighter tank top, and stilettos. Enya couldn't tell if it was the woman's shoes or a heavy dose of alcohol making her wobble, but the effect had her breasts bouncing, to the apparent delight of the men she brushed as she approached the counter. Enya crossed her arms over her close-fitting t-shirt, suddenly self-conscious of her own lack in that department. The blonde landed mostly on the stool beside Kane, who had to reach out to keep her from sliding off the other side. The woman laughed and tossed her big, curly hair. Then she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Who's she?" Enya asked. "Her name's Monique. She's trouble. You'll want to keep her out of the picture, if you can. You'll never get close enough to earn his trust if she's around." Talon tossed a peanut in the air and caught it in his mouth. “Are they a couple?” “No. He’s a loner.” The waitress set a bottle of pale ale in front of Enya. "Hey, girl, how are you tonight?" "I'm good, thanks." She slid some bills across the table. "How's your boy?" "Much better. His fever broke during the night. Now I have to hope I don't get it." She nodded, ignoring Talon's glance her way. He knew better than to ask if she knew anything about the woman and her son. She had no more knowledge than he did about the future. They never knew someone's time was near until the council gave them an assignment. Monique wobbled her way to the jukebox. Her ass gyrated while she studied the buttons. When the song changed, she wiggled to the nearest table and dragged a man out on the floor. Enya shook her head, wishing she could pick and choose her assignments and escort that woman to the hereafter. Some people just seemed so unimportant in the grand scheme of things, while others, like the man at the bar, should have a major role. "Now, that's not very charitable of you," Talon scolded with a grin, obviously reading her expression. "I'm not in the charity business. And don't worry. I'm not going to argue about the fairness of who dies of old age." That would accomplish as much as beating her head on the table. Sitting up straighter, she ran her fingers through her hair and swiped under eyes to check for stray mascara. "I'll be back." She wove her way through the tables, stopping to talk with friends when they called her name. Monique was still dirty dancing, so Enya sat on the empty stool beside Kane. She signaled the bartender and ordered some mozzarella sticks and marinara sauce. Winding a strand of hair around her finger as she leaned forward to rest her elbows on the bar, she stole a glance at the impressive man beside her. His wink greeted her and she smiled, putting a hand to her stomach to smother the embers his eyes threatened to stir. This was business. Sexual attraction might be necessary to get as close to him as she needed in the next twenty-four hours or so, but enjoying it was a distraction. "Hey, I'm Enya." "I'm Kane." His large hands cradled his beer bottle; his thumb spread a dribble of condensation over the label. Muscular forearms rested against the bar. A tattooed dragon-tail coiled around his wrist, the body of the beast hidden by the rolled sleeve of his pale chambray shirt. Her eyes traveled up the thick arm to his neck, where she noted more tats. "I don't think I've seen you in here before. We must come in on different nights." "Must be. I don't come in all that often." She opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by an eardrum-shattering squeal. Monique bounced up from behind Kane and grabbed his shoulders. "Dance with me, baby!" He leaned close and said something in Monique's ear, which made the woman pout. "Oh, please. You never dance with me." Grabbing her arm, he steered her toward a barstool beside him. "I think you should call it a night," he said, barely loud enough to reach Enya's ears. "It's still early, honey. I've got a lot more dances left in me." The woman giggled, sending her breasts quivering, much of the flesh threatening to spill over the top of her shirt. She stalked off toward the dance floor. Eyes wide, somewhere between amazement and disbelief, Enya watched Monique wrap herself around another man. She turned back to Kane and raised an eyebrow. "Is she yours?" "She belongs to anybody who's willing to buy her a drink." He looked at the dancers and spun back to his beer. "I'm not buying." The bartender set a plate of mozzarella sticks in front of Enya and she offered some to Kane, but he waved her off. Nibbling a piece of the gooey, crusted cheese, she watched Monique ricochet from table to table like a pinball as she tried to stay on the small dance floor. When the song ended, the blonde reached the bar without incident and leaned on Kane as she planted herself on a stool. When she grabbed for his beer, he slid it out of reach and stood. "Come on. It's time for you to go. You've had enough. I'll give you a ride." She fished a key out of her jeans pocket. "I don't need a ride, I drove." He grabbed the key before she could react and dropped it in his shirt pocket. "You can pick it up tomorrow." Monique whined her protest. Enya saw her chance and stood, leaning around Kane so the woman could see her. "I'll drive your car and follow you home." "Oh, thank you," Monique cooed. "You're a nice lady." Kane handed her the key with a grateful smile. "It's the red sports car." Leaving the plate of food behind, Enya followed the man and his wavering companion out the door. ~*~ Kane poured Monique into the passenger seat of his pickup and lifted her foot out of the way before shutting the door. Some nights it didn’t pay to be a nice guy. He’d been saying no to Monique for all the years he’d known her, six or seven at least. They got along great when she didn’t drink, but add alcohol and she lost all semblance of a responsible human being. And he wasn’t about to let her drive in this condition. Pulling out of the lighted parking lot, he crept onto the road, watching for Enya to follow. He’d been surprised when the little pixie sat down next to him. She barely looked old enough to drive, much less be in a bar. Her long black hair was thick and wavy, the type he would love to tangle his fingers in when he buried his tongue in her mouth. The interior of the bar hadn’t been bright enough to make out her eye color, but from her pale complexion he’d guess they were dark blue. And her mouth. Naturally full lips, not those swollen fish-lips so many women seemed to prefer. Admittedly, her breasts were on the small side, but they fit her body, and probably fit perfectly in the palm of his hand. She looked so fragile, the kind of girl every guy offered to carry packages for. A china doll to treasure. He laughed at that. He didn’t deal well with fragile, helpless women. Tossing a glance at Monique reminded him why. High maintenance. High anxiety. He’d take strong and independent any day. The bar sat in the country between towns on a winding two-lane highway. It was only about three miles from Willow Mills, but there were no streetlights or houses until he reached city limits. On clear nights like this, it wasn’t a problem, but in stormy weather it was hell. The headlights of Monique’s car shone steadily in his rear view mirror. Monique stirred on her side of the bench seat, reaching for the door handle. “No,” Kane yelled as he leaned across and yanked her away from the door. Something flashed in his headlights to the right, headed for the truck. Distracted, Kane jerked the steering wheel, spinning the back end of the truck, tires screaming. He straightened the wheel to gain control. At the same time, he looked for Monique’s little car. The red sports car swerved in the opposite direction. Hitting a ditch, it became airborne, then hit the ground with a thud. It continued to slide across the wild grass, stopping only when it crumpled against a tree. “Shit.” Kane pulled onto the shoulder and threw the truck in park. He was out the door and across the road before the small car stopped rocking. The sickening crunch of metal still rang in the night. When he reached the wreckage, Enya lay slumped over the steering wheel, her arms hanging loose at her sides. “Shit.” He wrenched the car door so hard it bent back on its hinges. Dropping to his knees, he put a finger at the base of her jaw and searched for a pulse. Thready but present. He released a puff of air. Her face was turned away. “Enya, are you awake?” With a groan, she reached up and pushed away from the steering wheel. “Careful,” he warned, placing his hand on her shoulders to prevent her from moving too quickly. “You might have injured your back.” “No, I’m all right.” She turned and squinted at him in the light from a headlamp reflecting off the tree. “What happened?” Kane said a quick prayer to a god he’d stopped believing in. “I swerved to miss something that ran out in front of me. Shit, I should have been paying better attention. Now you’re hurt and Monique’s car is toast.” “I’m not hurt, really.” She reached down and unbuckled her seatbelt, then turned to climb out. Concerned over the smell of gas, he swept her into his arms and carried her closer to the road into the light from his truck. His heart pounded so loudly in his ears he was sure she heard it. She hadn’t made any noise when he lifted her, so maybe nothing was broken. Again he gave thanks. Setting her down as if she were made of porcelain, he ran his hands over her limbs. She showed no sign of tenderness. As he swept her hair from her face, he looked for swelling where she hit the steering wheel. It was too dark to check her eyes, but he looked into them anyway. She met his gaze as if reading his thoughts. He tried to smile, and focused on relaxing the crease on his forehead. She’s fine. Don’t worry her any more. Enya smiled and glanced away. The urgent need to kiss her struck him like a swift kick in the gut. With a finger under her chin he turned her face his way and bent down. His breaths were still shaky as the last of the adrenaline burned out in his blood. He brushed his mouth over hers, still afraid she was going to break apart. She could have been killed. He trailed little kisses across her cheek before holding her tight against his chest. When the solid press of her curves against his tense muscles finally convinced his brain she wasn’t hurt, he let go. “I need to call this in, get an ambulance for you.” Enya rolled her legs to one side as if she was going to stand. “No, no ambulance. I’m fine. A little rattled, but not injured. We just need a tow truck. And I guess the sheriff’s department, if you’re going to call her insurance company.” As he dialed, she looked back at the tire marks on the pavement. “What ran out in the road?” “I think it was a deer. I’m not positive. I didn’t hit it, whatever it was. Maybe I should have, to keep you from running off the road.” “Then I would have ended up under the back end of your truck.” Her expression was kind, not accusatory. He wished she’d yell at him for his dumb-shit move, so he didn’t have to do it himself. He forgot all about Monique until Deputy Plummer pulled up and started asking questions. She hadn’t stirred from the truck. That was probably a good thing, since he wanted to strangle her for getting him in this mess to begin with. If he could go back an hour, he’d let someone else run her home so he could enjoy some conversation with this little fairy girl. She stood when the tow truck came from the direction of the bar. Kane recognized Talon, whose uncle owned the auto shop, when he climbed out of the truck. Talon went straight to Enya, grabbing her by the arms and looking her over. Jealousy stabbed through Kane when she reached up and hugged the man. Deputy Plummer’s questions drew his attention and he tore his gaze away. When the report was finished and Monique’s formerly sporty car winched onto the bed of the tow truck, Kane walked over to Enya. “Can I give you a ride home? I promise to keep the wheels facing forward.” Her smile sucker-punched him. Damn, she was beautiful. “Thanks, but I live near the auto shop downtown. Talon will drop me off.” “I guess I’ll see you around, then?” As much as he wanted it, he couldn’t bring himself to ask for her phone number, not while Talon stood a few feet away. What was their relationship? “I’m sure of it.” With a brief touch on his arm, she got in the tow truck. ~*~ Enya waited until Talon had the truck back on the pavement before speaking. “I messed up. Big time.” “How’s that?” “By being in Monique’s car just then. I’m not sure, but I think Monique was supposed to die tonight.” She looked out the side window, watching the shadows of trees pass by. She chewed at a hangnail on her thumb. “What makes you think so? Did you see any demons when you crashed?” “No, but she’s not the type they usually go after. Kane said something darted in front of his truck, which he swerved to miss. I was far enough back I would have seen a deer run across the road. I think he saw the demon soul waiting to steal his body when he died. Except he didn’t crash, I did. But that would mean the demon was after Monique’s body, not his. I’m so confused I can’t think straight.” “If it was the demon that wanted Kane’s body, it’ll follow him until he dies. You just have to keep an eye on him until Death catches up with him. Technically, you did your job. You kept the demon from getting his body.” He glanced over at her. “You aren’t worried that something will happen to him tonight?” “I think it’s too soon for him. They would have given me the assignment a few days ago to be certain I was with him. But what about Monique? What if she was supposed to die tonight? You saw her car. There’s no way a mortal could have lived through that wreck in a car without airbags.” Talon slowed the truck down in front of her house. “She’s not your target. If a demon were after her there, would have been a someone assigned to her. You don’t have to protect her. Focus on your assignment—Kane—and make sure you’re there when he dies.” Renegade Wolf Prologue He smelled fear. Above the odors of sweat, arousal and beer, the bitter tang of fear was undeniable. Micah couldn’t identify the source, but someone inside the Rusty Bucket was afraid of something. The usual Saturday night crowd filled the bar, along with a face or two he didn’t recognize. As he glanced around, he saw nothing to explain the fear. No one showed any signs of confrontation or agitation. His gaze kept returning to one spot, but it had nothing to do with what he sensed. He couldn’t take his eyes off the redhead sitting two tables over laughing at something her companion said. Micah watched her face, wondering at the level of connection between her and the man. Was she interested? Already attached? Kane’s voice brought him back to his own table. “Are you going to follow through this time?” “What are you talking about?” His friend tipped his head in the girl’s direction. “Follow through on what? I was only looking.” Micah took a swig of his beer and let the bottle hang loosely in his grip. Enya, the tiny black-haired nymph, laughed and snuggled closer to Kane. “Hey, even I recognize that spark. It couldn’t hurt to talk to her.” He wasn’t looking for a new woman, but couldn’t deny the tug he felt toward the redhead. Enya was right. Talk to the girl, confirm she wasn’t for him, and let it go. Micah tried not to look again, but he saw the young woman stand and reach for her purse. Her friend was already gone. When she turned toward the exit, Micah stood. “I’ll be back.” He shut out whatever smartass remarks his friends offered and focused on the wavy red hair weaving through the packed crowd. She reached the door only a moment before he did. Outside, in the light from the lamps near the door, he saw her at the end of the building talking to two men who looked a bit unsteady on their feet, their backs to him. He waited and watched. The scent of fear drifted to him on the breeze and he now knew its source. The woman was afraid of something. Instinct had him on edge from the smell, and it took effort to keep his inner wolf quiet. The animal itched to pace. One of the men raised his voice and grabbed the redhead’s arm. She tried to jerk away. Micah walked toward them on the balls of his feet, keeping the heels of his cowboy boots from making a sound, staying close to the building. The cloudy, moonless Ozark night seemed to swallow up the light from the parking lot, but if they happened to look they would have seen him. “Billy, knock it off,” the woman said. “Yeah,” added one of the men. “Let’s take her home like she wants.” Still holding tightly to her upper arm, Billy slurred his reply. “I just asked for a kiss before we get in the car. What’s wrong with that?” The woman got in his face. “You’re drunk. And I’m not interested. Either of those work for you?” She jerked her arm again to no avail. Billy tugged her close but Micah had seen enough. He reached out and grabbed the collar of Billy’s t-shirt, yanking him away. The woman staggered a moment but didn’t fall. Spinning with surprising dexterity, Billy blindly threw a punch. Micah caught the fist, twisted, and shoved the guy against the building. The friend yelled and charged, tackling Micah to the ground. They rolled in the gravel, each clinging to the other man’s shoulders, reaching for the neck. With a move ingrained into his being during basic training, Micah broke free and landed a punch to the man’s temple. The guy went limp. Shit. Never knocked a guy cold before. His EMT training rose into action and he checked the man’s pulse. Steady and strong. Then he looked at Billy who lay slumped against the wall. Rolling to his feet, Micah turned the man to lie on the ground so the blood flow to his brain wouldn’t be cut off. As he straightened, he ran his hands over the sides of his military-short hair and wiped away the sweat. The air reeked of fear, much more than before, and its source stood wide-eyed, tense, watching him. Micah placed his hands on his hips and asked, “Are you okay?” She blinked, looking at him incredulously. “What are you doing? You could have killed them.” His jaw loosened but he tried not to show his shock. “He was pawing at you. You said no. End of story.” “I could have handled it. Billy always acts like that when he’s drunk. Now how am I supposed to get home?” She folded her arms and stomped her foot in a diva move. So much for first impressions. “I’ll give you a ride.” Her laugh was like a slap on his face. “Like I’m going to get in the car with a stranger who just beat up two of my friends. Get real.” She stepped back, pulled a cell phone from her tiny purse and tapped the screen. Micah reached for his wallet as she thumbed through files on her phone. He took out his work ID, his Christian County first responder ID and his driver’s license and gave a moment’s thought to wondering why he felt the need to push the issue. “Here. They’ve done the background check already. And so did the U.S. Government when I enlisted. If that’s not good enough for you, go back inside the Bucket and look for a little-bitty thing with long black hair and a giant of a man on her arm. They’ll vouch for me.” She glanced at the cards in his hand but didn’t move to take them. He should walk away. Go back inside and just let her call a friend. He had no iron in this fire. She was just a pretty thing who caught his eye. The breeze stirred again, whispering past, bringing a new scent. Arousal. She wanted him as badly as he wanted her. Now that he stood close, he recognized a familiar scent, one he couldn’t place. Pack. Family. Walking into his grandma’s house. It was a fragrance he should know, but it emanated from a stranger. The lightweight jacket she wore didn’t hide her slender shape. She was model-thin, could stand to gain a little padding, he thought, but her low neckline showed off firm breasts. Her tight, faded jeans followed the slight curve of her hips. She looked barely old enough to be in a bar and nowhere near desperate enough to have hooked up with the two drunks. Her thumb had stopped sliding on the phone but she hadn’t lifted it to her ear. She seemed frozen in indecision. “You don’t have to accept my ride. But if you’re going to wait for a friend, come back inside.” He stepped to the side to let her pass and waited. Her arm lowered slightly. Then she dropped the phone back in her purse and met his gaze. “I live in Springfield. It’s more than half an hour from here.” Micah shrugged. “I’ve got a full tank.” Still, she hesitated before lifting her purse strap back on her shoulder. “Okay.” The urge to howl burst inside of him but he swallowed it down. She’d accepted a ride, not a lifetime promise. Why did he feel like this was the beginning of a new chapter in his life? ~*~ Stephanie tried not to brush against him as he held open the driver’s door, although she’d rather plaster herself to him and see if that mouth of his tasted as sinful as it looked. Scooting across the seat, she said, “My name’s Stephanie, by the way. And if I turn up dead on the side of the road, what name will they find scrawled in the mud?” “Hopefully not mine.” His eyes danced in the overhead light inside the cab. What an odd shade. Golden brown. It gave him a feral look. Definitely wild. When he smiled, her gaze was immediately drawn to his teeth. Specifically, the canines. She was surprised a dentist hadn’t filed them down at some point over the years. Their length was striking, but didn’t take away from his heart-stopping good looks. “I’m Micah. Micah Salway.” He lifted himself onto the bench seat and she realized she was still sitting in the middle. She began to scoot farther, but he stopped her. “The far seatbelt is broken. You’ll have to sit in the middle.” She glanced at the belt dangling at the door. “Convenient, isn’t it? Is this something all you small-town guys try?” He shrugged and closed the door, shutting off the light. His presence beside her grew in the dark, as if he swelled to fill the space. The warmth of his leg against hers burned into her awareness. She shifted, putting both her feet demurely on the right of the floor hump. This was going to be a long half hour. Though she could see he sat straight and he focused on the road, the soft sound of his voice startled her with its closeness, as if he spoke in her ear. “So, are you from California?” “Oh my God, do I have an accent? A tattoo on my forehead? Is it that obvious?” “You said you live half an hour from here. Locals would have given it to me in miles, either road miles or as the crow flies.” “Yeah, I’ve noticed that.” She also noticed her skin began to tingle, as if she lay on a tanning bed. A strange energy coursed over her. Forcing herself to turn her head away, she watched the traffic out the passenger window. That took his thigh out of her peripheral vision and kept her from reaching out to see if it was as firmly muscled as it looked. Why hadn’t she just called Sissy for a ride? Yes, her friend would have been pissed off and given her the “I told you so” lecture all the way home, but even that was better than the torture of the nearness of this man beside her. It was stupid of her to go out with Billy and Pete. But she’d been too restless to sit home. “You don’t talk much,” he commented. “What? Oh. Distracted, I guess.” She glanced at him just as the light from a passing truck lit his face. Shadows brought out the angles but made him no less handsome with his strong, high cheekbones. He appeared to be of Native American descent. His close-cropped hair made her wonder if he was still in the military. She continued to mull over the situation as they traveled. Why couldn’t she have met him under normal circumstances? Giving in to the damsel in distress game put her at a disadvantage. If they were going to get to know each other, it had to be on her terms. Before she could decide what her terms were, they came to a stop at her apartment building. Where had the time gone? He shut off the engine and climbed out, holding the door for her to follow. Her hand rested on the warmth where he’d sat and she shivered. What was wrong with her? She acted as if she’d never been this close to a man before, which was far from the truth. Farther than she liked to admit sometimes. Stephanie slid off the seat, coming face to face with Micah. Face to chest, she realized. She was tall but he was taller. And broad, built like a tank. She exhaled, the sound too close to a sigh. Her gaze traveled up the front of his flannel shirt and locked on his. In the darkness, she couldn’t see exactly what color his eyes were, if they were truly as golden brown as they had appeared. What she could see told her they were turned up at the corners, laughing at her. For some reason that made her smile. Gave her the courage to take control. “Thanks for the ride.” Instead of moving past him, she rose on her toes and pressed her lips to his. She meant it to be brief, a tease, but she couldn’t end it. Her arms cupped the nape of his neck, pulling him closer. His warm palms pressed against her butt, imprinting on her soul. Parting her lips, she brushed her tongue against his and almost melted at his moan. Her entire body vibrated now as her hunger grew. She strained higher on her toes needing more, needing…what? His hands slid up her back, burning his claim as his mouth had when he kissed down her neck. She was certain people would look at her and know she’d been claimed, just from his kiss. Marked with his brand. She needed to stop. To end this before it went too far. Before she was unable to walk away. As if he heard her thoughts, he drew back, gently kissing her one last time. She opened her eyes and looked into his, not attempting to move around him. “So, maybe sometime we could try again without the drunken friend part?” He smiled. His teeth looked even larger this close up. Predatory. “I’d like that.” Stephanie dug in the side pocket of her purse and pulled out her business card, holding it out to him. “Give me a call.” One last time she stretched up and kissed him, then bit back a flirty giggle as she walked toward her door. She fought the urge to turn and see if he watched her. As she closed and locked her door, she heard his truck fire up and she let the laughter out. Why did she feel so giddy? Like she’d awakened some long-hidden part of her. She wanted to lift her head and call out into the night. Her smile still wide as she dropped her purse on the small table by the door, she glanced in the mirror on the wall. Then looked again. Leaning in close, she peered at her teeth. Now her imagination was laughing at her, making her think the canines looked longer. Brushing her hair off her face, she met her reflection in the eye. And gasped. Her blue eyes were now the same golden brown as Micah’s.

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