One Savory Summer by Sharon Hughson

Silence shook the branches with gale wind force. Holt d’Wyrden perked his pointed ears, careful not to move a muscle. His left hip screamed, shooting agony through his leg. Scents tickled his nose: early-summer leaves, fading flowers and moldering twigs from a bird’s nest lodged above him. Magic, the trickle of water in a creek a few steps from the base of the elm where he’d stretched out the in the wee hours of night, tingled near his toes. After his arrival from Evendon.
One Savory Summer
One Savory Summer by Sharon Hughson
Sounds scraped across his sensitive eardrums. A rapid heartbeat and snuffling indicated an animal of some sort. The second pulse registered at the same moment a very human gasp popped Holt’s eyelids open. Several steps away, a curvaceous woman held the leather collar of a brown and black dog. The beast’s head was as tall as the woman’s thigh. canine’s nostrils flared, scenting him, and the hair on its back prickled. The woman’s eyes widened. Golden sun at her back haloed her fiery mane, shadowing her features. Berries fragranced the air, mellowing the salty tang of fear. A low growl rumbled in the dog’s throat. Holt eyed the beast, so different from the long-haired wolves that ranged the forests of home. Its short hair emphasized the broadness of chest and stoutness of neck. He could stop it in the space of two whispered words but why take chances? Holt centered his thoughts and reached out to the dog’s mind with them. I’m a friend. The dog whined and crumpled to the dewy grass, nearly jerking the woman down with him. Maybe that hadn’t been Holt’s best move. In his sleepy stupor, he’d forgotten animals in this realm weren’t used to anyone touching their minds. “What are you doing here? Trespassing.” Years of lessons in the languages of Earth, especially English and Mandarin, made understanding the words simple. “Why do you answer your own question?” Holt straightened. “What?” He cocked his head, staring at the woman who struggled to stay upright without letting go of her pet’s collar. Strange to see animals bound to the will of humans by physical means. Of course, Earth dwellers couldn’t access the magic buzzing in the world around them. Their loss. “You answered your own question.” His accent was strong, otherworldly. He would need to practice mimicking how the residents of this realm spoke and moved. He had no desire to draw unwanted attention. His sharp gaze grazed the voluptuous figure of the fire-haired woman. Her attention, he would savor. As if she knew his thoughts, the woman glared between him and the dog. She yanked the collar. “Jewel! Up.” A pang nibbled at Holt’s empty stomach. He should apologize for the dog. But could he do it without explaining his abilities? He twisted, perching on the edge of the limb, feet dangling against rough bark on the trunk. The woman shuffled backward until her hand jerked away from the collar. Her eyes widened further and her lips pressed together. “Did I need permission to sleep in your tree?” “Sleep in my tree?” Holt cocked his head again, pressing his eyebrows together. It had been a few years since he’d traveled to this realm. During that visit, he’d stayed in China. He had instructed the mages to transport him to a different continent this time. Were humans in the United States simpletons? He dropped lightly to the ground and knelt beside the dog. Placing one hand on top of its broad skull, he called to the water magic. There wasn’t much in the trickling stream, but enough to sooth the animal’s mind. Its pink tongue lapped against his wrist. “You’re a nice one.” He rubbed a floppy ear before standing up. “I apologize if I’ve breached etiquette.” “Breached etiquette? Are you from England or something?” She patted her thigh and whistled. Even though it was a low sound, it stabbed Holt’s sensitive ears. He flinched and shifted backward, nearly stumbling into the tree. England. An island nation that was part of the small continent of Europe. Perhaps claiming he hailed from there would limit suspicion about his accent and mannerisms. At least until he could don his chameleon cloak and blend into this society. “Yes. England.” The less he said at the moment, the wiser it would be. He didn’t want a web of untruths snaring him later. The dog licked his fingers before trotting to the woman’s side. “Rebel Aidan. You’re trespassing on my farm. Guess they sleep in trees where you’re from?” The woman extended a small, calloused palm toward him. Holt nodded his head. Especially the woodland elves of the Wyrden Forest. And he would know, since that was his clan. “My name is Holt.” He stepped close enough to touch the palm of her hand with his. A strange custom this. Good thing he hadn’t bowed his head as people did in the Orient. Her fingers wrapped around his, small and rough against the smoothness of his superior elven dermis. Warm tingles raced along the back of his hand. Did this woman possess magic after all? She shook his hand once and then dropped it. His fingers fluttered, trying to recapture the strange sensation. “Where are you heading?” Holt skulked closer, until he could make out the color of her eyes, a bluish-gray that reminded him of the foam on the B’nyd River. His fingers itched to test the softness of the flaming waves of silk brushing her shoulders. Never before had he seen hair the color of fired copper. “Where am I?” The cavern where his transportation spell dropped him was less than an hourglass turn’s jog away. He would need to look at a map to orient himself on this new continent. “A few miles outside of Coleman, Idaho. About 15 miles from the Oregon border.” Holt stared at her, enjoying the way her ruddy features reddened further when she noticed his gaze. “Don’t tell me you’re hitchhiking without a map.” “I will not tell you that.” Holt’s lips quirked at the corners when she shook her head and sighed. Frustration. In the nine decades of his life, he’d seen the same gestures from his parents and older sister too many times to count. Some things must be universal. His ability to irritate among them. A smile found its way to his lips at the thought. “I’ll get you something to tide you over on your walk to town.” Rebel turned away from him. Snug pants made from heavy dark blue fabric clung to the curves of her backside. Ample curves, completely unlike the lean build of the women in Evendon. A yearning built in his chest. He clenched the sides of his leather tunic to keep his hands from discovering if the delicious bum swaying in front of him felt as lovely as it looked. Wherever Idaho was in this world, he liked what he’d seen of it so far. * * * * Rebel Aiden wiped the back of her wrist across her forehead. Sweat and dust smeared together. The faint smell of rotting potatoes hung in the air, dancing with the swirling dust motes. Grit stuck to her teeth and tongue. Had her parents ever removed anything from this storage room? Years of accumulated grime was nearly cleared out. She couldn’t wait to check another project off her list. She stretched her shoulders and chest, a small groan escaping as she twisted to one side. A teacher didn’t do this sort of physical labor. Not that she’d be teaching for a few months. Maybe not even in the fall. Thanks to her husband, she’d had to move away from her dream job in Olympia, Washington. Ex-husband. She should have listened to her parents’ warnings about Richard Aiden, salesman extraordinaire, but his baby blue eyes and charming smile pushed the off button on her good sense. At least she got two great kids out of the deal. Her chest contracted. Air strangled in her throat. She closed her eyes, squeezing hard against the tears burning behind her lids. I miss them. But it’s only for a month, or six weeks. They missed their dad. Maybe having them underfoot would stifle his philandering. Rebel snorted. The man was insatiable in the bedroom. As much as they rumpled the sheets, she never would have guessed he was stepping out with anyone else. Let alone a woman in every city he visited. Apparently, five days was much too long to go without. No point in counting how long it had been for her. Eight months since the divorce was final, and two months before that when they were estranged. It was summer break, and she refused to do the math. She shuffled into the dim storage room. Time to finish cleaning this barn. If she wanted to sell the old place, the realtor had a long list of projects that needed to be completed. Cleaning the barn was one Rebel could handle on her own. Lord knows she didn’t have extra money for a contractor. She hauled a load of trash out to the dumpster she’d rented. Beneath a box of old potato sacks, a burlap bag snagged between two floorboards. She’d strained against the thing for a good ten minutes earlier in the day, finally giving up when it wouldn’t budge. A few more tugs, and she’d grab the shears and cut it. Leather gloves slipped against her sweaty palms. The barn trapped heat like nobody’s business. Must be the black metal roof. At least it was only a few years old, and she wouldn’t have to replace it. Rebel fisted both hands around the rough fabric. She widened her stance, glancing at her dust-covered hikers. Summer was for hiking, but she doubted she’d have a day free from the demands of her inheritance. She threw her weight against the bag. A grunt of exertion passed her lips as she leaned backward. “Come on.” She twisted the bag around her fingers, gripping right at the floor line. And heaved. The bag loosened a fraction of an inch, sending her stumbling backward. Into a very human chest. Rebel wheeled around raising her hands in a defensive posture. The homeless man she’d hustled out of her pasture the previous morning stood less than a foot away. Her heart slammed against her breastbone. She shuffled away from him, scanning the room for a weapon. Nothing. She’d completely cleared it out. He stood there, arms akimbo. She noticed the leather outfit, too hot for Idaho summer, hugging his lean frame. He dressed like a mountain man from the nineteenth century, down to the moccasin-like slippers on his feet. Jewel nudged her way into the room, panting. And she was supposed to guard and protect? “Let me help you.” His voice soothed along her frayed nerves like a lullaby. He knelt beside the potato sack, thin fingers working the coarse fabric from side-to-side. In less than ten seconds, he freed the offensive bag and held it out to her. “What are you doing here?” What was it about this man that made her forget how to speak like a woman with an advanced college degree? “Helping you.” When she didn’t take the sack from him, his hand dropped to his side. “I wanted to ask before sleeping in your tree again.” Jewel nudged his knee with her shoulder. His hand absently scratched at the dog’s ears. If the dog was a good judge of character, Rebel should put her back down, and squelch her impulse to sprint out of the barn and lock herself in the house. “You want to sleep in my tree?” His wide mouth broke into a boyish grin. With those smooth cheeks, he couldn’t be more than twenty years old. Although, the look in his gold-flecked blue eyes seemed older. Why are you noticing the color of his eyes? Rebel shook her head, sending her braid scraping across her shoulder and into her ear. “Most people rent rooms.” His shapely eyebrows pressed together for a moment. “I need to earn money first.” “You’re traveling around without money?” If she didn’t stop asking inane questions, he was bound to think American women were idiots. He opened his mouth, but she held up her hand. What did it matter if he slept in her tree? She could lock the doors. Although closing all the windows in this sultry weather wouldn’t make it easy to sleep upstairs. Maybe she’d use her parents’ bedroom. She’d cleaned it out already. There was an air conditioning unit and ceiling fan in there. “Are you hungry?” He patted his stomach. “What can I do to pay for my dinner?” The way his eyes raked across her figure before returning to her face made her shiver. With fear or anticipation? Over the tumult of swirling in her stomach and chest, she couldn’t think straight. Was she really that hard up? “The loose boards go in the burn pile. The sack in your hand can join the rest of the trash in the dumpster.” He nodded and turned toward the doorway, stepping out of the way and bowing slightly. The gentlemanly gesture looked ridiculous coming from the rustic figure. Rebel paused for a moment, blood pulsing in her ears. Her knees wobbled as she stepped toward the doorway. Jewel stood when Rebel’s boot nearly squashed the dog’s skinny tail. A fragrance reminiscent of a recent rainfall flooded her nostrils. Was that him? Since when did a homeless guy smell so good? A current singed the air between her and the stranger. The toe of her boot caught on the floorboard delineating the doorway. She tripped forward until warm fingers closed around her shoulder. Heat and electricity snapped every nerve ending around the point of contact. Rebel gasped as lava flooded her cheeks. “I will not let you fall.” His words whispered across her neck like a caress. Chills raced other chills over her back. “You’d think I could walk on my own.” Why did she sound out of breath? Holt’s fingers trailed down her arm, igniting another round of chaotic tingling. “I think you work too hard.” Rebel twisted her head. Her stomach collided with her heart when she stared into his glowing blue eyes. I thought I was done with blue-eyed charmers. She shook the thought away and stumbled forward a few more steps, slapping his outstretched hand away. “Sandwiches coming up.” Her feet and legs finally cooperated, and she fled the barn as fast as possible without looking like she ran away. The slap of late afternoon heat against her face cooled her burning embarrassment. He was a stranger. She wasn’t that desperate. “He’s too young for me,” she muttered. Which is why she shut the door in his face after handing him two thick ham and cheese sandwiches and a liter of water. Too bad slamming the door in his handsome face didn’t banish him from her dreams. * * * * Vitality zipped along Holt’s skin, invigorating every nerve and sinew. Magic energy. After working at the car wash all day, he felt strong enough to leap over a building. He switched off the electrical power running the mechanisms humans loved so much, and cranked the valve on the water spigot. If they could see him now, his parents would never believe he chose physical labor as a means to earn money. At home, he never did anything without magic. On Earth, people didn’t believe in magic, and he wouldn’t risk standing out by using his. Besides, he needed money. After working every day for a week, the owner promised to pay him in cash. They had a week by week agreement regarding Holt’s employment. Most of the other guys were teenagers on summer break, and they were all too happy to let Holt carry their weight. No one noticed how brightly his side of the vehicles they washed shined while Holt reveled in the flow of water magic through his fingers. Holt pocketed the cash in the navy blue shirt that was his work uniform. Across the road, a store sold clothing and other supplies. He picked up a pair of shorts similar to what he’d seen his co-workers wear and a package of plain white t-shirts. After snaring a backpack from a different rack--his elven pack was too conspicuous--he didn’t have enough money for the shoes he planned to purchase. Holt studied the way people took items to the front of the store. After he was confident of the process, he stood in line behind an elderly lady. A woman about the same age as Rebel ran his items over a machine that flashed with red light and beeped. He raised an eyebrow. Humans used machines instead of magic. What a fascinating choice. “If I wanted to thank a lady like you,” Holt asked the woman, “what would I give you?” The woman’s brown eyes flicked toward him. “Most ladies like flowers.” “Flowers?” Holt cocked his head. “But they’re everywhere.” She shook her head. “It’s the thought behind the gift.” “How is giving something common thoughtful?” The woman huffed and her shoulders heaved. “Men.” A man behind him in line chuckled. Holt stared at him, furrowing his brow. Nearly a week in this world, and he still didn’t get their humor. Or their logic most of the time. “Get her a dozen roses if you’re really trying to impress her. Something more colorful and less expensive if you don’t want to scare her away.” Holt nodded, exchanging his cash for two plastic bags and the dark brown backpack. After thanking the man and woman, he sauntered into the restroom and changed into the shorts and a t-shirt. Without his leggings, he felt exposed. He shrugged off the unease and folded his clothes, tucking them into the pack with the rest of his purchases. He counted his remaining cash and decided he didn’t have enough for roses. Where would a man buy flowers? * * * * Holt found a small shop that sold flowers on a side street in Coleman. After his run from town to Rebel’s farm, the bouquet of colorful wildflowers hung limply. He slung his bag into the branches overhead and wiped a single trickle of perspiration from his brow. He knelt beside the trickling creek. Magic hummed as water swept over the pebbles. Holt dabbed his index finger in the water and chanted in his native tongue. The essence of the water floated in the air and dropped like mist on the wilted flowers. At the touch of the energy, the flowers perked up, looking fresher than when he’d spent his last bill on them. Holt strolled over the browned grass toward the two-story structure where Rebel lived. Thinking of the cinnamon freckles adorning her chest made his stride lengthen. His fingers itched to wrap around the silken flame of her hair. Would it be as soft as it looked? He imagined her ruddy skin would burn beneath his touch. He sucked in the heavy air, inviting the magic from the moisture into his lungs. It was too soon to be thinking about her this way. Humans needed time to build trust. Look at the way they walled themselves into dead wooden structures. Their culture limited their ability to form immediate bonds. Or, maybe it was the lack of magic flowing through their blood. When Holt first started his outer realm explorations, some elves told him there was no magic on Earth, and he’d been afraid to travel here. Until he did. And discovered a wealth of magical energy lying untapped in every stream and plant. In moister regions, or near large bodies of water, it hung like clouds in the air. He reached the house and bounded up to the porch. The second stair bowed slightly beneath his foot. He skipped his weight to the next step before the boards could creak in alarm. He raised his hand and tapped his fist against the door. White paint flecked and peeled away beneath the vibrations. Human habitations boggled him. Why would they kill the trees to make homes? They had no choice, he supposed, since they couldn’t access the trees’ innate magic. His father, a leading architect in Evendon, designed amazing homes from living trees. A woof from the interior of the house shook Holt from thoughts of his parents. Not sharing their plant-based magic created a gulf between them. As if that wasn’t enough, everything they enjoyed burned like a fiery yoke on his shoulders. The hinges creaked when the door swung inward. Rebel made denim shorts and a baggy tank top look like high fashion. A few strands of fiery hair framed her oval face, kinked and curling from the moisture shining on her red face. Holt tightened his grip on the flowers, using both hands to keep from reaching for the silky locks. “Your clothes.” Holt relaxed against the door’s opening. “Payday.” Jewel sat on his feet. “I heard you were working at the car wash.” “Am I the talk of town?” Holt freed up one hand to massage the dog’s ears. She groaned. Rebel shook her head, glaring at the dog for a moment. Her lips pursed together, drawing Holt’s gaze to their succulence. Did they taste like the berries he often scented on her skin? He breathed through his nose and ordered his mind to stop wandering. “I brought these flowers.” Her face relaxed into a slight smile. Holt’s heart started another race. “To thank you for letting me stay in your tree.” He held them toward her. “For the sandwiches.” Rebel flicked her gaze from the bouquet clutched tightly in his hand to his eyes. She reached out, and Holt’s fingers ached to grasp hers. Instead, he straightened up and thrust the flowers at her. “It was nothing.” Her eyes moistened. Holt licked his parched lips. “But thank you.” The flowers were a good idea. The man at the store knew what he was talking about. Rebel’s fingers burned him when she brushed his hand to take hold of the gift. Holt slid his fingers across hers, relishing the way a fire burned along every nerve between his fingertips and heart. He leaned toward her, but the weight of the dog on his feet anchored him to the porch. “I’ll get these in water.” He watched her backside sway. His hungry gaze stroked her bare legs. A molten river of passion flowed to his hips. He forced his gaze to the dog, nudging her with one knee. You’re not helping. But maybe it was better he didn’t follow Rebel into the house. It was too soon for him to show the depth of his interest. Maybe by next Friday he’d know what to do, so she would invite him inside. “I guess this is a hint for more sandwiches.” Rebel carried the flowers in a vase, stopping in the doorway of another room. Holt’s stomach rumbled. Food in this realm didn’t satisfy the way elven bread could. His pack contained some of the food from home, but he liked the salty flavor of the cured meat and grainy texture of the bread Rebel gave him. Not as much as he liked watching her pass it to him, but savoring the snacks was as close as he could get to her at the moment. She disappeared through an inner doorway. When she returned, her hands were empty. She patted her thigh and called for Jewel. Holt stared at the place she’d touched, imagining his own hand caressing it. Jewel woofed and whined in her throat. Holt patted the dog’s head. Go on. Her warm tongue licked his kneecap before she turned away, claws clattering against the wooden floors. “I won’t say no to your delicious sandwiches.” Or your delicious lips. “I’ll have them out in a minute.” Holt closed the door and leaned against the post beside the stairs. Chickens clucked, scratching at the ground a few steps away. Wind carried the scent of fresh cut hay from the field across the road. He closed his eyes, memorizing each nuance and pairing sounds with scents, chasing thoughts of holding Rebel in his arms from his mind. When the time came for that, he planned to savor each sweet moment as he did every new experience on Earth. * * * * Every evening, Rebel’s stomach knotted like a misused skein of yarn. And she hated it. Worse, was the fluttery sensation in her chest at the sound of the nightly knock. By Friday, Jewel was wagging her tail and staring at the front door minutes before the time Holt regularly appeared. It might be an hour later than she served dinner to her kids, but Rebel didn’t care. She was done handing sandwiches out the door and feeling hollow while she stood at the counter eating her own dinner. The neighbor had arrived earlier in the day with fresh-from-her-garden tomatoes and lettuce. The mouthwatering aroma of crispy bacon hung in the air. Rebel tapped her toe impatiently. Holt worked hard six days each week at the car wash. So she heard from many women who suddenly got their cars washed multiple days. Those cougars talked about how sexy her trespasser looked scrubbing a brush across their windshield while the automated tracks carried their vehicle into the wash. Her red Rav4 needed a serious scrubbing, but she refused to give in to the temptation. None of those woman would see the newest divorcee with her tongue lolling out. Or her eyes devouring the handsome package of Holt hard at work. Unless they came to her farm around dinner time. At the knock, Jewel leapt to her feet and barked. Rebel smoothed her palms along the side of her sundress. She hadn’t worn it to impress him. The house was nearly a hundred degrees, and the dress was cooler than anything else she owned, with her shoulders and back bared except for the wide halter strap around her neck. The blast from the box fan in the living room sent the full skirt swirling around her knees. Her stomach flopped like a fish out of water. It took two attempts before the old doorknob twisted open. For some reason her hand slimed it on her first try. Jewel’s tail slapped against the back of her knees. Someone was excited to see the homeless drifter. She ignored the galloping pulse in her ears proclaiming the dog wasn’t the only one. Glorious turquoise eyes flashed, scanning down her frame in patient perusal. Rebel resisted fanning her suddenly hot face. To distract herself, she ran her gaze over the stylishly faded jeans and snug fitting tank top hugging the Adonis frame in front of her. A bottle of wine peeked out from the crook of one bulging bicep. “Does wine go with BLTs?” Holt’s eyes focused on her lips when she spoke. Molten desire pooled in her chest. If his looks generated this much attraction, what would it be like to actually kiss the man? Are you planning to find out? Rebel shoved the errant thought out of her mind and extended her hand toward the bottle. “You’re more lovely than a rainbow.” Well, that was a different sort of compliment. Rebel’s fingers brushed his toned arm when they gripped the neck of the dark red bottle. A surge of something akin to a lightning strike raced through her. She jerked her hand away, shuffled back a step. “Come in.” “Come in?” He furrowed his shapely brows and stiffened his spine. “Yes. Please. I figured I could serve your sandwich in the kitchen for a change.” Rebel cupped her fingers toward him. Jewel snuffled the backside of his knees and nudged with her nose. The dog knew an invitation when she heard one. The front door clicked shut. When had those hinges stopped squealing? Jewel’s grunt was the only other sound Rebel heard, but she refused to look back. In the kitchen, she settled the bottle of wine on the counter beside the sink. When she turned to retrieve the corkscrew from the drawer at the end of the bar, her nose rammed into the toned chest too many local women admired at the car wash. “I didn’t hear you.” Rebel stumbled back, hand flying to cover her leap-frogging heart. Lean, artistic hands cupped her waist. His touch loosed havoc in her body. Her pulse stuttered. Air managed to place a stranglehold on her throat. “I apologize for startling you.” His face was so close she could count the amber flecks in the tropical ocean pools of his eyes. Like a summer storm, the scent of a rain shower embraced her. “I should chill the wine.” Her feet ignored her command to move. Heat seeped from his hands into her stomach. With a gentle caress, Holt let his fingers slide over her hips. Fluttering birds and tidal waves of lava warred within her. Rebel stared at his mouth. Thin lips twitched at the corners. If he laughed at her, she would die. What am I thinking? I’m probably twice his age. “How old are you?” Rebel twisted toward the laundry room. Her steps were wooden as she marched through the narrow doorway. When she returned, she carried a metal bucket, perfect for the wine bottle. Holt leaned on the end of the counter, arms crossed over his chest. The snug t-shirt outlined every muscle, as if he wore nothing. I might as well tear the shirt off. Rebel gasped, covering the sound with her hand. “Did you really ask my age? I thought that was taboo.” Rebel swallowed to moisten her parched tongue. “Only if you ask a woman.” Half of his mouth quirked into a grin, and he arched the corresponding eyebrow. Her heart dove into her stomach. “Sounds like discrimination.” Rebel twisted toward the refrigerator, snatching open the freezer door. She couldn’t trust her hands not to do something inappropriate and foolish. “In any case, I’m too old for you.” Cold air slapped her face. Her cheeks cooled. She gulped frost, closing her eyes for a moment. When her fingers closed around the ice box, her eyes snapped open. Holt stood a step closer to her, arms twitching at his sides. Rebel looked past him to the bucket. Swirls of icy air at her back stiffened her resolve. “I’m older than I look.” His eyes darkened to a twilit sky. “Older than you think.” Rebel raised her free hand, swatting the air between them. “It doesn’t matter.” Hot air smothered her once she swung the freezer door closed. A flush burned her cheeks. Holt’s hand closed around the ice holder. “I can do this.” Rebel looked dumbly between his hand and face. Finally, her fingers released the box. “Are we having sandwiches?” Right. She invited him in for dinner. And all she could think about was sampling him for dessert. She wiped her hand across her forehead. “BLTs. Garden fresh.” Rebel shuffled across the kitchen to where the ripe Roma tomatoes waited to be sliced. “Well, not the bacon.” She needed to gain control of herself before wielding a knife. “BLTs?” “Bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Jane brought the lettuce and tomato earlier today.” Ice cubes rattled into the metal bucket. Glass clinked. “The bacon is fresh-cooked, but hardly from the garden.” Why am I rambling? “It will taste delicious. Your sandwiches always do.” Giddy pleasure danced across her chest at the compliment. What did she expect a starving man to say? “No BLTs where you come from?” “No. Our bread is different, not really right for layering with meat and vegetables.” Strange. She tried to imagine bread that wouldn’t work for a sandwich. Even flat tortillas could be rolled up with meat and cheese. “Where are you from? Europe? I’ve been trying to place your accent.” Holt rattled the bottle in the ice and shuttled the bucket to the scarred table. It had been in her grandparents’ dining room. Her father had stripped and refinished it, but that had been when she was a teenager. It’s aged, battered look was perfect in the ramshackle farmhouse. “I am practicing to get rid of the accent.” Holt’s words were carefully constructed. She whirled toward him, smiling. “That was good. Almost sounded like an Idahoan.” Holt smiled and nodded in acknowledgement. Tingles raced along her hips where his fingers had touched her not so long ago. Rebel put her back to the man, took a measured breath. He wasn’t traditionally handsome. His thin face was longer than the average movie star’s. Even his build was leaner than the stocky bulk she found attractive. Why was her body reacting so strongly to him? Am I that desperate? The knife smacked into the maple cutting board with excessive force. “Can I do anything else to help?” His warm breath rustled against her ear. Her heart jumped into her throat. Again, he’d moved across the floor without a sound. The man could be a cat burglar with that stealth. For all she knew, he was one. “The wine glasses are in the curio cabinet in the dining room.” Her voice sounded hoarse. She gestured toward the third doorway out of the country kitchen. Holt moved away, silent as ever. Rebel sighed and leaned her forehead against the overhead cupboard. Somehow, she managed to construct three sandwiches without touching him again. When she pulled the fresh fruit salad and tray of carrots and celery from the refrigerator, her heartbeat had completely normalized. This was her being neighborly to a stranger. Nothing more. At her suggestion—she needed space to think straight—Holt wandered through the house, Jewel padding along beside him. A squeak of the stairs announced when they went to the upper level. Rebel concentrated on relieving the bottle of its cork. The resulting pop echoed through the house. By the time she turned from tossing the noisy seal into the trash, Holt and Jewel were back in the room. “The photographs are of your family?” Rebel nodded. “Let’s eat.” She gestured toward the table. Holt stood behind one of the chairs and pulled it out. With manners like that, he had to be European. Rebel thanked him, careful not to let her bare shoulders rub against his fingers which rested an extra moment on the back of the chair. When he sat down, he stared at her. “Ladies first.” “Guests first.” She smiled when his eyes widened. “I promise I won’t tell your mom you served yourself first.” Holt snorted and shook his head. “She would assume as much anyway. Tell me about your family.” Rebel filled the space between them with her history in this house. When she talked about Danny and Raven, her hands fluttered about. Warmth returned in her chest. She loved those kids. No matter how much the end of her marriage shattered her, she would never regret the years spent with Robert. She wouldn’t have the kids without him. “Your children are not here.” Rebel shook her head, sipping the smooth wine to sooth her throat. Had she really monopolized the conversation? “They’re with their father in Seattle for most of the summer. I have plenty of work to do around here.” Her hands fluttered toward the doorway. “Time will pass quickly.” Holt studied her with fathomless eyes. “I’ll keep you from being lonely.” An impish grin made light of his words. Her body flamed like coals in the wind. “Then I’ll keep you busy.” She swallowed another mouthful of wine, staring at the bottom of her glass. When had she finished that? “As long as there are sandwiches.” Rebel shoved her chair back. He lurched to his feet when she stood. “Sit. I’ve got more than sandwiches for you.” Holt’s gaze flicked down the front of her. Heat swelled in her chest. “I made trifle.” Holt cocked his head to the side, perching on the edge of his chair, gulping down another mouthful of fruit. “One hundred percent creamy deliciousness. You’ll see. There’s more to me than sandwiches.” Rebel pulled the crystal dish from the refrigerator, bumping the door with her hip to close it. Holt’s gaze followed her to the table, a hungry look in his eyes. A wave of lightheadedness caused Rebel to stumble. His hands cupped her shoulders, steadying her again. He lifted the fancy dish out of her grip and slid it onto the table. His fingers caressed the side of her face, spreading warmth in their wake. Rebel stared at him, wondering at the brown dots dancing at the side of her vision. Was the wine affecting her? Her fingers curled around the loops at his waist. She should say something. Push away from him and get the dessert bowls. Holt threaded his fingers through her hair and sighed. He lowered his forehead to hers while one hand loosened the band holding her hair away from her face. The curtain of hair fell against her bare shoulders. Both of his hands delved into it. A bedroom moan floated from deep inside him. Rebel’s body flushed at the sexy sound. Their mouths nearly touched. The smell of raspberries mingled with the fresh scent of his breath. Her lips tingled. If she stood on her toes, they would be kissing. “Softer than I imagined.” His quiet words sent warm breath trailing over her ear, tickled her neck. He had imagined touching her hair? Holt leaned away so he could see her face. “Are you alright?” Breath shuddered through her chest. His gaze shifted to the swell of her breasts. From his height, he could probably see more cleavage than she’d intended to reveal. Shivers followed his fingers when he dropped them from her hair and trailed them down her bare back. “Your skin is like velvet.” The whispered words sounded reverent. Had a man ever used such a tone when talking to her? When talking about her? Blood pounded through her, ringing in her ears. She studied his baby smooth cheeks as her fingers followed the curve of his pointy chin. His gaze locked on hers, and his hands rested on her hips once more. She reached to touch the lock of brown hair brushing the top of his manly shoulders. His hand snagged hers, tucking it against his chest. She flattened the palm over iron-like muscles. Beneath her fingers, his heart galloped like a spooked horse. Holt stared into her eyes, lowering his mouth to hers. He moved so slow, Rebel worried her heart might burst from her chest before he kissed her. She pushed onto her tiptoes. Their lips collided. His mouth slid across hers and then to her chin. She sighed. A groan rumbled in his throat. His lips claimed hers again. Their mouths melded. A hot tongue tapped her lower lip. She opened to him, welcomed his probing with a caress from her tongue. The sweetness of berries and melon exploded across her senses. His hands tightened on her hips, pulling her against him until she felt every inch of his hard body, all of it eager to devour hers. Suddenly, her throat closed. She couldn’t breathe. Rebel gasped, pushed away from him. The room spun, and her thudding heart sounded as loud as a door knocker. “Wait.” Holt’s eyes bored into hers, the blue igniting like a flame. “I have been waiting.” * * * * The guttural words sounded strange to Holt. Passion roared through him, burning hotter than any fire. Electric jolts similar to when he used magic skittered across his chest where Rebel’s fingers curled around his shirt. “But--” Holt covered her perky lips with his. They had talked enough. Watching her suck berries into her mouth had nearly undone his control. Eating wasn’t meant to be provocative. Had never been an aphrodisiac before. She sighed. Her hands slid to the waistband of his pants, causing the tingling current to follow. He pressed her against him. Her soft curves molded to him, a glove fitting a hand. His fingers wove through her thick tresses, drawing her mouth more firmly against his. Their tongues danced. His blood sang. This was why he came to Earth. Finally, he could savor the sweet fruit of the beautiful human in his arms. She pulled away again. Holt groaned. Their food still covered the table. How many steps to the room with the fireplace? Not that they needed anything to heat them up. His skin felt ready to combust. “The dessert will be ruined.” She wiggled and shoved against his chest. What was this woman talking about? Holt let his hands drift over the curve of her backside as she backed away. Her hair shimmered as sunlight from the window over the sink spotlighted it. The silken mass swayed, so alluring, as she grasped the dish he’d recently liberated from her hands. Cool air brushed him when she opened the door to the appliance and disappeared inside. “Now it will keep.” She wrung her hands together after stopping the flow of cold from the food keeper.Her feet hesitated. A shadow passed over her eyes, a dark cloud on their sparkling gray surface. Holt closed the distance between them. He cupped her silky shoulders and pressed a kiss against the base of her graceful neck. Her sigh of pleasure tickled against his ear. Fire raced from that sensitive spot through his whole body. Her hands slithered around his waist. His cupped her hips before he lifted her off the ground, breathing in the scent of her, sampling the saltiness of her skin again. “I’m not sure.” Her words were a sigh against his neck. Holt carried her into the bright room with a fireplace dominating one wall. Pictures of her family smiled at them from the mantle. “My room—” Holt silenced her with his mouth. The dog padded up the stairs. Holt squinted at the beast, trying to stay light on his feet while his mind and body hummed with a different sort of focus. Rebel squirmed against him. He lowered her to the ground, his lips lonely when she freed herself from his embrace. Her hips swayed as she mounted the stairs. Holt followed, entranced by the swish of the blue and white skirt flaring with every step she took. Time to savor his favorite dessert.

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