Unintended Guardian by Jami Gold

Kala knelt next to the sofa and raised her voice to a loud, perky pitch. “Come on, Buster. Let’s do something fun. Want to go for a walk?”

Not even the W word was enough to stir the half-deaf old mutt from his nap. Drool bubbled along his mouth and threatened to join the wet spot already on the cushion.
Unintended Guardian
Unintended Guardian by Jami Gold
So much for relieving her boredom with his help. Maybe she could coax him awake by force. She scratched behind his ears, ruffling the bristly fur. “Please, Buster? I need an excuse to get out and meet people.” In the few hours since she’d dropped off her parents at the Los Angeles airport for their who-knew-how-long trip to Japan to care for her ailing grandmother, emptiness had settled into her gut and begun putting up knickknacks. No more using them or her “just moved in” status as an excuse for her lack of local friends. Yet her so-called “faithful companion” remained unmoved. “Sheesh. I rescued you from Death Row, and according to that shiny new lease agreement, I might be risking eviction for you too. The least you could do is show some appreciation.” Kala stroked his head a final time and pushed to her feet, a hint of a smile still stretching her face. The doorbell buzzed. She lunged for the door before Buster chose that moment as the perfect time to wake up and bark. The last thing she needed was a neighbor complaining to the apartment manager about her “on probation” dog before she’d even finished unpacking. She whipped open the door. “Yes?” A package delivery guy stood in the hallway, his cap pulled low. He shoved a clipboard at her. “Sign here.” “Good morning.” Or was it past noon already? With her screwed-up work schedule, she could never keep track of the time. “How are you today?” The guy didn’t respond. Granted, that attempt at conversation had been pretty lame. She tried again. “So...” She scrawled her name on the indicated line and pointed her toe toward the cubic-foot-sized package at his feet. “What is it?” The guy gave her a how-would-I-know look and snatched the clipboard from her as soon as she finished signing. The metal board’s edge sliced the tender skin between her left thumb and index finger. “Ow! Damn.” The guy picked up the box and thrust it in her direction. “Sorry.” He jogged down the hall fast enough to set the keys on his belt jingling, robbing her of the opportunity to chew him out. Yeah, real sorry. She tucked the box under her injured arm and squeezed the cut to stop the bleeding. Crap, that hurt. Now she’d have to wear gloves in the kitchen at work, and her hand would sting for the next few days every time she moved her thumb, which was... Oh, constantly. Perfect. Just perfect. The box under her arm jiggled. What the—? She didn’t remember ordering anything recently, much less something wiggly. Heck, with how busy she’d been, preparing for the move across L.A., none of her childhood friends even knew her deficient love life required a vibrator. The address label faced away from her, and she used her unencumbered right pinky finger to spin the box under her left arm. The delicate balancing act allowed her to keep pressure on her injury and glance at the sender information. Ireland? That really didn’t ring a bell. She searched the box for identifying marks and stopped at the addressee. GRIFF CYRUS. Crap. All that hassle with the stupid cut, and the package wasn’t even for her. She juggled the box and her keys while locking her door. After sprinting down the hall and six flights of stairs, she flung herself out the front of the apartment building. Nothing. Only an empty curb along Wilshire Boulevard, no idling delivery truck anywhere. Double crap. She trudged back inside and up the stairs, sticking to her self-imposed rule to avoid the elevator. That insurance against putting on pounds was the price for working with sinfully rich desserts every day. Her breathing deepened at each floor. Now what? The shipping label didn’t have a logo, and she drew a blank for the company name of his cap. Which delivery company was it? QuickShip? ParcelExpress? Ugh. Her only choice was to deliver the package herself. No matter how much of a pain it was, she’d want someone to do the same for her. She studied the label again, and a smidgen of annoyance drained off her shoulders. At least the delivery guy hadn’t bungled everything. The address was for the apartment at the end of her hall—another neighbor she hadn’t yet met. Her new pastry chef job at the swanky Beverly Hills resort down the road was a dream come true, but the middle-of-the-night hours were proving disastrous for her social life. The package shook again, and she swore she heard a squeak. Was there something alive in the box? It had better not be a container of insects. She held the carton at arm’s length and suspended the box between her fingertips, minimizing contact with the cardboard. Although... What kind of bug squeaked? She stopped at the correct door and angled her elbow toward the buzzer. A toy-like squeal ripped from the package, and she almost dropped the box. Freaky timing. Echoes of the screech surrounded her from the hallway at her back, and she tossed a glance over her shoulder. Toy or not, anyone else would have left the carton and tiptoed away, but apparently she was that desperate for the opportunity to meet another soul. Before she could change her mind, the apartment door whooshed open. A hand yanked her inside, and the door slammed behind her, shutting her in the stranger’s apartment. Her chest tightened so fast she stumbled back, the wall catching her fall. Instinctively, she lifted the box in front of her, as though warding off danger. The same grabby hand seized the carton from her grasp. What the hell? Rude much? Her gaze followed the limb up to its owner. Oh, hello. A Viking of a man, all long tawny hair and broad shoulders, stared down at her. “What were you doing with my package?” His package? A snort choked her, and she covered it with a cough. God, she was such a teenage boy sometimes. And her frazzled nerves weren’t helping. “Uh, the delivery guy brought it to my door by mistake.” Despite the apartment manager’s sales spiel about how their background-check process ensured safety among the residents, several Aikijujutsu self-defense lessons from her father scrolled through her head. Just in case. “I recently moved in down the hall. I’m Kala. You’re Griff?” A perfect brow arched over one of his golden-hazel eyes. “I saw the name on the shipping label of your, uh, package.” She couldn’t help the twitch curving her lips. It took all her concentration not to sneak a peek at said package. She would behave. Luckily, his movie-star-worthy looks helped her focus on his face. In addition to his lion-mane hair and striking eyes, he boasted a perfectly straight nose and kissable lips. Not that she was thinking of kissing him. At all. Really. Those lips curled into a snarl. “Package delivered. Now leave.” He walked away and set the box on a table in the kitchen. Her throat thickened, and she blinked quickly. Wow. His dismissal cut deeper than his rudeness. Bluntness, she respected, but the cold shoulder crushed her hopes. She could have a better conversation with her dog. Others must get lonely for friendship though, right? The possibility of making this place into a home—complete with friends, or at least acquaintances—was worth the risk of getting her head bitten off again. She’d give Mr. Antisocial the benefit of the doubt for one more attempt. She scanned the room for ideas of something to talk about. In her matching apartment, she’d opted to forgo a table to keep her kitchen open and uncluttered. In contrast, his living room was the emptiest space, and thick black blankets covered the picture window, leaving the lights over the table as the only illumination. Despite the shrouded window, the heavy scent of sunshine and masculinity filled the room, like at a beach volleyball game. Oblivious to her presence, the male in question muttered something to himself about needing a key and strode into a back room. She should leave. That would be the obedient, sensible thing to do. Obedient and sensible had never helped her make friends before. She stepped into his living room for a closer look in the dim light. A computer and stacks of encyclopedic-looking books loaded down a table in the far corner. Pushpin-decorated maps dominated the wall on her right, the multicolored pins marking locations throughout Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Africa, and North and South America. Had he traveled to all those places, or was this a wish list? The room inspired more questions than answers. Unlike the high-end vibe throughout the rest of the complex, his apartment felt bare and temporary. He had no personal items of any kind. Anywhere. Best-case scenario, he was odd. Worst-case scenario, he was a terrorist. Regardless, her feet refused to turn toward the door. Maybe he was military. Or far from home and friendless. Something in his eyes—a desperation visible even through his snarl—tempted her to stay, in spite of the hint of danger and his order to leave. She let herself hope that something was a loneliness like hers. Whatever his situation, he was home at this middle-of-the-workday hour, when she was done with her job and still awake, and she wanted a conversation with another human, damn it. Even one who ranked on the questionable end of the eccentric-meter. Besides, she remembered at least three dozen ways her dad had taught her to escape capture from a larger opponent. The chance to make a friend was worth a bit of risk. The rip of packing tape pulled her attention back to the kitchen, where Viking man had returned. He twisted a key into whatever was inside the box. He was so focused on his task he probably hadn’t noticed her in the dark corner opposite the kitchen, but curiosity kept her from announcing her presence—or leaving. The squeal started up again, and he reached inside the carton. He pulled out something like a doll, except it was unlike any doll she’d ever seen. The red-bearded figure wore old-fashioned red clothes, complete with a long jacket and hat. And then the doll moved. And spoke. “You!” The tiny creature sputtered in a singsongy Irish brogue, “Have ye gone daft, Griff? Ye haven’t any right to snatch me, spell me out cold, and ship me halfway across the Earthen plane. Whatever ye want, you’ll not be gettin’ it from me. Even if ye wish for it.” A leprechaun? Kala staggered back and blinked hard several times, trying to clear the nonsensical image off her retinas. But the image stayed there. Still not making sense. For one thing, weren’t leprechauns supposed to wear green and not red? Unless that was just the cartoon version. Whatever. No matter how she looked at it, the whole scene was wrong. More importantly, what was it—whatever it was—doing here? In her real-world apartment building? Viking man raised his arm above the table, and the leprechaun squirmed in his grasp. Kala inched along the wall toward the door. Not that she wanted to leave this way-more-interesting-than-the-rest-of-her-life scene, but the rational part of her mind screamed that she should check the corridor to be sure the normal world did, in fact, still exist out there. Maybe she’d hit her head and was hallucinating. Either that, or she’d somehow entered the Twilight Zone. Her knuckles fumbled against the doorknob, and the leprechaun’s head whipped around. “A human?” He goggled at her. “Why’d ye be lettin’ a human see me, Griff? Now we have to kill her.” The lilt of his accent overpowered the menace of his words, and she couldn’t take his declaration seriously. Especially not when Griff spotted her and his mouth fell open, yet he made no move to carry out the leprechaun’s suggestion. Smart man. She straightened and relaxed her muscles into a defensive stance. This might be the Twilight Zone or somehow both the most and the least realistic dream she’d ever had, but she wasn’t going to let anyone—and certainly not a pipsqueak with curling tips on the ends of his boots—threaten her. “Oh yeah? Don’t make me sorry I didn’t feed you to my dog instead of delivering you here.” Making a run for it didn’t strike her as necessary. Not seriously, anyway. Maybe her stubbornness would get her killed eventually, but it wasn’t going to happen today. Chapter Two Griff’s lips almost curved into a smile before he caught himself. When had he last smiled? Before the curse, that was certain. He turned to Niall in his fist and arched a brow. He’d found that successful in intimidating others, especially when combined with silence. The little troublemaker propped his hands on his hips, only slightly out of sorts at being pinched up in the air after his cross-globe shipping adventure. “Well, now. Aren’t ye goin’ to put me down and kill her?” “Why would I do that when she’s willing to help me torture you until you tell me what I want to know?” Niall’s ruddy face paled, and his gaze bounced between Griff and the woman. “I don’t believe it. Since when would you—of all that’s Mythos—ever be workin’ with a human?” Griff glanced at the human in question—the human who hadn’t been by the door when he’d checked before opening Niall’s cage. His assumption that her disappearance had meant she’d followed his instructions to leave had been sloppy of him, but it was too late to change that situation now. Glossy, blacker-than-black hair framed her face, and the shape of her eyes marked her as being of one of the Far Eastern races. Not an area of the Earthen plane he’d explored much over the centuries. For all anyone knew, humans from that region of the world might irritate him less than the others did. She wasn’t unpleasant to look at by any measure. The softness of her features, like water had blended the edges, even reminded him of some of the Mythos races. Her dark eyes hid her thoughts, but an amused smile told him enough. His lips twitched in response, and the unfamiliar feeling nearly prompted him to touch his face and confirm his suspicion. He forced his mouth into a thin line and faced Niall. The troublemaker’s brow had hardened into deep furrows, and Griff tightened his jaw so another twitch wouldn’t betray him. “You’d be surprised what you’re willing to do after losing everything and being cursed to eternal darkness.” “That was not me stealin’ from ye, Griff, and ye know it.” “But I think you can tell me where my bound treasure is and how to get it back.” The woman appeared at his elbow. “Yeah, and you’re going to tell him what he wants to know, or Buster will be getting a new chew toy. And I should warn you, he drools. A lot.” Griff held himself still, fighting the instinct to enforce his space. A waft of her scent, strawberries and vanilla and everything soft and sweet and unlike him, drifted his way. He let himself breathe deep. Niall grimaced. “Now I know why you’d be workin’ with this one. She’s as vicious as ye are, she is.” He shook his head, his red jacket shifting in Griff’s grasp. “I wish I could help ye, my friend, but I don’t be knowin’ where your treasure is. Not a bit.” Griff poked the liar in his chest. “That’s not what the Great Owl told me.” “Ye did not see the Great Owl.” Niall laughed. “There’s no such thing. A legend, she is.” The woman tilted her head. “Are you sure about that? When I woke up this morning, I’d have sworn leprechauns and whatever-he-is were legends too.” “Gryphon.” Why he told her, he didn’t know. But so far, she’d reacted better than he’d ever thought a human could, and the urge to test her—see what she could handle, learn what she could accept—burned in his chest. “Gryphon?” She scanned him up and down. “I thought they were a cross between an eagle and a lion, not a guy who out-hunks Thor.” Did he want to know what she meant by that comment? Probably not. Heat flowed through his body at her expression anyway, adding to the distraction of allowing her close. However, that feeling—more pleasant than it should have been for all the alarms it set off in his logic—didn’t dissuade him from taking another deep breath and savoring the invitation promised by her scent. Niall’s face contorted into a grimace. “He shapeshifts, he does.” His tiny body swung to and fro, his hands punching the air. “And ye, stop makin’ eyes at the human, and let me go. Whatever the Great Owl may or may not have said not be matterin’. I swear on my pot of gold that I don’t know where your lost treasure is.” Heaviness weighed down Griff’s limbs, and the arm that held Niall aloft drooped. Leprechauns never swore on their gold unless they were telling the truth. The woman gave him an appraising look, as though not at all disturbed by the details of his existence, and then her eyes scrunched. “You seem like someone just told you your dog died. Anything I can do to help?” He didn’t have the words to provide an answer. His three-hundred-year quest to regain the lost treasure bound to him—the treasure that gave his life meaning—and to break the curse that had separated him from the sun couldn’t be understood by someone with the reference point of a human lifetime. The curse. He lifted his hand again and stared at the mischief-maker in his grasp. “What about the curse? How else I can break it?” “Ye be knowin’ that as well as I do. Only one thing can break your curse—findin’ your treasure.” Griff’s other hand clenched into a fist. Someone had to be lying. From the cardboard box, he pulled out the magically enhanced cage that kept Niall from teleporting away when not in his grasp. Maybe the troublemaker would talk after being locked up again. Niall eyed the container and thrashed. “Don’t be puttin’ me back in there, Griff. I’m tellin’ ye the truth, I am!” “We’ll see.” He stuffed the little man into the cage, locked it, and slapped the key onto the table before storming away. Now what? Over a hundred years spent tracking down the Great Owl to learn the answer to his problem—all for nothing. He moved toward the window out of a habit so deep even 300 years hadn’t broken him of it yet. And now he was out of ideas. The thick material protecting him from the sunlight slid between his fingers. He let the fabric drop and sighed. It was time to face the truth. He would never see the sun again. His front door clicked open and closed. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t need to see an empty apartment and be reminded of the pointlessness of his life. When a gryphon succeeded in his mission to guard the treasure under his protection, he was blessed by the sun, noble and strong. When one failed... The doorbell’s buzz brought his head up. For reasons he didn’t understand, his feet moved to the door and prevented him from ignoring the sound. The woman stood there, lifting a translucent container in offering. “I might not be able to solve your problem, but I’ve found there are very few things in the world that good food can’t help make more tolerable. May I come in?” The word “no” sat on his tongue, easy and habitual, but he stepped back with wordless acceptance. She entered and set the container on his kitchen counter. “Okay, let’s redo our first meeting.” She extended her hand. “Hi, I’m Kala Kaneko, your new neighbor in apartment 715.” Her slim fingers slipped into his palm, somehow both gentle and determined, and he allowed her to shake his hand. His thumb stroked her skin, soft and smooth. Odd. It shouldn’t feel this pleasurable to touch a human—even one that looked like her. She angled her head and met his gaze. “And now you’re supposed to introduce yourself.” “What? Oh.” He tugged his hand away from her distraction. “I’m Griff Cyrus, and you already know where I live.” She gave him a dazzling smile. “It’s nice to meet you, Griff.” “Blech.” Niall slumped in the cage. “I’m goin’ to be sick.” Griff grabbed the crate. “Then let me put you in the bathroom. By yourself.” By the time he returned from relocating his captive, Kala had set out two plates, each heaped with bright red strawberries beside a frothy white mound. She shrugged, the self-conscious gesture making him more at ease. “These were leftover from work this morning, and they’re at their peak today. I’m glad I have someone to share them with, or I’d be eating them all myself.” Long forgotten, his manners reappeared, and he pulled out her chair. She blushed an attractive shade. “Thank you.” After she took her seat, he joined her at the table and stared at the pile of white foam. Strawberries, he knew. But how was he supposed to eat this food? Assuming it even was food. More than half his meals were the result of his gryphon-form hunting for animals every night, the only time he could leave the building. The rest of the time, he tended toward no-fuss calories like beef jerky. Humans’ eating habits weren’t something he’d needed to understand. She scooted her chair closer and leaned toward him. “Do me a favor. I want you to close your eyes and tell me what you think of these flavors.” That seemed easy enough. He closed his eyes. “You have to open your mouth too.” Her words held a hint of laughter. After he obliged, her scent intensified and warmth drifted over his lips. Despite his superior strength, the situation still raised the hairs on his arms. He forced himself to remain motionless. She placed something between his teeth. “Take a bite.” Beyond the simple taste of strawberries he expected, an explosion of tart and sweet, firm and soft, cool and smooth filled his mouth. He groaned at the flavors and textures and scrutinized the plateful of food. “What is that?” “Just strawberries and cream, but the whipped cream is my own recipe. You like it?” “I’ve never tasted anything so good in my life, and at my age, that means something.” “Good.” She took a bite of a whipped-cream-dipped strawberry, leaving white speckles on her lips. Her tongue darted out, drawing his eye as she licked the stray cream. The oddest urge to kiss those lips swept through him. He shook his head and sat back. That wasn’t possible. Gryphons didn’t get involved with, or even kiss, random women. When they mated, they mated for life. By her fifth bite-and-lick maneuver, his body didn’t care about such logic. She smiled and indicated his untouched plate. “Are you going to eat those strawberries, or are you going to sit there debating whether or not to kiss me?” Her question made his decision for him. He waited for her to take another bite before giving an answer. “Neither.” His voice was rougher than he expected. Her eyes widened to the size of the strawberry she’d just finished off, and her tongue forgot to do its job. He leaned forward and took over cleanup duty. He nibbled around her mouth and traced a path across her lips. His tongue then insisted on a second pass, just to be sure. She tasted as good as she smelled. Even better than the strawberry. What am I doing? Gryphons had one mate for their entire, nearly immortal lifetime. Choosing a short-lived human to fulfill that role would be asking for heartbreak. This was just the despair of his curse affecting him. It wasn’t about her. He pulled away, his muscles taut and his nerves on edge. She blinked slowly, as if waking from a dream. Then she swallowed and kissed him back. Despite himself, he responded. Her tongue slipped across his mouth, and she sucked on his lip. Every part of his body now joined in his response. A moment later, her lips parted, and he dove in, desperate to taste more of her. Her soft lips, her sweet mouth, and her sexy moans overran his logic. He could stay here a bit longer. Just a little bit longer. Chapter Three Kala didn’t ask herself why she was being so forward. Part of it was her loneliness, to be sure. Part of it was a test to see if he’d be put off by her boldness, a result of dealing with too many guys who expected her to be demure and passive because of her Japanese-cute looks. But this connection was deeper. Stronger. More heartbreaking. His loneliness called to her, implored her, seduced her. The emptiness in his heart tempted her like an irresistible flavor that made her tongue beg for another taste. Whether he knew it or not, he needed her. And that was a situation she couldn’t resist. A rumble, halfway between a growl and a purr, resonated in his chest, and she melted, ready to pour herself into his lap. As though reading her mind, he pulled her closer until she straddled his thighs. His body was so large that, even in this position, he still matched her height. Heat enveloped her from everywhere their bodies touched—his arms around her, his legs beneath her, his chest pressed against hers, and a rather large “package” nudging her below. His lips seared hers with near-manic urgency, and his hands gripped her as though he was ravenous. So this was what it felt like for someone to think of her as sexy, not just cute. She liked the feeling. A lot. She wove her fingers into his hair. Freshness and warmth wafted toward her, as if from a summer breeze, and she melted even more in his embrace. This was crazy. She knew that. She was not only making out with a total stranger, but he wasn’t even human. Oddly, that fact made her feel better about her actions—as though the unreality of his existence made it acceptable to follow her heart instead of her head. Nothing about the situation was logical, so it made sense to ignore rational thought. His tongue, rougher than hers, stroked the inside of her mouth. Shivers swept up her spine, eliciting another moan. Her nipples tightened, thoughts of what that tongue could do to the rest of her body exciting her far more than she should allow. Far more than was safe for her own starving emotions. But her heart did want. Oh, did it want. He pulled back and held her upper arms. “I can’t do this.” He lifted her off his lap and plopped her into the other chair. Her heart plummeted, landing just as ungracefully as her body. Okay, technically a breather was probably a good idea. She needed a break from the dangerous path her thoughts had been traveling. But years of rejection from men for being either too assertive for their expectations or too cute to be a serious girlfriend—complete with the nickname “Hello Kitty”—took over her response. “What do you mean, you can’t?” He paced to the blackout fabric and back, his hand wrenching through his hair. “The things I want to do to you—they’re not acceptable. That’s not how my culture works.” He gestured toward her. “I shouldn’t have even been kissing you.” He strode to the window and clenched the blanket, as though about to rip it down. His voice descended into darkness. “I deserve to be cursed.” She sighed and reset her emotions. His confession that he wanted to do things to her meant he hadn’t rejected her, right? They could still be friends, at least. Maybe more, if his protest was just a temporary freak-out and not really a “no.” Step one: Be a friend. She moved to his side and laid a palm on his arm. “Will you tell me about this curse? I’d like to understand.” He yanked her hand away, squeezing in his haste. Pain shot from her thumb up her forearm, and a quiet whimper escaped her. She looked at the barely-healed-over cut. A drop of fresh blood leaked from one end of the wound. Normally she wouldn’t be such a wuss, but damn, he was strong. Like, crush-her-as-easily-as-a-bug strong. He glanced down and released her hand. “Forgive me. I didn’t intend to injure you.” “You didn’t.” She rolled her eyes. “That stupid delivery guy who dropped off your package at my apartment caused that cut.” “Then I suppose I’m still responsible.” Before she could disagree, he took her hand—gently this time—and lifted it toward him. With the fingers of his other hand, he unbuttoned his shirt. Uh... She wasn’t going to complain—the view of his bare chest alone distracted her from the earlier pain—but this wasn’t the reaction she’d expected. Her throat tightened with the sudden need to swallow. Was she drooling? He placed her palm on the bare skin of his chest. She longed to slide her hand—exploring, caressing—but he kept her in a firm grip. She settled for curling her fingertips in mini-strokes, her blunt nails too short to leave scratches. His chest rippled, and a patch of dark gray-blue feathers appeared under her palm. She didn’t need to look at him to know he was watching her, waiting to see what her reaction would be. His attention weighed on her like an interrogation spotlight. Honestly, it was a little freaky to see a spot of feathers on an otherwise human—or make that superhuman—looking chest. But the feathers’ texture was so unlike a normal bird’s that she continued fondling him to feel the fur-like down underneath. As a pastry chef, she’d learned to adjust recipes by texture, and kneading dough by hand was one of her favorite activities. Her fingers instinctively cataloged temperature, moisture content, pliability, and more, and her dough never failed to rise perfectly. So this opportunity to experience an unearthly sensation under her fingertips—silky and smooth on top, and soft and fluffy underneath—outweighed all the freakishness in the world. His chest muscles added another dimension to her texture exploration, the ridges and valleys of the hard planes creating a variable background under the feathers. Too bad he still held her wrist immobile, deterring her exploration beyond the stretch of her fingers. Almost without her being aware, her other arm rose and inched toward him. Too soon, he pulled her hand away from his chest. “All healed.” Sure enough, the cut beside her thumb had disappeared. The feathers on his chest wavered and vanished a moment later, leaving only smooth skin above the six-pack of his abs. The change didn’t erase her urges. Either way, she’d be happy to get in a full caress. Very happy. Before a sigh of longing could embarrass her, she refocused. “Your feathers have healing properties?” He didn’t answer, and she finally met his gaze. The intensity of his stare matched that of an eagle scrutinizing an ant from a hundred feet away. His voice was a whisper. “Where did you come from?” “I was born in Hawaii, but I grew up here in L.A.” Her shoulders moved in an automatic shrug. Obviously, that wasn’t the answer to his real question, but she didn’t have a response for that one. How could she explain that she’d waited her whole life for someone to see her as he did? She certainly wasn’t going to turn around and be judgmental of him for being different. She tilted her head and echoed him. “Where did you come from?” “The Mythos plane, the source of all human mythology, from faeries and unicorns to dragons and gargoyles.” Her jaw slackened. “They’re all real?” “Did you think your earthly cultures came up with similar myths across the globe by chance?” He had a point. And whether or not he realized it, he was not only still holding her hand, but he was massaging it too. That gesture gave her the confidence to step closer. “Now you’re here. And you need me.” She pulled his knuckles to her lips. “Let me help you.” He looked about to deflect her with some “lowly human” statement, but she kissed each of his fingertips, interrupting his plan. His eyes scrunched at the corners. “Even if you could help me find my treasure and break the curse, gryphons don’t...” She swirled her tongue around the tip of his index finger, and his words faded away. He swallowed. “Historically, humans always attempt to steal the treasures under gryphons’ protection, so they are our...” She stroked her tongue along the underside of his finger until his protest silenced again. Her distraction technique was definitely working, and he hadn’t stopped her yet. She embraced the temptress role and sucked on his finger, sliding it deeper into her mouth with a slow pull. Just as his texture was like nothing she’d ever known, his taste was unique and unquantifiable. Warm and explosive, like a savory tang. His gaze now focused on her lips. He swallowed hard again, and his reluctance to explain himself seemed to shatter. “The treasure I was bound to guard was stolen three hundred years ago. That shame banished me from the sun’s rays. I won’t be able to walk in daylight again until I find what should be under my protection.” She ignored the tidbit about his age—he looked damn good for his years, after all—and skipped ahead to how they could make things work between them. Her job schedule meant the “no sunlight” thing wasn’t a big deal, and she’d slept through the whole day many times. So the big question was, how did gryphons feel about dogs? She held his hand between hers. “And you don’t know where the treasure is.” “No.” He indicated the maps on the wall. “I’ve traveled most of the Earthen plane in search of it, but I don’t even know what it looks like. Gryphons aren’t like dragons. We don’t own the treasures we protect, much less sleep on them. We’re merely guardians. The treasure bound to me was secure in a box, and that’s all I needed to know.” “Could it be in that myth place, where you came from?” “Mythos plane, and no. Transferring non-living material from one plane to another would unbalance both worlds. I’d feel it if the treasure were there.” She waved toward the back of the apartment. “But Mr. Lucky Charms knows something?” “I thought he did.” He scratched his cheek. “He was supposed to know.” “Supposed to?” His lips pressed tight for a moment. “One hundred years ago, I went in search of the Great Owl—one of our myths, I guess. She’s supposed to be so wise that she sees the future.” His jaw clenched, and he stared into nothingness. “Last month, I finally found her. She told me if I captured Niall and sent him to this apartment, I’d find my treasure. I didn’t question her instructions. If nothing else, capturing a leprechaun obligates him to grant your wish. But if Niall doesn’t know where it is...” Griff dropped his gaze. His hair slipped down and half-hid his face. “I guess even legendary oracles can be wrong.” His voice plummeted like a boulder, sending ripples of despair across the room. She stroked his hair back from his temple. “I’m sorry.” Her thoughts spun in circles, searching for a way to help him. But how could she help in a situation so beyond her understanding? Her catch-up questions were making him more upset, and that definitely wasn’t helpful. He stepped away from her and moved toward the window. “For too long, I’ve held on to hope. Hope that I’d find my treasure. Hope that I could break the curse. Hope that I wouldn’t live like this forever.” He pinched the heavy fabric between his fingers. “But there’s no hope for me.” Something about his tone hinted that he was speaking to himself, as though trying to explain his reasons for feeling the way he did. Between his voice and his slumped shoulders, her stomach churned as if she’d eaten raw cookie dough made with bad eggs. He was thoroughly beaten. He’d given up hope of resolving anything. His treasure. His curse. His life. He clenched the blanket tightly, and the churning in her stomach solidified. Her heart beat so fast she couldn’t hear anything but her own pulse. He hadn’t said what the sun would do to him, but she could guess. She jammed herself between him and the draped material. “Don’t you dare open that window and kill yourself.” “Why not? Haven’t I suffered long enough?” Despite his words, his hands dropped from the fabric. He wanted a reason to live. She wanted to give him one. Chapter Four Griff stared at his hand, willing it to leave his side and pull the blanket down and drench the room in deadly sunlight. Kala blocked his way, but she was only human. He could stop her with the ease of flicking a fly. Her tiny hands caressed his bare chest. Sensations shot through him, energizing his limbs—and his groin. His gaze snapped to her face, where a smile as golden as the sun curved her lips. “You’re right.” Her hand circled his nipple, eliciting feelings he didn’t know were possible. “You have suffered long enough. All I’m saying is that you should enjoy life a little before you end it all.” Her fingertips dipped down his chest and skimmed along his waistband. Her meaning was clear enough that his jeans became tight as a certain body part voted for her plan. That wasn’t going to happen. Logically, he should have broken her hold on his hip and moved back, but she deserved an explanation first. “Gryphons don’t sow wild grains, or whatever the human euphemism is. We take only one mate in our lifetime.” “And you’ve already taken yours?” “No, but—” “Then let it be me. If you still want to kill yourself later, that’s your choice. But until then, live.” She stood on tiptoes, slid her hands behind his neck, and pulled his lips to hers, murmuring, “Let me first help you to live.” Tingles sparked along his mouth even after she released him, and her challenge swam around his head like a siren’s song. Her offer was beyond tempting, despite going against everything he’d assumed about humans and how his life would unfold. Would it be so bad to enjoy himself—at least once—before accepting his fate? If his life was forfeit anyway, the short lifespan of this human was irrelevant. And the other prohibition against befriending humans didn’t matter either, as he didn’t have a treasure for her to steal. His reasons for avoiding her evaporated, and he bent down, giving in to his urges. His lips grazed hers, slowly, tentatively. He was choosing to take the path that was wrong, yet it all felt right. Too right. An ache burned in his chest with the desire for more. He once again surrendered and swept his tongue along her lips. She eagerly opened for him, and her taste flooded his mouth. He absorbed her sweetness, her caring, her goodness and drank freely from everything she’d give him, as though she could somehow make him better by proxy. As though she could somehow make him worthy—worthy of living, worthy of his treasure. Worthy of her. She let him pull her into his arms, and her body molded against his. Everything about her was welcoming, accepting—stirring his desires. If only he could ignore the dishonor in his soul from losing his treasure and stay here. Right here. This was home. This was perfection. This was everything he’d never known he wanted. Heat burned through him. Although how much was passion and how much was shame at the realization of his yearning, he didn’t know. How could he want her even more than regaining his treasure? His disgrace was complete. He didn’t deserve this pleasure. In fact, a quick death was more than he deserved. His arms dropped, releasing her. She didn’t step away, and he didn’t have the heart to push her away. None of this was her fault. Rationalizations settled the debate in his head. He’d let her take the lead on when to finish the kiss. After that, he’d send her home so she didn’t have to witness his end. He’d act honorably with her. It was the least he could do. Regardless of his decision, his body was determined to make the most of the last kiss he’d ever experience, and he sank into the sensations between them. The warmth of her mouth and the promises of her lips. Despite everything, he wanted those promises fulfilled. He wanted her. Blood hummed through his limbs, echoing that truth. Her tongue caressed him, her lips branded his mouth, and her stomach cushioned his erection. The kiss wove between gentle and frenzied, liquid and greedy, silken and primal, and he sucked every second of bliss he could from the forbidden pleasure. His tongue dipped and swirled, claiming every recess of her mouth as his to explore. If only he could lay claim the same way to the rest of her body. He imagined her, naked beneath him, writhing as he gave her the ecstasy she deserved. A groan rumbled up his throat, and he fisted his hands to keep from grabbing her and prolonging this experience he wasn’t worthy of. This was for her. Not him. All too soon, she dragged her lips away. After committing the experience to memory, he opened his eyes. Niall had her in his grasp. Griff’s chest tightened, and his heartbeat thrashed in his ears. No... Golden rope bound her mouth and every limb. With his magic, Niall had levitated Kala beside himself and towed her into the kitchen. Her eyes were wide, darting from side to side, but the magic of the bindings held her tight and prevented her attempts to move or speak. Griff shouted over his booming pulse, “Niall! You little—” “Ah-ah, my beastly friend. Ye captured me, so it’s only right that I capture somethin’ of yours in return, it is.” “Do not harm her.” “You’re not in any place to be ordering me around, Griff.” Niall dangled the key to his cage in one hand and then tossed it to the far side of Kala. He instantly appeared at the target of his aim and caught the key in his other hand. “Now here with this merry find, there’s nothin’ ye can be doin’ to me.” Griff roared and leaped across to the kitchen. Self-accusations blinded him. He’d brought Niall here. He’d left the key beside the cage where Niall must have snatched it when no one was looking. He’d yanked Kala into this mess. Before he got close, Niall and Kala vanished. Griff crashed into the back wall of the kitchen and spun around. Claws extended from his fingertips, ready to grab anything in reach. Niall and Kala rematerialized by the window, back where Griff had started. A gleam lit the trickster’s eye. “What would ye be doin’, Griff? This human can’t be that important, can she now? No human be worth gettin’ this upset about.” Kala’s brows pulled down. Was she worried Griff would agree with the red-bearded menace? The thought of her fear thickened his throat and burned up his gut. He’d done so wrong by her. The first being of any race to care about him, to make him want to live again, and he’d let her come into danger before he even thanked her. He clenched his jaw. “She is. She’s worth it.” Though it was the truth, it was the wrong thing to admit to Niall. The tiny man’s expression danced, glee skipping in his eyes. “Is she now?” Niall ripped the black blanket off the window. Bright midday sunlight flooded the room, and Griff shrank back into the corner of the kitchen furthest from the glass. In the next second, the glass itself disappeared, and bird song from the courtyard far below drifted through the opening. No... Niall’s next move was obvious, and Griff’s pulse raced, desperate to prevent the inevitable. Griff scanned the room. How could he stop Niall? Nothing jumped out at him. Nothing came to mind. Nothing could save Kala. “Don’t do it.” Please don’t do it. Niall tilted his head. “Don’t be doing what now?” His innocent act didn’t last. “This?” He materialized outside the window, levitating seven stories above the pool patio, Kala at his side. No sound escaped her mouth from behind the magical ropes, but her throat jumped with her effort to scream regardless. Griff tensed, his muscles vibrating and twitching. Despite her bindings, Kala’s head trembled, and her eyes warned him off from a rescue, as though she’d rather die than see him end his life in a one-way attempt to save her. Her reaction just proved the depth of her giving nature, of her inner strength—strength far beyond his physical power. Niall hooked his finger around one of the cords, making a show of his plan to release her. “Is she important enough to die for, my friend?” Every cell in Griff’s body answered. Yes. Yes, she was worth protecting. She was worth guarding. She was a treasure. Griff pounced from the kitchen, covering the length of his apartment in one stride. He pushed off the window frame into the sunlight. Charred blisters erupted on his skin. He ignored the pain and swept his arms forward. A hand’s length beyond Griff’s grasp, Niall grinned and released Kala. She plummeted toward the ground below, her eyes wide with terror. Griff dove after her, but she was just out of reach. He stretched his claws into long talons, refusing to give up, refusing to give into the agony searing his body. The curved hook of one fingertip snagged her jeans in midair. The ground rushed toward them fast. Too fast. He twisted, flipping her upright, and wrapped his still-humanoid arms around her. Wings burst from his back, stretching out under the flapping hem of his open shirt. Air caught under his giant wings, and they swooped over the thankfully deserted pool patio. A flap secured her rescue and sent them skyward again, up toward the now-welcoming, healing, strength-giving sun. Niall appeared beside them and winked. “There be your wish for catchin’ me, my friend.” He disappeared before Griff could respond. Although whether he’d thank Niall or kill him, he didn’t know. Another flap brought them level with the top of the apartment building, and he gently set Kala down on the flat roof. He landed beside her and withdrew his wings and all but one claw. His face grew warm at the thought of what she’d seen, blackened boils—which had now fully healed and disappeared, thank the Maker—covering a human-looking creature who had sprouted wings and claws. Not to mention that she’d been in mortal danger because of him. He wouldn’t blame her one bit for never wanting anything more to do with him. Instead, as soon as his remaining claw sliced off Niall’s ropes, she sucked in a breath and threw her arms around him. “Thank you.” “You’re...” He paused. Maybe he shouldn’t give her any ideas. But he had to know. “You’re not angry with me for nearly getting you killed?” A moment passed without an answer. Tension built in his gut, but he refused to acknowledge the worry. At least he was getting another chance to hold her while her breathing settled. After a final sigh, she moved back a half-step and met his gaze. “None of that was your fault.” She smiled, outshining the golden sunlight around them. “I came back to your apartment and chose to be involved, remember? Besides, you’re not to blame for Niall’s actions, and you chose to save me, even though it was supposed to kill you. How could I possibly be mad at you?” When she put it that way... The bands around his chest loosened a fraction. She played with a lock of his hair, letting the sun’s rays bounce off the strands. “So does this mean you’re not cursed anymore?” He brushed his fingers over her cheek. The curse seemed the least of the ways she’d already changed him. “The Great Owl was right. Niall did help me find what I needed. He taught me how to recognize a new treasure to guard and protect.” Her smile broadened into a grin. “Good.” Her gaze dropped to his lips. “Now where were we before he so rudely interrupted us?” “I think I was about to do this.” He pulled her tight against his chest and lifted her into his arms, guiding her legs around his hips. Their lips met, and she pulled him harder against her. Warmth flooded his chest, filling the void in his soul. Yes, this was where he belonged. She stroked his mouth with her tongue, staking her claim with a ferocity that contrasted with her softness. Her hands explored every inch of him she could reach, and her moans reinvigorated a certain part of his anatomy. A rumble shook his chest, and he slipped his hands under the back of her shirt. For the first time, he felt alive. Truly alive. No matter how long they had, every moment with her was a gift. She was undoubtedly more valuable than anything else he could imagine. A treasure. Thank you for reading Unintended Guardian! Keep flipping pages for a sneak peek at the next book in the Mythos Legacy series. If you enjoyed this taste of the Mythos world, sign up for Jami’s email list. Learn when her new books become available and take advantage of her pre-order-only sale prices! At her website, find information for all of Jami’s books, including extra content for this book, and connect with her on social media. Reviews help other readers discover new books! If you have a moment, please leave a review on Goodreads and/or your favorite retailer. Treasured Claim, the first novel-length story in the Mythos Legacy series, features a dragon-shifter heroine and releases Spring 2015. Available for pre-order! Desperate for treasure, a dragon resorts to thievery, but a knight steals her heart. A shapeshifting dragon on the verge of starvation... For Elaina Drake, sparkling jewels aren’t a frivolous matter. Without more treasure for her hoard, she’ll starve. On the run from her murderous father, she’s desperate enough to steal—er, acquire. A modern-day knight seeking redemption... Disgusted by his father’s immorality, Alexander Wyatt, Chicago’s biggest corporate titan, is determined to be a man of honor. Yet the theft of a necklace, stolen by an exotic beauty at his latest fundraiser, threatens to destroy all his charitable work. A predator made prey... Passion ignites between thief and philanthropist, sparking a game of temptation where jewelry is the prize. But when Elaina’s exposure jeopardizes Alex’s life, she must choose: run again to evade her father—or risk both their lives for love. Flip the page to read an excerpt... Chapter One Jewelry trickled through Elaina Drake’s fingers, scattering reflections across the peeling linoleum of her bathroom floor. Each piece hinted at how she’d acquired it for her collection—a broken clasp on a silver chain, earrings missing their backs, a loose sapphire she’d rescued from a sink drain. But the precious ornaments lacked the satisfying clink of gold coins when they landed in the safe-box at her knees. Humans didn’t make treasure like they used to. Such a shame. She curled her fist around the last trophy: a brilliant ruby, almost the size of her palm. A weak dribble of energy from her talisman inched up her arm. She squeezed the gem harder. It didn’t help. A sluggish rhythm still beat in her chest, and gnawing starvation still chilled her limbs. The pathetic recharge from her collection would barely keep her heart alive through the evening, much less until she happened to find another abandoned prize to claim. Damn it. Her hand slumped to her lap, and she sat back on her heels. She didn’t blame her ruby talisman. Neither it nor its sparkling companions had anything left to give. Restraining her impulses was no longer an option. If she didn’t take advantage of her natural talent to score an addition for her hoard at tonight’s party, she deserved to die. “Okay, I’ll bring home a new friend for you.” She kissed the gemstone. “I promise.” Thievery wasn’t as bad as committing murder, right? Besides, she’d already weakened herself by selling off a bracelet to buy an outfit for the ruse. For once, embracing her danger junkie instinct despite the risk of exposure was logical. One brilliant success coming up. Or a deadly failure. One of the two for sure. She placed her ruby in the lockbox and stroked the facets in a final caress. Habit propelled her fingers through the steps required to protect the metal case: Activate triple security locks on the safe, insert the false bottom of the filing cabinet in her bathroom’s closet, and engage the cabinet’s deadbolt, which fell into place with a thud. Full-strength dragons would laugh at the feeble defensive measures, but it wasn’t as if she could afford anything better. Where was a hidden mountain cave when she needed one? Elaina restacked her clothes in front of the cabinet, obscuring her hoard, and jiggled out the dress purchased for Phase Two of tonight’s party. Red, sleeveless, and way too expensive. Strappy heels joined the gown in an insulated bag marked Stefano’s Fine Catering—Chicago, IL. She mentally reviewed her checklist. The kitchen assistant’s uniform she’d swiped from work last week? She tugged the cuffs of the almost-too-small jacket. Check. Mandatory white gloves? Check. But she wouldn’t put on the miserable things until the last possible minute. Hair pulled back in a health-code-friendly bun? Check. Hair color that matched her fake ID? Uh... The cracked mirror over the sink revealed multicolored shades of blonde, auburn, and warm browns swirling through her hair. At the sight, a surge of cold invaded her limbs. Slip-ups like that would bring about her death, regardless of the strength of her heart. She concentrated for a second, and the natural colors of her bun magically darkened under a solid wave of rich black. The worried expression spreading lines over her forehead was another matter. In her imagination, the furrows spelled out “I’m a reckless idiot.” As if this risky venture were her first choice. Or her twentieth. After triple-checking her disguise, she left her apartment, descended the building’s unlit stairwell, and walked the two blocks to the side street where her beater car was slightly less likely to be stolen. Creaks from its door hinges annoyed a dog behind a nearby gate. She ignored the deep barks and started her car. Or rather, tried to start her car. “Oh no, you don’t.” She cranked the key again. Nothing. She slapped her palm against the dashboard, broadcasting her threat into the underlying mechanics. “If you don’t start in the next thirty seconds, I swear I’m going to make an appointment for you at the junkyard.” Regardless of whether the rusted-out heap believed her, the engine sputtered to life, and she made it from inner Chicago to Stefano’s headquarters on the outskirts without a single stall. She parked in a back corner of the lot, away from the lights and security cameras. She relaxed, her spine sagging into the seat. Step one of Phase One complete. Then she straightened and groaned. Arriving meant she’d have to cover her skin with the gloves Stefano required all his employees to wear. Her plan could have been so much simpler—not even requiring a Phase Two—without those fabric obstacles between her and survival. Stupid rules. But she didn’t have a choice. Stefano catered all the ritziest parties in the metro area because of his reputation for rule-following perfection. Tonight was no exception. Right on schedule, the employees finished loading the carts, ovens, and trays into the delivery vehicles by the building. Time to go. One last check in the rearview mirror verified her disguise, but that damned worried expression was still there too. She poked at her forehead. Yeah, as if stretching the skin flat would erase her concerns. “I can do this. I was born to do this.” Technically, she was born to kill to get what she needed. At the thought, a memory flashed—her mother’s lifeless face sparkling with blood—and she shoved it away. No, she’d die a cold death in the form of an extinguished heart before becoming like her father. No one deserved to be murdered. Not even humans. Despite the warm evening, a shiver skittered down her limbs, and her blood’s temperature dropped another degree. Not much longer now. Her mouth went dry, and she rubbed her arms, even though a summertime Death Valley heat wave wouldn’t be enough to fix her low body temperature. Would it hurt to die? Would her heart stop beating before she froze to death? Or would her muscles freeze in place first, leaving her trapped in eternal hibernation? She hissed at herself and threw open her car door. Neither of those was going to happen. She wouldn’t let the situation come to that. Her plan would work. With a tight grip on the insulated bag containing her gown, she crossed the parking lot and joined the workers climbing into the vans. No one gave her a second glance or questioned why the woman they knew as Linda, a front-office employee, was dressed for kitchen prep work tonight. Bravado was an art form—one she’d mastered. She squished into a seat and set the insulated container beside her. Another employee eyed the bag. “Does that need to go in back with the rest?” “No, this is extra serving ware, just in case. You know how Stefano is.” She pasted an innocent smile on her face until the man shrugged and turned away. Horns from the crushing weekend traffic accompanied them all the way to their North Shore destination. Through the van’s windshield, the Wyatt estate finally came into view. The building’s grandeur had been impressive enough in daylight when she’d gone there to take notes for Stefano during his meeting with Mr. Wyatt’s assistant. Now, landscape lights accented the dramatic columns and arched windows against the evening’s twilight. The place did a fair impression of the impregnable fortresses in the stories of old she’d heard years ago from Nastav, her tutor. As they neared, tingles spread over her skin, and her muscles tightened, even though she was in no shape for fight or flight. Last week’s prep meeting at the mansion hadn’t prompted that reaction from her senses. Something must have changed. Or had she run out of time already? She pressed her fists into the bench seat and rolled her shoulders back. No, her heart was still beating. She’d make it. Opportunities for a big score were the whole reason she’d applied for this job with Stefano. No more hoping for lost trinkets. No more freezing. No more starving. And no killing required. Maybe that weird feeling was anxiety. Given the stakes, she forgave herself. Especially as the mansion was an intimidating spectacle. Next to her, a server around her age leaned forward and whistled. “I’d sure like to be the one to take Alexander Wyatt off the list of Chicago’s Most Eligible Bachelors.” The driver snapped around. “That’s Mr. Wyatt to you. Stefano will have our heads if anyone is less than professional.” Masked by the darkness, the woman gave him the finger. Elaina stifled a snicker. The van rolled up to the back entrance, joining Stefano’s trucks already there for the afternoon’s prep work. The vehicle’s headlights spotlighted security guards at the door. Elaina clutched her bag and joined a group bustling into the mansion. Overhead cameras monitored everything in sight, and she kept her face down. A guard shined his flashlight on her nametag. “Linda Jones.” Elaina suppressed the impulse to fidget with her jacket sleeves again. She’d sent the list of approved employees to Mr. Wyatt’s staff, so she should be safe—unless Stefano had updated the file for some reason. The guard checked off the name on the list and waved. “Go ahead.” She’d breached the castle’s defenses. The thought tugged her lips into a curve. Maybe she shouldn’t have been restraining her risk-taking instinct after all. The rush of danger lured her forward. The elegant kitchen wasn’t yet buzzing with activity, and she stashed her bag in one of the oversized ovens. Stefano used a portable kitchen for dishes that couldn’t be prepared ahead of time—he’d never risk dirtying clients’ appliances—so no one would look in the house ovens. Her flagging energy weighed down her limbs, but the rest of the team would notice if a “kitchen assistant” didn’t help with dinner preparations. The proper timing for the next phase couldn’t come fast enough. Faking patience and dealing with human food. Neither were her strong suits. Hours passed with steady chores, and as she worked, she went over her mental dossier of the guest list. Although the riches around the Wyatt mansion would keep her heart beating for months, the building’s security created an intangible barrier. She wasn’t strong enough to force a bond with any of his possessions, so she couldn’t remove them from his territory. But his guests... Yes, the annual fundraising dinner put on by the famed Alexander Wyatt of Dakon Enterprises attracted everyone of importance in Illinois. And away from their homes—their territory—the adornments they wore should be vulnerable to her. Servers hustled into the kitchen with dirty dessert plates. Finally, her cue for Phase Two. She grabbed her bag and slipped into a storage room off an empty hallway. Those skin-covering, thwarters-of-easy-jewelry-acquisition gloves came off first, followed quickly by the rest of the uniform. Within a minute, she’d stepped into her candy-red dress and heels. A second after that, her hair tumbled down her back, released from its bun. By the time she exited the room, she’d changed her hair’s waves to blonde. Laughter around a corner drew her to a cluster of women with freshly touched-up lipstick migrating to the ballroom. Prickles once again crept over her skin. Okay, got it. Imminent death or something. She was working on that problem. Time for her dinner. And if she was lucky, maybe she could nab some dessert too. The bimbo brigade around Alexander Wyatt pouted at his attempt to retreat. Tonight was too important to risk upsetting any donors, even these women willing to throw themselves at him for the temptation of money. So much for their self-respect. He forced a smile to soften their disappointment, but his expression was as superficial as their charms. “I’m very sorry, ladies, but my assistant needs me to assess the fundraising efforts.” He disentangled himself from the group and strode toward George at the temporary stage. Damned gold-diggers. Years of experience had taught him what that type was really like. His entire life, every woman on his arm had been lured to his father’s side after the man flaunted his bigger wallet. He blamed his father for the betrayal more than the women he’d had the bad luck of choosing. Women of that type were simply locusts, greedy parasites marking their territory. As if he was a prize to be won. Some prize. They’d probably never realize the truth though. His charitable efforts could never make up for his failings. No one had ever recognized his dearly departed father as a fraud either, no matter how much Alex had wished for that exposé. Of all the skills to inherit from the old man. As he neared the dais, a flash of red drew his eye to a woman entering the ballroom. Adrenaline surged through his body, throwing him off balance. Every nerve ending sprang to attention, focusing on her, and he stumbled into the side of the platform. What the—? He caught himself on the edge of the raised floor and outright stared. Sure, her red dress hugged every enticing curve, but he’d never reacted like this to any woman, much less recently. The longer he gawked at her, the more she struck him as unlike any woman he’d ever seen. Her hair color defied description, shining pure blonde one minute and displaying streaks of reds and browns the next. Instead of jewelry for decoration, her skin shimmered with subtle rainbow colors, as though she’d bathed in body glitter that had sunk into her flesh. On anyone else, the effect would have looked ridiculous. On her, it was radiant. Even the way she walked kick-started long-dormant lustful desires. She glided across the floor, each step a sinuous movement. An image of her body slinking across his burned itself onto the top of his all-time fantasy list. His control washed away, his immunity to beauty lost in her wake. A need consumed him. A need to hunt her. Dominate her. Conquer her. Echoes of his father brought him up for a second, and he tugged at his collar. What the hell was he thinking? He’d spent years proving he wasn’t like that bastard, and he wasn’t about to let that change. She scoped out the ballroom, but her arrival went unnoticed by the crowd, failing to trigger leers or jealous glances. They must have all been blind. Completely blind. Her gaze skimmed over the other guests and then met his. They both froze. Her bright blue eyes glowed like the center of a flame. Her eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, and then her attention veered elsewhere. He shook himself, banishing a numb shock from his body. No one could look like her. She was an impossibility. But here she was, and—God help him—he needed to confront her no matter how much his reaction set off alarms in his mind. Beside him, George finished prepping the ballroom security team, and Alex leaned toward his assistant. “Who’s the woman in the red dress? I don’t remember meeting her before dinner.” George set his to-do list on the platform, a peculiar quirk of needing empty hands to concentrate. He arched a brow at the hundreds of formally dressed guests. “Which woman in a red dress? There must be over thirty of them in here.” Alex tilted his head toward the cause of his fascination. “The blonde?” George shrugged, dismissing the unique shades of her hair as easily as her beauty. “Doesn’t look familiar. Probably someone’s guest.” Alex paused, weighing George’s theory. Maybe she was rendezvousing with a husband or boyfriend. But she didn’t meet anyone else’s gaze, and she didn’t smile at anyone in recognition. Instead, she appeared serious, as though analyzing the crowd. The compulsion firing his blood made the decision for him. For the first time in years, Alex would approach a woman for something other than business. He couldn’t decide if that was good, bad, or an impulsive risk he’d later regret.

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