That thick accent makes Lyon’s question sound so exotic: “What is for dinner, do you think?”
I shrug and say just loud enough for Mom to hear, “Gator gizzard casserole, tossed songbird salad, eye of newt pudding. The usual.” Not very nice of me, but since I know his dad’s an ogre, Junior can’t be too shocked.
“Don’t insult my cooking, you wretched offspring,” I hear Mom yell, but I can tell she’s teasing me back.
He only smiles at me. I grab the Uno game and open the box to start shuffling the cards. My head is still spinning, so before I can regret or rethink I ask, “You ever meet a dragon?”
“Non, but mon amie has, why?”
I think that means friend, so I plow ahead with, “What did he say about them?”
“Dangerous,” he says. “They take whatever is most precious to you. They keep it. Not good to befriend dragons. They especially hate ogres. Why do you ask?”
I shrug like I’m not horribly disappointed, but inside, all I can think is trolls and ogres are practically cousins. If dragons hate one, they’d naturally hate the other. “We have some in school. I kind of met one today.”
“You are still in high school?”
And suddenly I know what he’s getting at. Bloodstone! I’m old enough to start getting fixed up! My cousin warned me that trolls are typically victims of arranged marriages to keep the bloodline pure, and my head feels like the object of an ice cream cone brain freeze. I can’t believe my parents did this to me and didn’t even warn me! I focus diligently on dealing out the cards and force myself to say, “I just turned seventeen.”
“Ah, such a tender age. So filled with hope.”
“Hope?” He’s trying to be charming, I’m sure, but I need to shut him down before this goes any further. “Hope for what? Homecoming queen? Valedictorian? Head cheerleader?” I feel my face darken and I’m thinking by the feel of it that it’s actually my skin fluttering in anger. “I’m just hoping for a passing grade.”
I hate crying.
I hate that the drama between my dad and Pierce made me cry myself to sleep last night.
I hate that Dad thinks he knows everything, and that he’s always right, and that he felt justified in how abominable he treated Pierce last night.
I hate how I could only watch in mute horror as Pierce’s neck got dark and red, the way he sucked in his breath. The way I was afraid to make any kind of comforting move, like even touching his shoulder might shatter him.
I hate how badly I wanted to whomp my dad.
Pierce ended the night three seconds later, not even staying for dessert. The second the door closed behind him, I raged at my dad, put my hand up to Mom when she opened her mouth to say something, and pounded up the stairs, slamming my door as hard as I possibly could and taking a small measure of satisfaction when I heard something fall off the wall downstairs.
I cranked my radio as loud as I could tolerate to help drown the noise of my tears. Stomped all over my floor until I thought the whole house would collapse.
I never did tell them about me going to Varian’s house.
When my cell chirps bright and early this morning, I crank open my sandy, heavy lids and see: good morning beautiful.
I smile, but then frown. I don’t recognize the number. But then I remember Varian got a new phone at the mall. Did he get a new number, too? Since my phone is also new, having lost mine at the bonfire, I haven’t gotten around to updating my contacts, so I’m kind of floundering.
A few seconds later I get another message: hiram gave me ur number im a secret admirer
A secret admirer? I’m pretty sure Varian would never type “ur,” let alone not use a period, so I’m thinking this is a student from school.
I feel a little twittery inside. What if this guy is totally human? Would this be my chance to meet someone, well, normal? Get a date for the Christmas dance? I’d forgotten my conversation two days ago with Crabby Mr. Kravitz until just now, how he’d turned mostly human by marrying a woman he loved. I have to admit, I don’t have a whole lot of happy feelings about dragons or trolls after what’s happened this week. Would a human be a better alternative? Would a future with a human break my trollness?
The scent of chicken broth rouses me, and I see Pala has set the bowl on the nightstand beside me. I sit up so fast I get dizzy, but her gentle hands capture me before I fall.
“Easy. Take it slow.”
She helps me sit upright, and I spread my palms in my lap to receive the bowl. It’s delightfully warm, and my arm shakes as I try to raise the spoon to my mouth.
“Here, let me.”
But she plows over my words and holds the spoon to my lips. I slurp it, and it’s so good.
“It might be a little bland. Your lips are still healing, so I didn’t add salt.”
I don’t care. If I were able, I’d dunk my entire face in this bowl and let the canine portion of my troll gene lap down my first meal since the picnic.
The day the entire pack of Latroya died.
My stomach clenches, and I’m not sure if it’s from the sudden nutritional input or PTSD.
I look up to see Varian rounding the corner, his expression warm and relieved. His face is no longer mangled, and I notice his arm is healed. “You’re healed.”
“I morphed. Only way to do it.”
By his statement, I’m assuming he’s told our rescuers that we’re rock trolls. Interesting.
“Drink up,” Varian tells me. “If you can keep the broth down, I’ll make you some chocolate sludge.”
My eyes almost tear at the prospect. “Please?” It’s the only word I can utter, but Varian shakes his head. “Broth first.”
Jerkhead. But I force another mouthful, then another.
“Why don’t you Shift, sweetheart? Better yet, morph? I know it’ll help you heal faster.”
I suppress the shiver that races down my spine. I never want to see my furry limbs again. I don’t answer, focusing instead on regaining my strength. It only takes a few minutes until the bowl is empty. And that’s all the energy I’ve got for today.
As Raine opened the last set of security doors, he had no idea what to expect. As soon as he entered the lab and saw four Navy uniforms mucking around the back tank, he directed Evie to the shadows with a cut of his eyes. She read his intent and slid behind the nearest tank. Peripherally, he watched her crouch and figured she’d follow him to the big tank along the back wall.
Fresh blood trailed to the door from something that looked like a giant coffin in front of the big tank, and the smell of seawater arose from all the water along the floor. “What the hell is this?” he announced by way of greeting.
“Raine? Is that you?”
“Greene?” Raine watched his friend emerge from the catwalk over the big tank in back. “What are you doing here?” He scanned the upper reaches and saw no one else. Five guys. Five people who might have seen Evie sneaking into the lab.
“Another one-of-a-kind for you,” Green said as he jumped down the last three steps and grabbed Raine’s outstretched hand. They bumped shoulders and slapped backs in greeting. “Long time, man.”
“Long time,” he agreed. “So, what is it?”
“Dangerous.” He took out a military-issue penlight and tested the brightness on his palm. He then directed the stream of light on the creature within. “Damn. It’s facing the back.”
Raine watched the flashlight beam caress the length of the creature now resting along the bottom of the tank. It was long, maybe ten feet, blue/black/green scales, with one continuous but small dorsal fin, like an eel, or maybe a giant mahi mahi. The creature’s body ended with a luminate tail. “Wait. That tail....”
“I know, right? The whole thing blows my mind.”
But Raine grabbed the penlight and traced the long ray fin all the way down to the caudal fin again. “Eels have undifferentiated tails, but that’s clearly a crescent moon. Only the fastest fish have luminate tails.”
Mirth bubbled in Greene’s eyes. “Eel? Oh, man, you’re gonna lose your mind when you see it.”
Celeste sat up in a rush. “Don’t talk about Mom that way. You never really loved her. If you had, you would have supported her work.”
Wayne felt his nostrils flare. “Don’t presume to tell me how I felt about your mother.”
She closed her dead mother's drawing pad and clutched it to her undeveloped chest. Tears streamed from her eyes. “You were barely there when she got sick, and you were nowhere to be found when she died. Tell me: Do you even care that she’s gone?”
Tears burned the backs of Celeste's eyes at the thought of holding her late mom's treasured bit of jewelry, and she found her breath coming in harsh pants as a wave of emotion overtook her. For so many years, she’d quashed her feelings of loss, balled them up and buried them deep, but one look at that clunky ring undid her. She took one determined step toward that familiar silver Midgard serpent and watched it vanish before her eyes.
Gone. Just like before.
For a trio of seconds, she experienced her mother’s death all over again. The weakness. The gray skin. The sheer helplessness knowing that no medicine would ever work, and the only chance to save her meant that a heart donor with an AB negative blood type would die soon.
Disheartened over the disappearing ring, but acknowledging a divine sign when she saw one, Celeste’s eyes drifted skyward. Was her mom guiding her towards her future? Was she trying to tell her that whatever hid behind those gym doors was her destiny? A ladened breath puffed out of her as Celeste tugged open the heavy metal door, expecting her mother’s influence on the ring to have guided Celeste to a beautiful place with bright lights and shiny equipment and tanned, blond hunks glistening under artificial light.
She stopped short at the smell of male sweat intermingled with punches and grunts, a dense pocket of blatant testosterone swirling inside a gray concrete cave.
Not a woman to be seen in the place.
She sensed a man reaching towards her the second before she snapped around to face him, but he was only grabbing the door above her head to hold it open. A hint of his aftershave drifted to her, along with a touch of his personal scent. Light. Clean. Subtle. His eyes glittered with humor as he balanced a tray of four coffees in his other hand. “Ladies first.”
He was tall and heavily muscled, with milk-chocolate skin, a perfectly-shaved head and flat goatee. Kind brown eyes under thick black brows contrasted against his hard, looming bulk. His biceps flexed as he held the door, and she’d never seen such thick arms before. Or chest. The man was literally massive next to her.
He didn’t smile, but his expression softened as she hesitated about entering. “Come on, you’re letting all the stench out by blocking the door.”
Not only did he call her a lady, but his first words to her brimmed with humor, something seriously lacking in her life. She deflected her smile and stepped inside, hugging the wall as the man moved ahead of her with purpose. On his shoulder, peeking out from his shirt, the outlines of what looked like a floral tattoo could be seen.
A bouquet. Similar to the one on her own shoulder. Intrigued, she followed him.
By four AM, Hawk’s ass was numb and his ear tips were cold. Sitting on top of a building for two hours would do that to a body, he guessed.
He’d taped some blank sheets of white paper to his nightstick to wave around, but so far, the vigilante hadn’t taken his truce flag seriously.
Ten more minutes and he’d—
Heat zapped his ring finger, jolting painfully all the way up his arm. A scuff on the roof top caught his attention, and he turned.
There he was. The vigilante. And based on the ring’s reaction, dangerous.
He scanned the man from top to toes. A black mask covered both his head and the top half of his face, allowing only the glitter of his eyes to show. A padded black vest ended at narrow hips. Black jeans. Black gloves. Black sneakers.
This man had a love affair with the night.
Adrenaline coursed through him as he stood to face this scourge, his heartbeat thrumming in time to the zapping of the ring. Damn. Taking down this menace would ensure both his city’s safety and Hawk’s name first and foremost as Syracuse’s hero. He locked eyes on the vigilante, determined to face this loose cannon and see what information he could glean.
Right now, Hawk needed hard answers. Job-securing answers. City-saving, hero-making answers. He hefted his makeshift truce flag and kept his other palm up and in plain sight. “Didn’t think you’d come.”
The voice that carried to him wasn’t entirely…. human. Voice modulator? “About time one of you took me seriously.”
He smiled at the challenge. Stepped closer. “You’re shorter than I thought you’d be.”
“You’re smarter than I thought you’d be.”
He laughed. Took another step. The next electrical surge stopped him from taking a third. He yanked on the ring, but he swore it shrank, swelling his finger. He gave up that fight and focused on his quarry. “One of the women you supposedly rescued has been raving about you. She thought you might be able to shed some light on what’s been going on.”
“Yeah? Well, there’s one more rescued tonight. I’m sure it’ll be on the news tomorrow.”
“Yeah? Why don’t you tell me now?”
“Sure.” The vigilante crossed his arms low on his chest. “Single woman was followed. Grabbed by a single man. She yelled, he punched, I kicked his ass.” A hard smirk. “I hope your department will pay for her sutures as fast as the state will pay for his broken nose.”
Shit. This man really was onto something. Hawk needed to know more.
Emma's heart hammered away faster and faster. Geez, at this rate, she’d break into a sweat simply staring at him.
Man, if Bill were alive, he would be miffed.
Perhaps her best friend, Sarah, sensed Emma’s issue, or maybe she simply needed help upstairs moving all the furniture, but the inner door swooshed open and there she was. “Everything okay?”
Sarah looked back and forth between them. “You know him?”
Not as well as she wanted to, but Emma nodded.
A suspicious smile curled Sarah’s lips. “Just curious: are you the guy from the restaurant last week?”
Now Wren’s smile grew into the most brilliant thing she’d ever seen, and he knew, darn it, that she’d been talking about him. “We did share a booth, yes. Emma told you about that?”
“She did. Why are you here?”
Emma relaxed. Sarah had this under control.
“I’ve been trying to reach Emma all week.”
“Well, you found her, but we’ve got a lot of work to do, so, unless you’re here to help move furniture….?”
“I can do that.”
They both snapped their eyes to him. Emma came to her senses first. “What?”
“I can help you move things.”
Despite telling her eyes to behave, Emma’s gaze traveled up and down Wren’s frame. He was tall and lanky, not unlike Bill, and Bill had been pretty strong from working out. “You don’t have to do—”
“Hey. I said I’d help, and I’m here to help. What needs moving?”
“The entire bedroom.” Sarah looked at Emma while she said this.
No, Emma wasn’t remotely ready to have another man in her house, let alone her bedroom. “We’re fine. Really. We got this.”
But Wren looked at Sarah, not her, almost in challenge. “I can help. Really.”
Sarah’s tone and manner turned coy, and Emma’s mouth dropped open as she purred to Wren. “Are you strong?”
He laughed. “Yeah.”
He looked at Emma like he needed to prove himself. “I grew up on a farm. There’s not much I can’t lift or move. That includes animals and machinery. I think I can handle a few pieces of furniture.”
“He’s got my vote.” Sarah started to swing the storm door open for him, but Emma blocked the way.
“No! You don’t understand. When Bill died… when Bill died….”
He stood before her and tipped her chin up to meet his eyes. “Something inside you did, too.”
Hot tears slipped from her eyes. Her mouth scrunched as she tried to keep her emotions from tumbling out.
“I get it, Angel. I know what it’s like to lose someone you love. The world keeps turning, and even though your feet are on the ground, it feels like everything around you is spinning out of control.”
That was exactly it. She nodded, and then nodded some more.
A fake wedding at the Renaissance Faire might accidentally be real.....
Zenie's ruminations were disturbed by the trill of excitement as the man of the hour arrived-- Archie the Archer. He climbed onto the dais that looked newly built and scanned the crowd with a discerning eye.
“Ladies, and even the handful of gentlemen, thank you all for coming. You have apparently learned that today I choose my bride. While all of you are lovely, even you, random jester in the back, yes, you, I see you mooning over me, I came to this gathering with my decision already made. Now, if you’ll please excuse us, Lady Estelle of Ravensgate and I must prepare for our nuptials.”
Zenie stopped midstride as groans and whines carried to her. Her head turned to face the Archer. “Me?” Just like that? No fanfare, no trumpets, no ceremony?
He beamed and strode confidently toward her. “The one and only.” He stopped a matter of feet from her. His eyes roved gently over her hair and face, and a warm smile filled his features. “I’ve never seen you with your hair down. It’s even prettier than I imagined.”
Zenie watched him take her free hand in his callused one again. He raised her hand to his lips, kissed her knuckles, and then, with his back to the crowd and his eyes locked on hers, he dipped his tongue into the groove between her fingers. When she gasped, he winked.
In the softest tone possible, he asked, “Breathless, my lady?”
She didn’t know how to respond, especially with a bevy of panting females mere yards away and the eyes of hundreds of people upon her. “I... I do not know what to say.”
“Breathless and wordless. My targeted goal for your satiation.”
The scorching hot look the Archer gave her left zero doubt in her mind as to his meaning. The fact her face heated further incited him.
“Worry not, my lady. As a man of honor, I mean to see to your... every pleasure.”
Dovey raised her chin and tossed her loose curls behind her. She was a professional. This would a professional conversation between burgeoning professionals. She could do this. She glanced down at her ring, but it did nothing. Still, it didn’t stop a raging case of nerves as she dialed Chance’s number.
When the call finally connected, Chance sounded frustrated when he answered, “Hello?”
“Hi, Chance? This is Dovey Werner. Your unwitting partner?”
“Neighbor Rave, yeah. Sorry I enrolled you without asking. I was afraid someone else was going to snatch you out from under me if I didn’t act fast.”
She snapped taller and almost grinned. “Oh? Is that your excuse for not asking me first?”
She beamed when he laughed. “Yeah. Did it work?”
Now she joined his laughter with hers, feeling warmth spread through her. His comment after crushing on him for so long dispelled most of her irritation at his presumption. “You could have emailed me. My contact info is on all my sites.”
“Why do it that way when this one worked?”
She smirked and elected to tease him. “Did it, though?”
He chuckled low in his chest. “We’re talking, aren’t we?”
“I could hang up,” she playfully warned.
“I’m hopeful you won’t.”
She let him sweat it out a minute before grinning. “So, why me?” She waited, wondering what he’d say. It seemed to take him a moment to decide. Finally, he heaved a breath.
“Look, I don’t know if you remember me from high school, but I certainly remember you. I couldn’t believe how much skill you’d gained since shop class.”
“You saying I didn’t have talent back then?” Her cheeks burned from smiling, and she thought she blushed a bit, too.
“Wingnut, you were awful. Terrible! I mean, come on. I’d always liked to think I’d helped you at least get a passing grade, and here you are, taking over the DIY world.”
Her voice rose an octave. “Wingnut? Me? Terrible?”
“Back then, yeah. Now, well, honestly, you’re kind of amazing.”
That fireman stood in the center of her home, in what looked like the eye of a hurricane. Everything around him was overturned, scattered, and downright messy. Before she could stop herself she blurted out, “What the hell have you done?”
He moved slowly to face her. “You really think I did this? You really think I had the time to upend your apartment when it took me eight minutes to get you and your damned pointy shoes out of here?”
“Leave my shoes out of this.”
“Okay, you and your smackable ass out of here.”
Oh, the man was infuriating with a capital I. “Why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be evacuating people? For the fire that doesn’t exist?”
He considered her, his expression bored. “It doesn’t? Oh, good.”
She looped her arms and cocked out a hip. “As if you didn’t know.”
“I’m just a lowly firefighter, ma’am. I came in because your door was open and this is what I found. You got enemies?”
Hell, she barely had friends. “None that I’m aware of.”
“No death threats? Strange letters in the mail? Horse heads in your bed?”
He made her lips curl a bit on the last one. “No mob relations, sorry; and no to the others, as well.” Her step-dad was the one with the death threats, but once she changed her name and effectively disappeared from existence, nada. No one, including her parents, knew who or where she was.
It was better this way. Safer for everyone.
She took a cautionary step closer. “You broke in again last night, didn’t you?”
His head turned at that. “Um, what?”
With her hand she indicated his outfit. “I know it’s you under there. You didn’t fool me.”
“You’re so full of it.”
She smiled then. “Okay, maybe for a few minutes. But firemen are inherently good, and you’re anything but.”
He tore off his black helmet and visor; his long legs closed the distance between them in two strides, making her breath catch with his confidence. “Is that what you think?”
“How did you get in?”
“Can’t tell you.”
“It’s a secret.”
She’d find it, come hell or high water. “Why are you here?”
“To test the system.”
“I didn’t hire you.”
“Someone else did.”
“Can’t tell you.” He winked at her. “It’s a secret.”
Why the hell did he have to wink at her? She tucked her blouse tighter at the neck. “You’re after the algorithms, aren’t you? Well, you’ll never find them here.”
He peered at her. “So they are here.”
Maggie narrowed her gaze. “I said you’ll never find them here. That means, genius, they could be anywhere.”
Now he smiled. Why did he do that? Didn’t he know it made him look rugged, reckless, and downright irresistible? She pinched the underside of her elbow, then pinched it again.
“Look, you’ve made me, but I’ll be straight with you; you can’t stay here. Whoever did this will be back.”
“And you know this how?”
He didn’t meet her eyes, and his expression darkened, like he didn’t want to say anything. “They left a calling card.”
“Let’s go this way.” Gunner rested his hand on the small of her back as he turned her north. The intimate contact both electrified and terrified her. She shouldn’t let him touch her like that. She was practically engaged, or could be. But Phil never touched her in public. Well, really, how often had they gone out anywhere? Six? Seven times? Still, she should pull away.
That hot hand burned through her clothes, and Gunner seemed to have no intention of moving it. He smiled down at her and said, “Whatever you want will be on Duval Street, so let’s start there.”
Duval. She’d researched as much as she could and interrogated everyone else for the rest. Duval was the main drag, an East/West street of shops stretching from the Atlantic to the Gulf and encompassing everything the Island had to offer. “Perfect, I’m in,” she replied, and they left the beach and headed toward the sidewalk. She stopped when she noticed a line. “Oh, it’s the Southernmost Point! We have to get a picture.”
Quite possibly, Gunner simply condescended to her touristic mood, but he joined her amiably in line. She took a few selfies of them with her phone, then asked the next person in line if they’d be so kind as to snap a few of her and her fully-dressed, non-Romanian-cabana-boy sidekick.
As soon as Gunner joined her side, Carla struck a pose, leaning back against the giant gumdrop-shaped buoy, wrist over her head, knees bent, and before the camera shuttered she impulsively snatched Gunner’s shirt at his chest and hauled him close.
He didn’t react in outrage or shock. He didn’t even seem to mind that she publicly embarrassed him. What he did do was pin her between him and the landmark, cheek to cheek, and smile for the camera.
She couldn’t believe she did that to him, a virtual stranger.
However, he looked fantastic rumpled.
“I’ll get you for that,” he muttered on a grin, but Carla only grinned in return and collected her phone, thanking the family for taking their picture as she smoothed down her shirt.
Damn. He really felt great slammed up against her like that, his hard chest pressing her breasts flat, his hips cradled between her knees, his minty breath mingling with her own.
A good man might be hard to find, but a hard man was great to find.
Based on that brief contact, Gunner was hard. She couldn’t help sliding him a hot glance, inspecting him under lowered lids as he shielded his face and scanned down the nearest side street. Her nipples strained against the thin fabric of her bra as she watched him, her heartbeat kicking up a few notches. Damn. She could still feel him on her skin.
She didn’t want to see him. Scratch that; she did. She wanted to stab him in the eye with a candy cane, string him up on the mantle by a necklace of garland, stick him in the snow and hose him down until he became an ice sculpture. Or scream and rant and rave, and maybe even get in a few good punches.
She might even do the same for Nana, for forcing her to bunk with him!
Why did he have to come back to America? Why, why, why? As if losing her job wasn’t bad enough, eventually now she’d have to talk to him. Eventually she was going to come face to face with the only man she’d ever loved, the only one who knew her inside and out.
The only one capable of breaking her into a thousand pieces all over again, and right now so little held her together.
Now that she knew he was here, Cora couldn’t stop searching for him. Not in the living room. Not in the library. She found the other Scotsman seated in the far corner, surrounded by ten kids all asking him about his clothes, his accent, and did he live in a hut like the movies? Steering Sherry past the gathering, they peeked into the sunroom.
There he was. Leaning on the glass, looking out over the snow-scape where the horse barn floodlights fanned their warm beams onto the unspoiled mounds, turning everything into soft shades of gold and gray-blue. He spoke with one of her male cousins, talking cars, but she could tell his attention was elsewhere. He wore his full Scottish regalia, complete with sporran, that round male purse hanging low from his hips. She hadn’t seen him dressed like this in years and took a moment to absorb the sight. His white button-up came crisply to his neck, held tight by a black bowtie and matching vest and jacket. His family tartan of blue and green striped plaid came almost to his knees, with little matching flags called flashes tucked under the hem of his tall white socks. His sgian dubh, the small decorative knife, peeked out over the flashes on his right calf.
He’d trimmed down since she last saw him. Started growing a shadow beard. He looked more focused, more determined, and Cora wondered how she’d come to that conclusion when he barely paid attention to his own conversation. His raven-black hair had grown longer, but even from this angle she could see his eyes glowed with their usual jade-green intensity.
She took in the measure of his shoulders, the small span of his waist, the muscles flexing under his white hose as he tapped his foot to a beat he probably heard in his head. He always did that. As a teenager, she used to think him impatient, but now she knew everything with Matty was music. Her eyes flew to his fingers and noticed they didn’t tap, but fingered notes as they rapped away on the wooden window muntins.
Was it possible for a man to get more gorgeous as he aged? Was that even fair? Or allowed?
A flushed, panting Faith burst into Jess’ office, almost banging the door into the front of her vintage stereo in her haste. “You’ve got to come out here.”
Was she blushing? Jess eased herself up from the chair and eyed her protégé. “What is it?”
“Some gorgeous guy is having a conniption out here. He’s really giving Arthur a hard time.”
She glossed over the ‘gorgeous’ part- based on the boy-crazy source- but no one antagonized her staff. “I’m coming.”
“You-” Faith indicated the corner mirror taken from an 1800s highboy, “...may want some lipstick or something.”
“Faith,” she grumbled as she brushed by, swishing her out so she could close the door. When she heard the raised booming voice, Jess squared her shoulders, tossed her long hair from her temples, and plowed right in to the fray. Through the red haze in her eyes, she stuck her hand out at the insanely handsome man and said, “Hello, I’m Jessalyn Swan, proprietor of Phoenix Antiques, and I’ll be your sounding board today. Shall we adjourn to my office for this discussion?”
All the anger left his chocolaty brown eyes as he stared at her. His hair was dark brown and tousled, and his gaze held a determination and intelligence that she felt herself respond to on a primal level. He had wide shoulders and slim hips, and that very expensive suit he wore displayed to his advantage all of his masculine grace. But he looked disheveled and rattled with that five o’clock shadow, and she didn’t know what had set him off. He was not an unhappy prior customer; there was no way she would have forgotten this man.
Damn, maybe she should have looked in the mirror first. She wanted to take her time and leisurely peruse the fine male specimen standing before her, making her cheeks heat with the unpredictable turn of her thoughts. But then his face relaxed, taking his color from an enraged red to a ghostly shade of gray and then back to a hint of pink, and Jessalyn felt herself coming to the same odd revelation as this man.
“Jess,” Arthur said, “This man is disputing his rights to the Covington estate.”
“Jessalyn....” the man said as he stepped near, placing his hand on top of her still-outstretched wrist and holding it. “Jess, is it really you?”
She’d never once met a Beauregard her age before. But she had once met a young man, as equally gorgeous, with the same cadence of speech as an English knight of yore. Her mind immediately envisioned stone castles and gleaming armor and caparisoned stallions on battlefields. It couldn’t be. “I....”
“You know me by my middle name.”
As his hand slipped around to cradle her fingers, Jessalyn felt herself teetering on a dangerous brink over a yawning chasm with no visible bottom. She whispered, “Darius.”
Travis yanks open the door, relieved to finally find me. “There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere.”
I’m not myself, but I’m glad he can tell that, too. He joins my side, facing me and not the bartender. “Are you all right?”
I manage the world’s smallest headshake while I stare at my wine. The shaking resumes, and I spread my palms on the counter.
His gentle hand lands on my shoulder. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” he whispers, then leans closer, “I was trying to pull away, you know. I’m not totally to blame, here.”
His touch soothes me. My lips move in what I hope passes as a smile while I spin the stem of my glass. “I’m not blaming you.” I do manage to glance up at him for that, but then take another sip and pin the base to the counter with both hands.
I love hearing him call me by name. I suck my lip again, feeling how swollen it is from my ardor. God, I’ve never thrown myself into a man’s arms like that. I’m not even sure what my limbs were doing then; who’s to say I hadn’t wrapped my legs around his hips and gone to town?
The heat on my cheeks this time is from the wine; I’m glad I’m sipping more to help hide my shame.
I shake my head once, still looking into my drink. “People are trying to kill you, aren’t they?”
I feel his fingers twitch on my shoulder, an involuntary gesture he didn’t mean to let happen. “What are you talking about?”
En vino audacia, for my dose of courage makes me face him. “Are they or aren’t they? It’s a yes or no question.”
He holds my eyes, looking from one to the other, the way people do when they search for lies. “You got all that from a kiss?”
I slow-blink a yes, and a parade of red flags starts waving before my third eye. What the hell is it with this man? I find myself angling away from him, and the words tumble out of my mouth before I can stop them: “Are you dangerous?”
“Only to the bad guys, RoseAngel. I truly hope you’re not one of them.”
Anya shook her head, still rubbing her neck as she tipped her head back. “Just researching the flu for your niece. Warm weather might be a gift in your favor.”
“Thank you, for spending so much of your time for Annabel Lee.”
Warm hands nudged hers off her neck, and Anya relaxed under the probing massage Cody offered her. “Oh my God, that feels so good.”
“Your shoulders are rock hard. How do you even move?”
“Some days I ask myself that very question.”
He patted her back and said, “Here, lean forward. I’ll get your back.”
This was feeling intimate, and Anya felt the forewarning burn of tears. “Cody, you don’t have—”
“Nonsense. You’ve been on your feet all day, and here you are, hunched over the table, to help me. I know what that does to a body. Now,” he leaned forward, arm braced on the table, his voice low, “either you lean over this table, or I’m tossing you over my shoulders and putting you on that there couch, where I can rub you down proper.” His eyes could not possibly sparkle any more than they did just now.
So Anya pushed him off, stood up, and walked to the couch. “Let’s see if those hands are as good as you claim.” She lay down on her stomach, grabbed the remote to watch the news, and watched as Cody eased onto the cushion at her hip.
Oh, yeah, he was as good as his claim. His strong fingers kneaded and massaged her shoulders, her back, along her waist. She vacillated what she would do when his fingers inevitably strayed and had no ready answer. The issue-laden spurned woman within wanted to haul off and deck him, but the lovelorn woman looking to trust thought she might just offer a feeble rebuttal.
Alas, such opportunities never arose.
By the time Cody was done, Anya’s body felt as liquefied as their grilled cheese sandwiches. Some of the liquid seeped a little south.
She felt so relaxed, in fact, that she had no commentary for the horrible events being portrayed on screen— a first for her. This was usually when her disgust reached an apex.
Right now, her body vibrated a crescendo. One good kiss could make her orgasm.
She looked over her shoulder and willed Cody to meet her gaze.
The phone rang as Raylie stepped out of the shower, so she answered it in her room. “Hello?”
A pause. “Officer McPherson?”
“Who’s calling, please?”
“It’s Ashton Lyre, from Star—”
“How did you get this number?” Was he a stalker? Dangerous?
He seemed tentative, confused. “I…you gave it…the write-up. Report. Whatever you want to call it. It says ‘Me’ at this number, right at the top.”
Shit! That was intended for Leann, for bowling. Her free hand slowly cradled her forehead. The towel fell.
“I…I thought…maybe…you know…you had heard of the last fiasco. Wanted to find out more. Especially since the case was dropped only two weeks ago.”
Her body responded to the uncertainty in his voice, the vulnerability that made her originally choose this profession. His rich timbre vibrated through the phone, making her nipples pebble and a shiver tickle along her spine.
She was probably just cold. “What? It was?”
“Well…yeah. No evidence. I told them I never hired the kid. I thought maybe you had some suspects in mind.”
Raylie snatched up her towel and gripped it to her wayward breasts. “Mr. Lyre, in my profession, the suspects are always the ones who own the pets.”
“Damn it, McPherson,” she heard a thud through the phone line. A palm along a table? “Doc Schneible was here not two hours after you left. I’ve known this man for fifteen years. He was my character witness at the trial, for God’s sake. He thinks my boys were poisoned. Now, I want to know, do you have any suspects?”
Not many men stood up to a woman with a gun. And he referred to his horses as his “boys.” She liked that. Like they were kin and not commodity. Something she understood better than most.
Still…in a composed voice she said, “I think you need to call the Louisville Police Department for that, Mr. Lyre. If you’re talking suspects, it’s really hard for us to put lie detectors on horses. Hell, even our stool pigeons don’t sing.”
He grew quiet. She started shivering again. “I thought,” he started slowly, “that being an animal cop meant you wanted to help those in jeopardy. Give voices to those who can’t speak. See that justice was served.” He took a deep breath. “Guess I was wrong about you.” He hung up the phone.
“No, you weren’t,” she whispered before replacing the receiver. Moisture had gathered in a long neglected place, moisture far removed from her shower. For the first time, a man had unwittingly validated her job, her beliefs, her purpose, and dang it, it felt good. Her breasts tightened as her nipples strained out of her skin. His face danced in the mirror of her mind, and she imagined those callused hands sliding around her waist, drawing her close.
Humpty Dumpty may be dead, but suddenly Raylie no longer felt like she was. “He’s my suspect,” she growled at herself.
This was going to be a great case.
She was completely turned on.