First Chapter: Love and Brimstone (Brimstone Vampires 1)

td-bv-loveandbrim3This is the prologue and first chapter of my book Love and Brimstone. It was my very first book published (originally at another publisher) and was revised and expanded when Siren re-released it under my Tymber Dalton pen name. I was able to restore the prologue and chapters that had been cut from the first release.

Love and Brimstone
Brimstone Vampires 1

mf, paranormal, vampires

Writing As: Tymber Dalton
Publisher: Siren-BookStrand

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Blurb:

[Siren Classic: Erotic Paranormal Romance, vampires, HEA]

The soul always comes home…

Ice queen Anastazia “Taz” Proctor is an aloof attorney, a “fixer.” Hunky Matthias Hawthorne wants her for more than just an employee…much more. Will she believe him when he reveals their shared secret—that they’re vampires, but that it’s not the way Hollywood portrays them? Maybe not, but with someone out to kill her, she might not have a choice. She also can’t ignore what her body tells her about her handsome boss.

An escape with Matthias to the safe refuge of Yellowstone National Park leads Taz to discoveries about her lineage and what she can do with her newly awakened powers. Even more disturbing is her unexplainable attraction to Matthias’s handsome cousin, Rafael.

Time grows short as a traitor in their midst makes another attempt on Taz’s life. Will she and Matthias survive when they’re caught in a vicious showdown between Love and Brimstone?

Note: This book has been extensively revised. It was previously published with another publisher.

A Siren Erotic Romance

Prologue

Tim Robertson followed Eric Proctor through the kitchen, where Eric’s wife, Bianca, tried unsuccessfully to shovel pureed sweet potatoes into their baby’s mouth.

“Darling, this is Tim Robertson, the chap I told you about. The one I’m interviewing to be our business manager.”

“Hello,” Tim said. The attorney held out his hand as the woman flashed him an exasperated, exhausted smile.

Bianca started to shake his hand and realized too late hers was covered with baby food. “Uh, sorry. Nice to meet you, Mr. Robertson.”

Robertson smiled and reached for a dish towel. “That’s quite all right. Please, call me Tim. And who is this precious one?”

Eric laughed. “My pride and joy, Anastazia.”

“She’s adorable.” He fixed the little girl with his blue eyes. Transfixed by his gaze, she immediately stopped finger-painting with her food and cooed at him.

 

“Where are you from again?” Eric asked Tim.

“I was born and raised in Cheshire. Spent some time in London, but I’ve lived most of my adult life here in the States.”

“I won’t hold it against you, mate.” Eric laughed. “Bianca dragged me out of Dublin. Have to say, the weather is nicer here in LA—”

“Oh, crap!” Bianca swore. “The studio car is coming in an hour, and I still need to get ready. Crap!”

Anastazia burbled, still smiling at Tim. “Why don’t you let me feed her?” Tim offered, already taking off his suit coat and rolling up his sleeves.

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly ask you to—” Tim fixed her with his blue gaze. She paused and looked from him to the baby, who was now body painting with her entree. “Really?”

He nodded, taking the spoon from her. “I love children.” He turned to the baby, who was once again entranced by her new friend. He scooped up a small spoonful. She obediently opened her mouth for him, keeping every bit of it in.

“You’re hired!” both parents said.

Tim winked at the baby, who flashed him a gummy grin. “I can stay late tonight, if you’d like. I don’t have any plans.”

Bianca’s face lit up in a dazzling smile. “Fantastic!” She quickly washed her hands. “Eric, I don’t know where you found him, but whatever he wants, give it to him.” She disappeared through the doorway.

Eric watched their new manager feed the baby. “She really likes you.” He nodded toward his daughter. “The baby, I mean. Although Bianca sure took a shine to you, too.”

“I have lots of nieces and nephews,” Tim said. He got the rest of the baby’s dinner into her. She finally cooed, burped, and giggled, her round green eyes sparkling. She has her father’s eyes, Tim noted.

Eric laughed. “I love her. But I’m not very…you know…parental.” Tim smelled a hint of bourbon on Eric’s breath. “Unfortunately, neither is Bianca. We love Tazzie to death, don’t get me wrong, but we’re both busy. We need someone…you know…responsible around.”

Tim nodded, wiping the baby clean with a damp cloth and cleaning the smeared food off the tray. “I understand completely.” He looked into Eric’s eyes. “I was going apartment hunting tomorrow. I’m tired of paying for a house when I’m rarely there.” He held Eric’s gaze as the baby quieted, watching them.

Eric’s face went blank for a moment. Then he grinned. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Stay right here!” He bolted from his chair and disappeared through the same door his wife had exited.

Tim smiled at the baby. “You and I will be great friends, won’t we, sweetheart?”

She clapped her chubby hands and gave him another gummy grin. He brushed her wispy hair from her forehead. “You’re going to be a beauty. I’ll certainly have my hands full with you.”

She reached out and took his finger in her hand and gnawed on it, making him laugh.

“Gah!” she babbled.

He chuckled. “Gah, indeed, young lady.”

Eric ran—literally—into the kitchen. He was moving so fast he grabbed the doorway as he rounded the corner to keep from going ass over teakettle.

“You’ll move in here,” he breathlessly exclaimed. “I talked to Bianca, and she’s all for it. Please say yes. It’ll save us a huge hassle. I’ve got racing season coming up, and she’s got two movies in the pipe. If you’re going to be handling all our stuff anyway, it makes sense. Tazzie really seems to like you. She hates most everyone else. I’ve never seen her take to anyone the way she takes to you.”

Tim looked at the baby. “Would you like that?”

She rewarded him with another gummy grin. “Gah!” She clapped.

He turned to Eric. “Splendid. Let me clean her up. Then you can show me where everything is and show me my new quarters.”

A puzzled look clouded Eric’s face. “You don’t mind being a babysitter? You’re an attorney.”

“I think a more accurate term for my position with you would be majordomo, and no, I don’t mind. I am perfectly capable of handling a baby as well as your affairs.” Eric blushed, which Tim didn’t miss. “I can hire staff to take care of cleaning and other tasks.” Tim fixed Eric with his eyes again.

His face momentarily went blank before he smiled. “Great! Bianca will be thrilled!” He bolted out the door.

“Does your father ever slow down?”

“Gah!”

Tim lifted her out of the high chair. “Yes, it is very gah. Let’s get you a bath and some pajamas, shall we?”

Eric left the house soon after his wife departed in the studio car. He mumbled something about a meeting. Tim said if Bianca checked in, he would tell her Eric was in the bathroom, and then call Eric’s cell.

Eric’s jaw dropped. “You’re amazing, man. You know that?”

He nodded. “I’ve been told I’m efficient.”

Tim checked on the baby, asleep in her crib. He’d move his things in tomorrow. But for now…

He placed a call as he watched her sleep.

A male voice on the other end answered. “Hello?”

“It’s Tim. No problems at all. They were tripping over themselves.”

“Hired you?” the other man asked.

“I start tomorrow. Well, tonight, technically.” He paused. “I need a favor.” He outlined his request.

“He won’t be happy about that,” the other man said.

“I don’t care. This one’s special. If he trusts me as much as he claims, he must take my word for it. Let me deal with her. And I mean hands off.”

“All right. I’ll tell him. If you need anything, let us know.”

“With these two as parents, I’ll need all the help I can get.”

* * * *

“Now go play. Nicely,” Tim said. He sat on the park bench. Anastazia—Taz—was a five-year-old fireball. She liked wearing her reddish auburn hair loose and long. It was already to her shoulders and naturally wavy. He dressed her in jeans and sneakers, knowing she’d be filthy by the time they returned home from the park.

One of the moms sat next to him. While Tim was distracted talking with the woman, Taz took a toy car away from a boy older than her, who was now crying.

Tim noticed and stood. “Anastazia!” She looked up, guilt on her face, and ran over to him.

“Yes?”

He knelt so he could talk to her privately. He lowered his voice. “Where did you get this car?”

“From Billy. He gave it to me.”

“He gave it to you, or you took it?”

She fixed him with her green eyes. It took every ounce of his will to focus and not lose himself in her powerful gaze. “Gave it to me.”

“Anastazia,” Tim said with a warning tone, “did he give it to you, or did you ask him for it?”

She looked down. “I asked him.”

“Did he want to give it to you?”

She shook her head.

“Go return it. Then come here.”

She did. He moved to another bench for more privacy. He made her sit and look at him.

He softened his tone. “Taz, we’ve talked about this.”

“But he gave it to me. I asked him.”

“But you made him give it to you when you asked, didn’t you?”

She finally nodded.

“What if I asked you for Mr. BinkBink and you didn’t want to give him to me, but I made you?” She looked horrified. The thought of giving up her cherished teddy bear brought tears to her eyes.

“You cannot force someone to give you things,” he said.

“But I can.”

“I know you can, but it doesn’t mean you should. Never, ever, force someone to do it. It’s rude. And it’s mean. You don’t want to be a rude, mean little girl, do you?”

She shook her head. “No.”

He smiled at her. “You are a very special little girl. You must never be rude or mean. Never take things that are not freely given. Do you understand?”

She nodded.

“If you forget, think about Mr. BinkBink, how you would hate to give him up if you didn’t want to.”

She nodded, earnestly this time.

Point made. Hopefully. It was a lesson she had to learn now, or he wouldn’t be able to teach her at all. If she didn’t learn empathy at this age, she would grow up to become very, very dangerous.

“Were you looking him in the eye when you asked him?”

She nodded.

“What have I told you about that?”

“Not to do it unless it’s you or Momma or Daddy or someone I want to be very close to.”

“Right. And?”

“Never ask for something when I do it.”

“Right. Why?”

Because it’s rude.”

“Good girl. Remember Mr. BinkBink. Don’t be rude, don’t be mean, and don’t take things from others unless they really, really want to give them to you. Understand?”

She nodded.

“Good girl. Now go play.”

He returned to his seat next to the mom to continue their conversation.

“She’s so beautiful and well mannered. I don’t know how you do it!”

He smiled. “She’s a very special little girl.”

* * * *

Robertson stood in the doorway and looked at the television screen. “Anastazia, what on earth is that?”

She looked up from the couch. “It’s SyFy. It’s an old show called Dark Shadows. It’s pretty neat.”

He thought he successfully hid his smirk.

You have no idea how old.

“I did my homework already,” she continued. “You said I could watch TV when I got done.”

“Yes, I did. Very good.” Ten years old, she proved brilliant in school.

“Did Mom say if they’ll be home this weekend?” she asked.

“I’m sorry, dear, she didn’t. Would you like me to call her back?”

She shook her head and turned back to the screen. “No, it’s okay. Never mind.” She fell quiet.

“What is it, Taz?”

She finally turned to him. “Would you mind taking me to the movies tomorrow?”

“I would be delighted. Pick what you want, PG or below, young lady, and I’ll be happy to take you.”

“Can we get popcorn?”

“With all the extra butter you can wade through.”

She laughed. “Thanks, Robertson.”

“You’re welcome, my dear.”

He returned to his office. She hadn’t seen her parents in two months. Her father busy on the racing circuit, her mother in one movie after another, and busy with promotions when she wasn’t filming. He knew he was not a substitute for them, but Taz needed nurturing or she would become bitter.

That was the last thing he needed.

She picked a comedy, not too crude, and he laughed through it with her. As they left the theater, she took his hand and held it all the way to the car.

“Thank you for spending time with me,” she quietly said.

“Sweetheart, it’s my pleasure.”

He held the car door for her. She looked him in the eye when she got in. “You’re like a dad, you know that? That’s how I think of you. My other dad.”

He smiled. “Thank you, Taz. You have no idea how much that means to me. You’re like a daughter to me, too.”

She nodded. They rode home in companionable silence.

* * * *

“Anastazia Proctor, downstairs right now, young lady! You’re going to be late.”

“Jeez Louise, I’m coming,” she shouted back.

Tim sighed as he finished getting her scrambled eggs ready. She bounded into the kitchen, her long, wavy auburn hair in a loose ponytail. “I’ve still got twenty minutes before we have to leave. Chill.”

He eyed her choice of clothes. The shirt would do. It wasn’t his favorite, but it covered all her parts and wasn’t too tight. The jeans didn’t have holes in them, plus they covered all the parts not covered by the shirt. Her sneakers looked worn but were her favorites, so who was he to complain? They were on her feet. Her makeup was light, the agreed-upon amount, although in reality she didn’t need any.

But try to convince a thirteen-year-old of that.

“I don’t want you to be late for your first day of school,” he said.

“Will you come to the parent meeting?” She ripped into her eggs like a starving wolf.

He nodded. “Of course. I’ll be there at three.” How would he keep the boys off her this year? Junior high. How did other parents do it?

She finished her juice, rinsed her plate, and grabbed her backpack. “I guess my ’rents are passed out upstairs?”

“Taz!”

She shrugged. “I heard them come in last night. Excuse me, this morning. About six. My alarm went off a few minutes later.”

He shook his head. “Come on. Let’s go.” He grabbed his keys, and fifteen minutes later they neared the school. He pulled up to a red light and looked at her, fixing her with his gaze.

“Anastazia.”

She looked at him and he had her. “Remember,” he warned. “Avoid their eyes. Never ask for something when you’re looking someone in the eyes. Understand?”

She nodded with a dreamy expression on her face. He looked up as the light changed to green. “You have a good day today.” Fortunately for him, all he had to do was give her reminders from time to time.

She nodded. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, but she smiled. “What do I have for lunch?”

“Turkey wrap, swiss, light mayo.” He pulled into the drop-off and she leaned over and hugged him before getting out.

“See you at three, Robs.”

“Have a good day, sweetheart.”

He watched her walk toward the school. She smiled at a group of boys as she walked past.

Two of the boys fell in behind her, dreamy looks on their faces.

He closed his eyes. “Oh, dear God, please give me strength.”

* * * *

Tim didn’t know if he could handle having Eric and Bianca in the house at the same time. They had two states—at each other’s throats like wolverines or screwing like bunnies.

There was no middle ground, unless you counted passed out.

At least Eric made good on his promise to teach Taz how to drive. He spent the day tuning up his 1965 Mustang and went to pick her up from school as a surprise.

Robertson said a silent prayer as he watched Eric drive off. Please bring my girl home safely, you silly sod.

Bianca yawned as she walked into the kitchen. “Good morning, Robertson.”

“Afternoon, Bianca.”

“Oh, is it?”

He placed a plate of scrambled eggs in front of her. She smiled. “You’re so efficient.” She shoveled in the eggs and asked for more. “And a damn good cook.”

“Thank you.”

“How’s my baby?”

“She’s doing great. Did you see the information I left for you?”

She nodded. “I can’t make that school thing though. I’ve got to be in Paris for a shoot. Is that okay?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”

She smiled as he refilled her plate. “We are so lucky to have you. You are the best ever. Promise you’ll never leave us.”

He avoided her gaze, a light crystal blue that caught and reflected the color of whatever room she was in. He was strong, but she was stronger in that way. Worse still, she didn’t know it.

“Absolutely, Bianca.”

“You’ve been so great with Anastazia. Except for us, you’re the only family she’s got.”

After she finished her meal, Bianca left to get ready for her appointment. She was gone by the time Anastazia blasted into the driveway with her father.

Tim walked outside and watched Taz circling the driveway as she tried to master finessing the clutch. The car finally jerked to a stop in front of the door. “Did you see me?” she squealed, running up to him and hugging him.

“Yes.” He laughed. “You were great.”

Eric’s expression clouded. He walked over to Tim, and before Eric could say anything, Tim looked at him.

“You’re a good dad, Eric,” Tim murmured as he fixed him with his gaze.

Eric’s expression went blank. Taz was too busy calling her friends about her driving lesson to notice what was going on.

“You’re a great dad, Eric. She loves you very, very much. You are doing a wonderful job raising your daughter.” After sixteen years, now was not the time for Eric to get jealous and decide he wanted to finally start carrying out his fatherly duties and spending more quality time with Taz. Tim had worked too hard with her to establish her self-control to have Eric and his reckless ways ruin it all.

Tim let him go. Eric blinked and smiled at him. “Did you see her?”

He nodded. “I’m so glad you were able to return for this. It means the world to her.”

“Yeah, well, you know. She’s a chip off the old block, huh?”

Tim nodded. “You’ll be home all week, I take it?”

He nodded. “I want to spend some time with her, out in the garage.”

“She’ll love that. Anything in particular you want for dinner…”

* * * *

“She’s beautiful,” Bianca whispered.

Tim nodded. “She resembles you both very much.”

They have no idea how much.

Eric sat on Tim’s other side, puffed up and proud. “That’s my baby,” he said. Taz walked across the stage, accepted her diploma, and waved at them. Tim waved back, trying to juggle the video and still cameras at the same time.

Bianca looked like she had a horrible thought and put her hand on Robertson’s arm. “You’re not going to…you won’t leave just because she’s graduating, will you?” she whispered.

He smiled. “No, Bianca. You’re stuck with me for a while longer, I imagine.”

She sounded relived. “Thank goodness. I mean, she’s got college, and I’ve got movies coming up, and we still need you…”

* * * *

The blue lights flashed in her rearview mirror. Tim looked at her as she pulled over. “I told you not to speed, young lady.” She was twenty and drove like her father—balls out.

The CHiP walked up to her window and pulled off his sunglasses. She flashed him a smile, and in two minutes, they were on their way.

Sans ticket.

All she’d done was be polite and talk. The officer never even asked for her license.

Tim finally found his voice. “That was…amazing.”

She shrugged. “I haven’t had a ticket, but I get pulled over all the time. They just give me a warning and…uh, I guess I never told you that, huh?”

He shook his head, taking mental notes. She was so strong. Thank God he’d trained her well early on. He’d never caught her being cruel, and he was sure she wasn’t aware she was doing anything special.

She was just being nice. And polite.

* * * *

They sat at the kitchen table. Taz’s face looked red and puffy. A nearly empty box of tissues sat before her. Tim poured her another drink. Usually he discouraged her from imbibing, but tonight she needed it.

So did he.

“I can’t believe it,” she whispered. “I just can’t.”

Tim kept the cell phone next to him, waiting for news. As soon as had been notified, he’d locked himself in his office and made a frantic series of phone calls, which started an avalanche of activity behind the scenes the likes of which Anastazia didn’t need to know.

He patted her on the hand. “Keep faith, dear. There are a lot of people looking for them.”

“And I was supposed to go, too! But I just had so much to do with exams and stuff.”

“It’s okay, Taz.”

She started crying again.

He had to keep it together for her sake. He prayed her parents would be found safely, but he didn’t hold out much hope.

His cell rang. He answered then shook his head when Taz looked hopefully at him. Nothing yet. He walked into his office and closed the door.

“We have a whole fleet out.” It was him, personally. He rarely called Tim, and never while Tim was at home or with Taz. He’d also never heard him sound so grim. “If they can be found, they will.”

“Good.”

“Do you think…I mean, should I—”

“No,” Tim said firmly. “I’ll take care of her. You stay away. It’s too soon.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.” Tim had a thought. “You don’t think someone planned this, do you?”

“I thought about that,” he admitted. “She was supposed to be on the flight. She was listed on the passenger manifest. Keep her close to you until we know for sure.”

“Of course I will.”

Over the next days and weeks with no word on her parents’ fate, Tim guided Taz through the process. She spent many nights curled up on the couch with her head in his lap, twenty-four, but fragile as a child, crying herself to sleep. He ached for her, knowing he could help, but to do so would push things along too soon. She needed time to heal. Others had survived tragedies far worse than this.

She decided to sell the house, and he thought that would be the end. When he mentioned looking for his own place, she looked horrified.

“No, you can’t! I need you!”

He smiled. “Taz, you don’t need me hanging around.”

She nodded, frantically. “I’ll get a big condo near the office. Big enough you can have your space. Please, you’re the only family I’ve got!”

She looked desperate. Her parents had messed up the original plan by getting themselves killed on their trip to Rio. The revised edition was for her to finally be on her own, but he couldn’t stand to see her so miserable and upset.

He nodded. “I’ll stay.”

She threw her arms around him and hugged him, sobbing with relief. When he finally had a chance to be alone and phone about the change in plans, there was reluctant agreement.

“I’m not going to abandon her,” Tim said, adamant. “There’s plenty of time. Maybe this is for the best.”

“When does she start her new job?”

“Three months. Once she graduates from law school and completes her internship.”

“How’s she doing?”

“Brilliant. She will go far. She’s already got quite the reputation for fixing sticky situations, smoothing things over.”

“Excellent.”

“Everything will work out fine. You’ll see. Did he get the paperwork?”

“I think he’s still drooling over her picture.”

“Now do you see why I insisted on waiting for him to meet her?”

“Yes, you were right. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“It helps.” He paused, wanting his words to carry weight. “I meant what I told him. Make sure he understands my position clearly. If he breaks her heart, I’ll kill him with my bare hands.”

“He understands.”

“Good. He’d better. Because I don’t care how powerful he is, or how much money he has, or how long we’ve been friends. There won’t be a place on this earth he can hide from me if he hurts my little girl.”

Chapter One

“What kind of asshole sells automatic weapons to a demon anyway?” Rafael dropped the carry-on tote on his cousin’s desk and plopped down in one of the chairs facing him.

“Is that it?”

Rafael nodded. “And we need to speed this up. I’ve got a date at seven.” He leaned back, propping his feet on the desk and crossing his legs at the ankles.

“You always have a date.” Matthias unzipped the tote and removed a sealed plastic bag containing a large severed head. Semi-lupine in shape, vicious teeth jutted from the lower jaw. “Any problems?”

“Naw, customs was easy. Homeland Security my ass. And one less ‘chupacabra’ to terrify the locals.” Rafael used finger quotes around the word to show his disdain. “Friggin’ jerk. He had a whole warehouse full of guns. Oh, Matts, you should have seen the stewardess on the plane.”

“I thought you were going to take the corporate jet from Mexico City?” Matthias had left Rafael behind to finish the cleanup operation.

He shook his head. “Met this cute little coed from a cruise ship in Veracruz. You should’ve seen her—”

“I’m sure.” Matthias rolled his eyes and put the severed head back in the bag. “And your date tonight?”

Rafe shrugged. “I can’t help it if the customs agent was a cutie.”

“What did she see in your bag?”

“Bowling ball.”

Matthias shook his head and laughed as he sat. “I’ll have Albert send it to the lab for testing and an ID workup. It bothers me that one of them was hooking up with a daemon pulverem.”

“Bothers you?” Rafe flexed his left arm. “Screw that! You aren’t the one who got shot, big guy.”

“How is it, anyway?”

“I’ve been better, but it’s nearly healed. Still stiff.” He unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt to show the pink scar where the slug had entered his shoulder two days prior. “What the hell did you eat, anyway? You tasted, no offense, cuz, weird.”

“No weirder than the time I got sliced open in Dublin and you’d been out drinking that afternoon. I had a hangover for three damn days, thanks to you.”

“Ah, but you were alive to suffer.” Rafe grinned.

Matthias smiled. “And so are you. I told you we shouldn’t have eaten at that place for lunch. You insisted.”

“Oh, yeah.” He looked at Matthias’ desk and sat up. “What’s that?” He pointed to a picture.

Matthias slid it across the desk. Rafe picked it up, a low whistle escaping him. “Wow,” he said, his voice dropping. “That’s her?”

Matthias sat back and templed his fingers. “That’s her.”

Rafe studied the picture for a long moment. “I know you said…but she’s…wow.”

Matthias took the picture back. “And now you understand.”

Rafael looked stunned. “Yeah. Congratulations.”

“That’s a little premature. We haven’t even brought her in yet.”

“When?”

He shrugged. “When Tim tells me the time is right. I’ve waited this many years for her. I can wait a little longer. Maybe next month. Even then, who knows? There’s no guarantee she’ll even want to know me, much less have a relationship with me. This could have been an exercise in futility on my part.”

Rafe studied his hands. “On second thought, maybe I’ll fly home tonight. Take the corporate jet back to Atlanta.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I am pretty tired.”

Matthias studied Rafe for a long moment before speaking. When he did, his voice sounded soft, kind. “Rafe, she’s been dead for—”

Rafe held up a hand and smiled. “Don’t want to go there tonight, Matts. Sorry. I don’t feel like revisiting the past. You dealt with Sarah in your way, and I’ll deal with my shit in mine, okay?”

Matthias nodded. “All right.” He stepped around the desk and hugged Rafe. “See you next weekend at the Florida house?”

Rafe patted Matthias on the back before stepping away. “Yeah, I’ll be down. You’re going to drive me to the dealership, right?”

“It’s in?”

Rafael’s face broke into a huge grin. “You should see it! The salesman e-mailed me a picture. It’s a sweet ride. I test-drove one like it last month, but they didn’t have the color I wanted.”

“I’ll take your word for it. I prefer the original Mustangs myself.”

“It’s a Shelby Mustang GT500, man. The most powerful production model Mustang ever. It’s not ‘just’ a Mustang, Matts.” He stepped to the door as his face clouded again. “I’ll see you later then.”

Matthias nodded, and when he was alone, he returned to his desk and stared at her picture. He’d never shown it to Rafael before and wasn’t sure why he did tonight. He sighed and returned it to his desk. From the moment he first saw her picture when she turned twenty-five, he knew she was the one for him.

All he had to do was try to win her heart when he finally got to meet her in person.

Ten long years. It won’t kill me to wait a few weeks longer.

* * * *

It wasn’t until Rafe was settled into one of the plush, leather seats on the corporate jet that he closed his eyes and let his mind wander, something he seemed to do a lot of lately. The flight crew knew enough not to bother him, that if he wanted something, he’d ask for it.

He enjoyed the relative solitude. This time, his memories drifted back to the first time he ever laid eyes on Cassandra. So many lifetimes ago…

He stared through the brush at the wonder before him. Gorgeous, simply breathtaking. Long, red hair and stunning green eyes, milky skin and a beautiful, curvy body he would love to hold. She had piled her clothes on the rocks by the bank while she skinny-dipped in the cool creek.

Unable to resist, he walked down the trail and sat next to her clothes and waited. When she finally turned and saw him there, she let out a startled eek! and sank into the water. The glimpse he’d gotten of her front was just as lovely as he imagined.

“I beg your pardon, sir, but you need to leave.”

He smiled, his blue eyes twinkling. “Why should I? I love the view.”

She studied him for a moment. He saw more than wariness in her green eyes.

There was recognition.

“If you’re going to stare, you might as well tell me your name,” she said.

He grinned. “Rafael Collins. And you?”

“Cassandra Croyton.” She stood there, only her flesh from the chin up visible. “Are you going to stare at me all day, or will you let me get out and get my clothes?”

“Oh, don’t let me stop you from coming out.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

He felt more than a familiar throbbing start between his legs. He felt something blossom within his soul. “I’d love it, my sweet lady.”

She cautiously watched him. “I’ve never seen you around here before.”

“I don’t usually travel this far north. I needed to check on a landholding for my cousin. Perhaps you know him? Matthias Hawthorne.”

Her face changed. Something flashed through her eyes, and she stepped farther back in the water. “You’re one, too, aren’t you?”

What warmth he’d sensed from her was gone in a flash. As hot as the June day was, he felt a decided chill settle around her. “One what?”

She shook her head. “I’m not one to speak it.”

He stood. “Sorry I disturbed your bathing, m’lady.” He turned to go.

“Wait.”

Something in her voice stopped him. He turned.

“But…you’re here, and it’s the middle of the day. The sun’s out,” she said.

He nodded. “So I see. Do you have a specific reason for that observation?”

She studied him. As her green eyes traveled his body, he felt himself harden. He wanted her. He wouldn’t force her, and he wouldn’t overtake her.

But he wanted her. In a way he’d never wanted a woman in his entire life.

He wanted her for life.

Cassandra finally spoke again. “Do you have a place to stay for the night? There are highway men between here and your destination. It’s not safe.”

From the tone of her voice, he knew it was a lie. “You aren’t worried about me. And if anyone should worry, it would be them, believe me.”

She’d moved a little closer to the bank, but she still crouched deep within the water, concealing the most beautiful parts of her body from his appraising gaze. Finally, “No,” she whispered.

He stepped down to the water’s edge and watched her. “What do you think I am?” he quietly asked.

“What do you think I am?” she whispered in reply.

He smiled, sending out a probe. He watched her eyes, noticed she jumped as she felt his careful mental caress. “I think you’re a very talented, beautiful woman,” he said. “Very powerful. And with a beautiful heart.”

“You probably have women all over.”

He shook his head. “No. I have not married yet, not for lack of some wenches trying their best.”

That coaxed a smile from her lovely, full lips. “Are you calling me a wench, sir?”

“That would be the last thing I’d call someone as beautiful as you.”

They stared at each other for another long moment before she stood and stepped from the water. He fought the urge to take her into his arms and lick the drops of water from every inch of her flesh.

“We all have secrets, don’t we, Rafael?”

He nodded. “We do.”

She put her arms around him, kissing him. He carefully folded her against him, his hands skimming down her smooth, damp back to gently cup her cheeks.

“I’m willing to hold your secrets,” she said, “if you’re willing to hold mine—and me.”

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