Read an Excerpt
They sat down. "Do you ever display your own paintings?"
He grinned. "Not good enough."
She laughed, a full throaty sound that reminded him of silk in moonlight. He shifted in his chair.
"Not good enough? Please. Art, no matter the form, is totally subjective. In several years people wonder why they purchased most things adorning their walls and shelves they claim was or is art. And then they go out and buy more that calls to them at that time."
"And things have to call to you?"
She picked up her fork and scooped up Southwest rice. "Of course. If something didn't call to you, then why do it? Or in art's case, purchase it? It wouldn't be right."
He picked up his own fork and started to eat. "So you believe in callings, fate..." He stopped, then shrugged. "Auras."
"I thought we'd already been over this."
"Humor me, please, and don't take offense at a question."
Those wicked green eyes narrowed just at the corners. "That would depend on the question, wouldn't it?"
"And who's asking it, or maybe why."
Her eyes closed on a bite of chile relleno. "This is really, really good. I love these. They should be savored, explored and thoroughly enjoyed."
My thoughts exactly. She was gorgeous, there was simply no other word for it. Outer beauty, yes, she had that, but there was an inner fire, an inner life that ... called to him. He grinned and forked another bite into his mouth.
"The question?" she probed.
"Your beliefs, your shop, is it all..." He would offend her, but hell, he was a guy, just like any other. "Is it all..."
"Is it all..." She leaned up on her elbows, that lovely cleavage pressing againstthe dress.
He jerked his gaze away from her breasts and to her face. "Is it real?"
A furrow creased the skin between her brows. "Is it real? As in?"
He sighed and laid his fork aside. "As in, is it just part of the job, nine to five? Or is it who you really are?"
Those eyes continued to stare at him, the pupils dilating softly for several long moments before she blinked, drew a deep breath and said, "And you ask why?"
He grinned. "Well, some people create ... personas, if you will, for their businesses. While at home, they have another face, and with those they see at the club, maybe another facet. Yet none make the whole. Ya know? Everyone has facets. I get that. I like..." He curled his fingers into the air. "I like raw, real, no matter the setting."
She merely stared at him.
"I'm not great at explanations. The thing is, I like you. I've watched you over at the coffee shop watching me, and tried to figure out how to ask you out."
"While I wondered if I could work up the nerve to ask you out," she said, her voice slow and easy.
He grinned. "Really?"
She smiled back.
"The point is that I've noticed you, not sure what or why at first, but I did. I haven't in a long while. Noticed a woman, that is. But something about you has intrigued me since the moment I first saw you ordering a cup of coffee at the café."
Her throaty laugh danced out again and her hand covered his on the table.
"Same goes. There was a time I was too..." Those plump lips pursed. "Easy with my affections and then I became very guarded, and still am guarded. You're the first man I've noticed in a while."
Okay, so they were on the same footing there, good. "Good. But with your talk of auras and knowing and stuff, I need to know you believe it, really, really believe it, or if it's just promotion for business."
She licked her lips. "Why?"
"My daughter," he said simply. "Alyssa is very..."
"Fragile," she finished for him.
Max stared at her a moment and thought maybe, just maybe this woman understood. He picked up his fork, then set it down and took a drink, the taste of his beer bright and sharp on his tongue.
"Yes, yes she is. So please understand that I'm not trying to offend you or anything but if you don't really believe in all that stuff, please don't bring it up around Alyssa. If talking about auras and fate and 'something calling to you' is just--"
"Shoptalk?" she asked before taking another bite.
"Yeah." He nodded. "Yeah, shoptalk."
"Just a face, or rather a mask to put on when it suits me?" She smiled. "A, what did you call it? Promotion. A promotional angle to drum up business?"
Her tone had quieted, he heard the edge to it, but damn it this was too important to set aside. "Yes. For lack of a better analogy. Masks is a great one, actually."
She laid her fork back down and laced her fingers beneath her chin. "Max. I don't lie. Or at least I try never to lie. Lying about my weight or dress size is a given."
"If you knew me at all, you would know that under normal circumstances, that question would not only offend me--" Her eyes flashed as she continued, "But really piss me off."
"However, I understand where you're coming from--parental concern. So, to answer your question, no, it's not just shoptalk or a mask I put on for promotion's sake to drum up business. What I do, I believe in. If that bothers you, fine. I don't really care." She stared at him a moment more before she took a long drink of her beer.
He sighed. "Look. It doesn't bother me. It's just..." He raked a hand through his hair. "She's been through enough and I don't think for a moment you'd intentionally hurt my daughter, but--"
He blinked. "How what?"
"How do you know that? That I wouldn't intentionally hurt her?"
He frowned and shrugged. "You just wouldn't."
Lake leaned forward. "Yes, you're right. No, I would never intentionally hurt her because I get the distinct feeling that girl has been through more than enough. But what I want to know is how do you just know this?"
"I don't know, I just do, okay?"
"And you asked me if I wore masks," she muttered before resuming her meal.
They both ate in silence for a while. His anxiety, which had plagued him all day, turned in a new direction. He'd just ruined his chance with seeing more of this fascinating woman and...
"So, you still want me to model for you?"
He paused, the bite of spinach enchilada halfway to his mouth. "Um, do you still want to?"
She grinned. "I asked you first."
His gaze ran over her, over that perfectly Renaissance face, not exactly breathtaking, not subtle, but something in between, something classic and intriguing all the same. Maybe it was the eyes, that dark green, or the fact her lips had him thinking things he was way better off not even contemplating. Or maybe it was the whole thing put together. A cross between some Irish pagan deity and a wild Viking lover.
That single syllable, dark and promising, slid over her like a long-awaited caress.
What the hell?
Lake scooped up more rice for the lack anything better to do and shoved it into her mouth.
The man could make her hot and cold and hot again, and her nerves were strung tighter than they'd been in a long damn time.
Though she'd really, really missed this feeling, she'd be damned if the first man who jump-started her libido could sack her that easily.
So she'd take a bit of time to reflect and question and assess.
And then jump his bones.
Very, very sad, with a capital S.
She'd have to figure out what the hell she wanted.
"You game?" he asked, in that same dark tone of voice.
She swallowed and almost choked. "For?" she wheezed out, grabbing her beer.
He smiled, a one-sided grin that lifted to a full-fledged smile before a laugh rumbled out.
"You know what I think?" He leaned up onto the tabletop, his hands stacked on top of each other.
"You're gonna tell me, right? Because I hate to be kept in suspense."
His eyes narrowed fractionally. "Oh, but some suspense is good."
She nodded. "True. Some suspense is."
"The kind that leads to greater things." He wiggled his brows.
"Sex." There, she said it.
He sat back. "Now you've ruined it. We were doing so good dancing around the issue."
She merely looked at him. "We were? I thought it was more a stumbling two-step."
He frowned. "Nope. We were doing a damn fine tango."
"A fine tango?" Lake couldn't contain the chuckle. "Honey, you'll know a damn fine tango after the fact."
For a moment, he said nothing, then the corners of his eyes creased ever so slightly. "Hmmm."
She waited, but he didn't expound. "Okay, I give, what does hmmm mean?"
"Of you. Of me. Of us. Together. Naked." His eyes never wavered from hers. "In here, with the paints. Or without. Down the hall in my bed."
"Or, since you have a daughter, maybe across the street in my bed?"
He finally blinked, and downed a drink of beer, his Adam's apple bobbing. "True. Your bed across the street."
Neither said anything for a bit.
"But--" he started.
"Not tonight," she finished.
"No, not tonight." He stood, walked to her and ran a finger over her shoulder, up her neck to trace her jaw. "Most definitely not tonight."
"Because," she whispered, "that would ruin--"
Max leaned down and she caught the scent of him yet again. "--the suspense." His breath was warm and taunting like Satan's temptation.
She sighed. Then almost jumped out of her skin as his lips nuzzled her neck.
"Relax," he said softly.
"So-sorry," she mumbled, as he kissed the side of her neck.
"For what?" One hand lifted her hair from her neck before he placed a kiss just there at her nape. Goose bumps shivered down her spine.
What had he asked? Oh yeah. "Been awhile. I'm a bit--"
His lips were soft, yet firm, hot and inviting. She wanted them on her mouth.
"Yeah," she agreed, turning her head to his. "Yeah." Then his mouth fluttered closer and closer.
His eyes met hers. "I won't hurt you."
His lips settled on hers with a passion she had glimpsed in him, in his work, in his art, in the very air around him. Perfectly checked usually, it simmered just under the surface. Energy hummed along her skin, wrapped around her as his lips pressed against hers.
To hell with it. Turning more in her chair, she cupped his face and kissed him back.
It was as if months of self-doubt washed away to clear a brilliant path.
And that path led to Max.
The man could kiss.
Lake closed her eyes, lost herself in the pleasant, welcoming charge of being wanted. Bright lights shimmered just at the edge of her vision behind her eyelids, but she held them at bay.
His tongue traced her lips and she shuddered, opening her mouth to him.
Max's hands cupped her jaw, his fingers trailing into her hair as those feelings simmered stronger.
She could ... she could ... feel him. Not his physical want of her, but his desire, that elusive feeling. She could sense it, read it, so much so, she could all but taste the heady scent in the back of her mouth.
His tongue danced and dueled with hers.
She slowly pulled back, even as his fingers momentarily gripped her head as if he didn't want her to go. Then he relaxed his hold on her and she sat back, staring into those slate gray eyes, tumultuous just now.
"We shouldn't rush it."
Those eyes stared into hers, reached into her very soul as if trying to see what was completely inside her.
Finally he said softly, "No, we shouldn't rush it. That would be a damn shame."
Then he straightened and gathered up the used containers before dumping them into the trash. He moved like a cat. Not a slick alley cat. No, he was more like a tamed ... jaguar, she decided. Smooth and graceful, but just there under the edge lurked a danger.
And that was what she needed to understand first.
"I better be going," she said, standing up. "Thanks for dinner."
His smile reached his eyes. Desire still thrummed off him and battered against her, but she let it go. For now.
"You're welcome. I haven't enjoyed an evening this much in a long time."
"Me either," she agreed. Then realized how true that was. "Me either."
His head tilted to the side and the lights shot silver off the gray at his temples, and his eyes studied her again in that intense way of his.
Life father like daughter, she thought.
"I have a feeling you're being honest about that." Then he shifted, his muscles rippling under the dark purple shirt, slick and looking damn good on him. "Which sounds odd, I'm sure."
She laughed. "Odd is as odd does, and no, it doesn't. It sounds honest. Honesty is always, always preferred."
"Same goes," he added with a slight tilt of his head.
For a moment, they stared at each other. "Well, I better be going."
Motioning to the door, he said, "I'll walk you home."
"A desirable man and he's a gentleman too. Wow, will wonders never cease," she quipped.
He halted and grabbed his jacket. "He really did a number on you, didn't he?"
She met his gaze before looking down at the scuffed wooden floor. Then she plastered a smile on her face. Desire was one thing, indulging her darkest memories was not. "Suspense, remember?" She waved a hand at him. "Don't worry about walking me home. I can make it across the street."
He took a deep breath as if he was about to argue. "Fine, but I'll walk you out."
They made their way out through the hall entryway, out onto the landing and down the outside steps.
"Again, thanks for dinner. I had a great time," she said when they reached the gate.
"Me too. Do it again?"
"Tomorrow morning. Breakfast."
She did laugh then, a full-throated belly laugh. "I do not get up at the crack of dawn like some people. I like my beauty sleep, not sweating at daybreak. I'll walk. Upon occasion, I'll ride a bike. Yoga is good. I'm not into the whole mile-or-more runs, bike rides or triathlons."
He leaned against the gate. "You get up between seven and eight. Unless you haven't slept well, then it's earlier. Then you shower and get ready before heading downstairs to have a coffee, and every two or three days a muffin with said coffee on the veranda. Unless of course, it's raining, then you like the table at the front window." He tilted his head closer to her. "I'm an artist. I notice things."
"When do the Overtons get up?" she asked, surprised he knew so much of her habits.
"The other renters. So it's just me you're spying on?"
"Just you. And I'm not spying. I'm observing."
She patted his arm, smiled and leaned up to kiss his cheek. "Tomorrow morning."
"Eight o'clock. Sounds good."
She walked through the gate, stopped at the curb to let the traffic go by. Damned tourists.
"Be careful," she heard him say.
She didn't look back until she had walked across the street. He still stood there, at the gate, a half grin on his face that didn't quite reach his eyes. Maybe the man had his own thinking to do.
Then he gave her a little salute and closed the gate. She looked through the window of the coffee shop and thought about going in, but decided to head on up to her room instead. A customer shifted and she saw two of the sons behind the bar washing and drying coffee mugs. Alyssa sat laughing at the counter.
From here, the girl's aura shimmered brighter than it had in a long time. Really shimmered, so many layers, the colors all mixed into a kaleidoscope of rainbows. Which wasn't unusual. Most people had different colors or shades of colors in their auras, even as one was dominant. It all depended on the person and their experiences.
But Alyssa's was literally all the colors, layered and interwoven.
Chills slithered down Lake's spine and she rubbed her arms.
"That girl needs guidance, or protection." What had made hers shimmer from dull muted colors to this bright?
Then Lake looked closer.
The aura was undoubtedly brighter, more pronounced, but, she saw something else.
Ice skittered over her skin. Terror fluttered in her heart.
Jagged scars ripped along the edges of Alyssa's aura. New scars. These were clear, colorless breaks in the aura.
Lake stepped closer, focusing.
Only one thing caused that.
Draining. Being around something or someone that drained a person's energy.
The scars were scattered, rough gouges that the surrounding colors seemed to slowly fill. Slowly healing themselves.
Lake had never seen anything like it.
She blinked and shook her head, trying to focus. How long had she been zoning? Alyssa now sat alone at the counter, the boys gone.
How long had she been standing here staring?
She knew she could lose time reading, trying to understand. She'd done it before. And this powerful girl--someone bumped into her.
"Excuse me," the voice said.
And she knew.
Don't turn around.
Don't turn around.
Darkness floated around her, enveloped her, reaching past her towards...
Lake stared into the coffee shop and just like that, Alyssa's head jerked up and her face paled. Then she shoved off the chair and strode towards the door.
No. No! Stay inside. She had to stay inside.