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By VONNA HARPER
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Vonna Harper
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFeeling more than a little disconnected from the crowd, Hayley McKeon stood off to one side taking in the large, brightly lit event room. Maybe she wouldn't have felt out of it if she hadn't worked late last night-Friday, of course-but then maybe being alone among so many chattering groups was responsible.
You can't do anything about it, kid, she reminded herself. Getting divorced means turning into a "one" again.
Determined not to go down that road today, when singlehood was what she'd wanted emotionally, financially, and in every other way, she took a deep breath. Unfortunately, the air was warmer than she liked and smelled too much of people and whatever they were offering at the food booth. Still not moving, she concentrated on her surroundings. She hadn't been to a gems and minerals show for a couple of years and had forgotten how exciting yet overwhelming they could be.
As a rough guess, she estimated there were at least forty separate booths in addition to the elaborate, glass-enclosed displays in the middle of the cavernous room. People filed slowly past the central displays while some of those in front of the booths showed no interest in moving on. Much as she wanted to see what was for sale on the various tables, getting close enough to do her own gawking and purchasing was going to be a challenge.
A challenge she had to meet unless she wanted to spend the foreseeable future and beyond gritting her teeth every time her boss at Galpan Enterprises asked/ordered her to work late.
It's your fault, sis. If you were here, we'd be pushing folks aside and damn the consequences, and I'd be filled with courage, not fear.
However, not only was being scared of her future an all but permanent condition, Saree had called her on her cell phone just as she was arriving to say she'd be a little late-something about needing to pick up a new outfit. Laughing under her breath, Hayley imagined what would happen if her knock-'em-dead younger sister walked in wearing a red latex bodysuit with openings for her breasts and crotch. No doubt about it, gems and minerals would come in a distant second to that little show. Thinking about the difference between the way she and her sister paid their bills got her moving. She had no-well, probably no-interest in becoming a porn star. Of course, if she could make enough baring everything she had to get out of debt-
Forget debt today, damn it! Take chances, take control!
Now that she'd joined the milling throng, she took increased note of the throng's composition. Not only did there seem to be equal numbers of men and women, but all ages were represented, including children, who were repeatedly being told to keep their hands to themselves. A large number of older couples were in attendance, and although her parents had been dead for two years and nearly one year, respectively, Hayley still mourned what she'd lost. At least they hadn't had to see her marriage implode or explode, depending on how one looked at it.
She hadn't paid much attention to where she was heading since she figured that as long as she went in one direction, sooner or later she'd see everything there was to see-and hopefully make some put your money where your mouth is purchases. When she'd first heard about the show, she'd told herself to go to it with her mind and imagination and creativity open, that her love of and skill in jewelry creation would guide her.
Well, maybe. However, at the moment, she was stuck behind a noisy group of six women, and waited for them to move away from a booth in the far right corner. Sure, she could come back to it later, but something indefinable kept her in place. Other attendees were interested primarily in what was on display, but going by the women's animated conversation with whomever was manning the booth, something important or educational or entertaining was being said.
She'd just about given up when a man with a toddler in a stroller backed away, and she took the vacated place. The moment she looked down, she was glad she'd waited because the table was devoted to fire opals. Some had been made into jewelry, and necklaces, earrings, and rings were arranged on a variety of displays, but the majority of the opals had been spread out on velvet in cases with locked glass tops. Lighting had been designed so each box was touched by a slightly different hue, adding to the presentation. For the most part, the boxes had been arranged in color groupings ranging from a translucent crystal to opaque milky white to bold red with a predominance of the orange that was so common to fire opals.
Was it the fire lurking deep in the stones that had always drawn her to opals? Probably, since there was something sensual about finding so much color in such small stones. True, the stories about opals' place in history was fascinating, particularly the ancient Persian and Central American belief that they were symbols of fervent love, whatever that was, but even without the legends, she'd always loved working with them. Creating a faceted or cabochon piece to display the most fire possible gave her a sense of satisfaction she doubted would ever get old, and she loved holding the finished product in her palm, becoming part of it.
Unfortunately, she hadn't done as much work with opals as she wanted to, both because she hadn't had enough time what with life's recent curves and because she'd been discouraged by the large number of inferior or manufactured stones on the market.
There wasn't a single marginal gem or opal figment held together in a clear plastic cast here, nothing but the real deal. A virtual gold, or should she say fire, mine.
Excited, she leaned over for a closer look. As she did, she almost swore heat was coming up from the cases and touching her with warmth and energy, calling to her. If only the owner or distributor or whoever hadn't locked them up, not that she could blame him. Unlike her ex, she'd never taken anything that didn't belong to her, but Lordy, did her fingers itch to hold one, or more. For the gems to become part of her.
"Be careful," one woman said as another slipped on a ring.
"You don't want to wind up with bad luck." "You don't really believe that nonsense, do you?" the ring wearer asked of her companion.
"All I know is, I'm not taking chances. What about it? Do you think there's anything to that business about opals bringing bad luck?"
For a moment, Hayley thought the woman was talking to her. Then she realized she had to be addressing the man behind the table.
"Quetzalitzlipyollitli were sacred to the Mayas and Aztecs," a deep, strong voice said. "Gifts from the gods."
Almost of its own will, Hayley's head came up. The voice-that rich, strong voice-settled in her. More than that, the masculine tone seemed to be spreading out, seeping into her veins and racing through her.
"What was that you said?" the woman asked. "I can't begin to pronounce that word."
"Quetzalitzlipyollitli. It means the stone of the bird of paradise."
Forget birds of paradise and tongue-twisting syllables. Forget everything except deep eyes, eyes as dark as the darkest cave, and yet filled with a rich glow. Forget the crowds and noise. Absorb this man's energy and the look of raw disbelief and desperate hope in his gaze.
Even as her body heated, Hayley told herself this wasn't happening. Hell no. She didn't believe in like at first sight, let alone love in that particular instant. Fine. Fine and good. But what about lust? What about a communication that went beyond words?
Now her arms and legs were going numb and what was that buzzing in her lips? Just because the owner of what might be the world's sexiest voice was a good six foot three with shoulders that would make a football coach drool and a lean, hard body encased in a skin-skimming black shirt and faded jeans that more than hugged the territory they were responsible for was no reason to-to what?
The women were still talking to him, but if he heard, the man gave no indication. To her disbelief, his eyes had found hers, latched on to them, bonded with them. He'd cocked his head to the side as if trying to convince himself that he was truly looking at her, maybe wondering whether she was getting whatever message or order or command or tidal wave of sex appeal he was giving out. If he did that much longer, she just might melt.
Either that or jump over the display and launch herself at him.
Fuck. That's all there needs to be, fucking. Mating like a couple of animals in heat. Whether he or she was expressing those sentiments, she couldn't say. Didn't give a damn. Neither did she know how the hell she was going to keep her legs under her and her pussy from melting. Disconcerted, she dropped her gaze from pure magnetic power before said power ripped her to shreds.
Her attention snagged on a display she hadn't noticed before, probably because it was at the back of the table and near him. None of these stones had been cut and polished, but she saw their potential within their plain host rocks. Her heated fingers truly itched to touch and turn and explore, briefly distracting her from the man's unnerving eyes-either that or she'd found a connection between the opals and him.
"Blacks," he said and ran a strong, dark finger over the case.
"I, ah, I know." Much as she wanted to, she didn't risk looking up.
"What else do you know?"
About what? Wondering if he was referring to the connection already forged between them, she nevertheless refused to bite. Some things a woman needed to keep to herself-like the wet heat between her legs, like her tightening nipples and the pressure on her chest. "Blacks are rare, and thus quite valuable," she heard herself say. Then she lifted her head.
Looking slightly more relaxed, he gave an approving nod. "Yes, they are; I'm delighted you know that. Your knowledge says a great deal about many things."
"What kinds of things?"
The way his head came up, she knew he wasn't going to answer. Instead, he took a deep breath. "The most valuable have deep red captured in the black. They're considered depth instead of light, mystery over glow."
She'd never heard it expressed like that before, but he was right, so right. "Where are they from?"
When he didn't answer, she surrendered to the pinpricks of fire spreading over her spine. Animal magnetism was a buzz term, right? Then what the hell was this?
"They're from the Mexican highlands, on the site of an extinct volcano. The Indians call the area Pico de Orizaba. These"-he indicated the spectacular case-"came from a labyrinthine passage that winds through the open-cast mine there."
"Oh." She'd seen pictures of opal mines carved from isolated and desolate-looking land, and of the Mexican Indians who toiled there. Those laborers were short and solid, their bodies protected from the relentless sun by broad-brimmed hats and ragged clothing. They'd seemed part of the land, as if hardened by it.
This powerfully built man was larger and taller with dark, deep eyes undimmed by physical labor, and yet he made her think of those native workers. Maybe it was his rough-looking hands, his sun-weathered skin. And maybe it was because, like men who made a living from the earth, he seemed to be part of something ancient and enduring.
Don't do this. Don't get carried away!
But how could she help it? This man was passionate about some of the same things as she was, and his voice was like a strong wind surrounding and burrowing deep inside her. She couldn't remember when she'd last had sex or wanted more than her vibrator. She wanted him, now-rough and raw and loud and messy.
"Am I the only one feeling the heat?" one of the women asked.
"Hell no," another laughed. "Enough to burn down the place."
Vaguely wondering what they were talking about, Hayley tore her gaze off the ageless man. All six women were dividing their attention between her and him, smiling, fanning themselves, one pulling her blouse out and blowing down her front. "Don't worry about it, honey," the first speaker said with a giggle. "We aren't scandalized, just jealous."
It took every shred of civilization in her not to clamp her hand over her crotch and push against the hungry heat there. Maybe it would have been easier if the man was looking at something else, doing anything except leaning toward her with his beautiful strong hands resting on the table and his lips slightly parted. Thank goodness, the table hid him from the hips down. If she'd been able to see-
Knock it off! You want to catch fire?
Well yeah, truth be told, she did.
His gaze intent, his breathing deep and rapid, the man called Mazati studied the woman. It was too early to know whether she was the one, his reason for living. But if instinct bore him out, his desperate and determined search had come to an end.
Before entrusting her with his knowledge, came stripping her down, exposing her deepest vulnerabilities, teaching her how much she needed from him.
And once he'd accomplished that ...
Chapter TwoBy the time Hayley had gotten a modicum of a handle on her nervous system, an extremely overweight man had pushed past the women and was confronting the object of said nerves. In a loud and obnoxious tone, the fat man demanded to know why the opal he'd bought here had cost so much when just a few tables away, he'd gotten no less than three for the same price. He held a total of four opals in his beefy hand as example.
"Not only that, these three"-he jabbed with a manicured nail-"are a hell of a lot brighter than what you foisted off on me."
"If you don't like it," that nerve-heating voice said, "I'll buy it back."
Hayley looked at the opals. "May I?" she asked, indicating she wanted to pick them up.
The fat man's skeptical gaze turned to a grin as he gave her the once-over. "Sure thing, girlie," he said as he dumped them into her palm. "You'll back me up, I bet. Look at these three. Loaded with fire."
"Yes, they are," she agreed. "But the one you bought here is naturally dry while the others have had artificial heat applied. Unfortunately, that dried them out and fatally weakened them."
"Huh, how do you know that?"
"Experience. I haven't worked with fire opals as much as I'd like to, but I know enough that I wouldn't have that trio at any price. Take a close look. Do you see those tiny fissures in them?"
"Like spiderwebs? I thought that was part of the design."
"Sorry. Fire opals consist of silicic acid with a relatively high water content, while the color itself comes from traces of iron oxide. The moisture is unevenly distributed, which means that if it dries out as a result of too much heat, the stones will crack. That's what you have."
"No shit. Oh, they're all right if all you want to do is display them, but they'll never hold up as rings because of everything rings are subjected to. Cleaning products are deadly to opals."
"Damn it. I've been taken."
"Not necessarily," said the deep voice that had come too close to turning her inside out. "Like the knowledgeable young lady said, they're fine for displaying. Besides, you didn't pay much for them."
Grumbling under his breath, the fat man nodded. After she dropped the opals back in his hand, he spun around, nearly knocking her off her feet when his shoulder struck her, and stalked off, perhaps to give the other dealer a piece of his newly educated mind.
"I was right. You do know a great deal about opals."
Feeling a bit too much as if she was responding to a magnet, Hayley faced the tall, dark, killer-intriguing man. He held out his hand, and in his gesture she sensed a challenge-maybe the greatest challenge of her life. After a momentary hesitation and a prayer to the god of women in over their heads, she placed hers in his. Because she'd warned herself to expect a zap, she was ready for that to happen-at least a little.
But how could she possibly prepare for a zing along with a sharp zap, to say nothing of a little short-circuiting between her brain and the rest of her body?
"I'm Mazati," he said.
Just Mazati? "Hayley McKeon."
"Hayley. I've been looking for you."
He was still holding her fingers, palm, even her wrist, making it impossible for her to formulate a response or question or whatever the hell a rational human being would be doing about now. The physical-and-more connection went on and on, uncomfortable and incredible at the same time, pulling her out of herself and into him. They weren't shaking hands, weren't filling the air with small talk, weren't doing anything except holding on. Exploring.
Excerpted from Night Fire by VONNA HARPER Copyright © 2007 by Vonna Harper. Excerpted by permission.
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