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If darkness had a voice, Ember Riddick thought, his would be it.
"Excuse me, miss…I was told that if I wanted cologne, you were the woman to see?"
Her hand stilled in midair. She'd been diligently restocking essential oils—and truth be told, zoning out—and her back was to whoever had just blown in with the crisp fall air. The owner of that dark, delicious, decadent voice.
Her stomach sank as awareness prickled over her skin, responding to the new electricity in the air that she'd sensed the moment the little silver bell had rung above the door.
Had to be today, she thought. In the year since she'd come to this quaint, upscale little town in Vermont, there had been no slipups, no accidents. She'd made sure of it, even when her nerves felt worn nearly to their breaking point. Like today. Ember closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, trying to concentrate on the soothing scents of vanilla and lavender rising from the candles she'd lit.
Didn't work. Then she laid eyes on him.
She would have run, if she could have moved.
"You were told right," she heard Ginni say, her voice taking on the honeyed tones it only did when she was in the presence of someone interesting of the male persuasion. "What exactly were you looking for?"
"I'm looking for something…unusual," the stranger replied, his deep and smoky voice sending a delicious shiver from the top of Ember's head to the very tips of her toes. Ginni's answering giggle, on the other hand, had her curling her lip, though she fought it. To push it back, she had no choice but to refocus on him.
The pagan god of Lust, come to finish her off completely.
Ember shivered again, and not from the chill air that had wafted in from the open door. Her eyes roamed over a man who should, by rights, be way too beautiful to exist in real life. He was dark as sin itself, with curly raven hair worn long enough for it to coil loosely around his face. His features, in profile, were sharp, almost hawkish, though they were softened just a little by a full, expressive mouth that still looked disinclined to smile.
He wore only black, she noticed: jeans, boots, T-shirt, leather jacket.
A bad boy. He would have to be, Ember thought ruefully. And the severe color showcased his vampiric beauty perfectly.
Her nails began to bite into her palms, and she realized she'd clenched her fists. She also realized that those nails had suddenly become awfully sharp. Ember forced them open, alarm rising almost as quickly as the strange fire in her blood. Sure enough, there were angry red crescents where her nails had been, though even as she watched, they began to disappear.
If normal men healed as quickly, her life would have been a whole lot less lonely.
"You're Ember Riddick, then? The owner?" the stranger asked, his gaze still fixed on Ginni, who looked pretty close to overheating herself. Though Ember kind of doubted her employee would sprout fangs and claws no matter how lust-fuzzed her brain got.
Unlike some people.
The sound of her name on his lips had her licking her own. Ember found herself stepping forward before she could think too hard about what she was doing. Then he turned to look at her, and she had no choice but to follow through with what was no doubt one of her patented Extremely Bad Ideas. She was normal, she told herself. I can do this. It echoed in her head, her mantra.
I'm normal. Normal, normal, normal…
This was her place now, and her shop, damn it. She might be weird, possibly even possessed, but she could keep her tongue in her mouth and off the floor long enough to make a sale.
"Actually, I'm Ember," she said, trying to ignore the way Ginni still stared at him, her eyes slightly glazed. And there was nothing normal about the possessive snarl that welled in her throat, designed to drive away any female stupid enough to think of competing. Defiantly, she forced a smile, and hoped it didn't just look as if she was baring her teeth.
"Welcome to Lotions and Potions. What can I help you with?"
She'd wanted his attention, and now she had it. The most unusual and beautiful pair of eyes she'd ever seen locked with hers. They were a pale green, like sea glass, a stunning contrast against his black hair. And though Ember knew it was just a trick of all the inner circuits he was busy frying, she'd swear those eyes began to glow a little, the light in them intensifying as he looked at her.
"You're Ember Riddick?" he asked, and the thorough appraisal he gave her was anything but shy. Wicked delight surged through her, even as all of her warning bells began to go off inside. It occurred to her that she was, in all likelihood, the only woman on Earth who would be conflicted about flirting with Mr. Tall, Dark and Smoking Hot.
Usually the thick—and unnecessary—glasses and severe ponytail were enough to prevent her from getting a second look. Unobtrusive, she'd decided since her arrival here, was key. This guy, however, seemed unsettlingly oblivious to the superficial defenses she'd thrown up. He could really see her, Ember was suddenly certain. It was nice to let herself be admired again, she had to admit. As long as that was as far as it went. But the longer he stayed here, the less certain that got.
She forced herself to form words, halting though they were. She was at least pretty sure they made sense, which was good. And they weren't "Hi, I want you," which was even better.
"I am. And you are?" She held out her hand out of habit, and regretted it instantly when he took it, enveloping her small hand in his impossibly large one. It was a casual gesture, but Ember sucked in a breath at that first bit of contact. The smooth, silken skin of his palm was warm, almost hot, and that intangible sense of power that seemed to surround him flooded her instantly.
She would have thought it odd that he dropped her hand so quickly, as if she'd burned him, except that Ember was sure her facade of control was slipping. God knew what her eyes must look like…. Ember looked away quickly, grateful that at least the blood roaring in her ears had quieted the instant his hand left hers.
"Raum. I'm Raum," he said in that delicious voice, like chocolate for the ears. He sounded as puzzled as she felt. It wasn't like her to react so strongly, not this fast, anyway. He was no doubt just wondering what sort of drugs she was on. It was only the last shreds of her pride that had her lifting her chin and pressing on.
"Raum…" She trailed off, waiting for him to offer a last name, wondering if it would be as strange as the first. When he only looked back silently, however, Ember decided to let it drop. The sooner she got through this and sent him on his way, the better. And if he really did go by only one name, then he was probably a complete weirdo, which made getting him out of here an even better idea.
"Raum, hi. We, um…we have lots of unusual things here. What were you looking for specifically? Cologne for yourself? Perfume for your…your girlfriend, maybe?" God, she hoped she'd said that last part without gagging too much on the word. Or growling. That would send things from bad to worse in a hurry.
Fortunately, her question seemed to have been the right one. At least it got him to reply.
"I'd like to buy…" He looked around, frowning, as though not quite sure of where he was. "For myself. Cologne would be fine."
"Raum, I doubt there's anything on earth that would get your natural stench out. Still, it can't hurt to try. What do you think, beautiful? Up to the task?" It was only then, at the sound of another throaty, musical voice, that Ember finally noticed he hadn't come in alone. For the second time in minutes, she was stopped in her tracks. At least this time she managed to keep her chin off the floor.
A quick glance told her that for Ginni, not so much.
Good God, could the invasion of Mount Olympus have come at a worse time? This one was a blond, with a face that could have been carved by Michelangelo and eyes such a vibrant green, not sea glass but more like emeralds, that Ember had to assume they were contacts.
And when his eyes dropped to give her an appreciative once-over, it was either look away or make an utter fool of herself.
These men, the devil and the angel both, were sex incarnate.
And she was in big, big trouble.
"I'm sure we have something that will work for you," she said, deliberately ignoring the sarcastic blond, who had a nasty edge to his voice she didn't much care for despite his beauty. She headed for the shelves of essences, but not before she caught Raum's eyes again for a moment. Ember averted her gaze quickly, but it was too late. Those eyes, so intense, sent another blast of heat through her that then coiled and spiraled outward, until she was suffused with it. Ember could already feel her walk changing, becoming sinuous, suggestive, knew that the alluring scent she wore was intensifying as her body chemistry changed. Deep inside, the saner half of her moaned in despair and covered her eyes.
And the part of her that had finally slipped all the way out of its well-locked cage did exactly what it always did: prepared to get in trouble. Ember wanted to lock it down again…really, she did. But it got so hard to behave when there was so much power always fighting to get out. And she felt so good….
"Here," she purred, her voice going low and throaty. Ember plucked a fragrance blend from the shelves as she approached, her lips curving in an inviting smile. There was no apprehension now, no fear of what was coming. That was always the good thing about giving in. The bad things, unfortunately, always seemed to outnumber that one considerably.
Ember only stopped moving when she was inches from Raum, never looking away as she unscrewed the small black cap from the bottle.
"I think I have just the thing. Try this," she coaxed, moving in even closer, her body almost touching his. She lifted the delicate amber bottle to just beneath the beautiful stranger's nose. "I think this would suit you perfectly."
He inhaled gently, and as Ember had hoped, heat flashed in his luminescent gaze. Good. That was good, to be wanted.
No, it's bad. And I have serious impulse-control prob lems. And claws. And fangs…
"Interesting. This is a cologne?" he asked, his voice a velvety rumble. He lowered his head to her when he spoke, his large body curving around her small one until she felt they were the only two people in the room.
For the first time, rather than enjoying the knowledge of her own dominance, something in her recognized a stronger power than her own. Ember's fascination rendered her strangely helpless.
"It's a blend of essential oils," she replied, tilting her head just a little as she looked up at him, startled again at just how fathomless his eyes seemed. "You could let me blend it into something for you…lotion, bath salts, that sort of thing. I could dilute it, make it more subtle. Or," she continued, tipping the little bottle against her finger, "you could just wear it the way it is. Strong," she breathed, hesitating only for a moment before daring to reach up and trail the finger down his throat, from Adam's apple to the warm, intriguing hollow right at the base of it. "Elemental."
Ember heard his sharp intake of breath, saw his pupils dilate. His lips, sculpted perfection, parted slightly as he dipped his head toward her.
"You're a clever little demon, aren't you?" he whispered, his breath feathering her ear.
It was a strange thing to say, but she hardly spared a thought for it. Instead, Ember gladly fell under the thrall of whatever strange magic this man carried with him, her surroundings fading until there was nothing for her but his scent, the steady sound of his breathing, and the intense heat that radiated from him and made her feel as though she'd gotten too close to the sun. She let her eyes drop shut, skimming her cheek against his, tipping her head back to allow him access to her waiting lips.
After so long, such a relief, to give in. Maybe this one would be strong enough to take all she had to give….
Come to me. Mine.
But when he was just a breath away, her beleaguered nuisance of a conscience managed to get in one final word.
I can't believe you're going to make out with this guy right now. In front of everybody. In the STORE!
That was what yanked her back, with an agonizing jolt, to herself—and to the reality of a strange man (albeit a stunningly gorgeous strange man) moving in for a very public lip-lock. Ember gasped as she realized what she'd been about to do, and the bottle of fragrance slipped from her fingers to shatter on the wooden floor.
The mess, and the now overwhelming smell of too much fragrance in one place, helped her hang on to sanity, even as shame flooded her and set her cheeks aflame.
"I'm so sorry," she said, stumbling backward two steps, her eyes wide. Her heart pounded in her chest, and her body was racked with flashes of both intense heat and brutal cold. She didn't know what the hell was wrong with her, but she had to get out of here, and away from the man who watched her with a steady gaze that was less human than it was pure predator.
She watched in horror as he reached for her, a frown creasing his dark brow.
"Ember," he said. "It's all right, wait—"
"I'm just…c-clumsy today, I guess!" She backed away from him so quickly that she banged her hip on the sharp edge of one of the small tables that were scattered about the shop. She barely felt it through the adrenaline, though the display of decorative glass perfume bottles wobbled precariously. Ember forced out a sharp, nervous laugh. The unnatural sound of it made her wince, but she kept backing up, wrapping her arms protectively around herself.
"I'll go get something to clean that right up. Watch out for the glass." She started to go, then turned, suffused with a helpless misery she'd sworn she was done with. But of course, she would never be done with it.
Not as long as she lived.
Why couldn't she just be like everyone else?
Unable to resist, she took one last look at Raum. He really was magnificent.