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Nora Sutherlin was being followed.
She didn't know she was being followed as she drove through Bavaria and into the heart of the Black Forest. Who would follow her, after all? And why? No one back home knew why she'd left, and no one at all knew where she'd gone. She kept her eyes on the road ahead and didn't once think to look behind her.
A vague uneasiness, a quiet sort of dread, had burrowed into her mind and made a home there. The sun, which had seen almost as much as she had in her lifetime, chased her car as she raced down a road shrouded in towering pine trees. Dark. Light. Dark. Light. Nora sensed the shadows wanted to catch her and keep her. She pushed the accelerator and fled deeper into the forest.
At last she came to the end of the road and spied a small thatched-roof cottage hidden among the pine and fir trees. Two stories and made all of stone, the little house seemed an exile from a fairy tale. A kindly woodcutter could live in that housethe sort who'd save a little girl from the jaws of a wolf. If the cottage were part of a fairy tale, who was she? The woodcutter? The girl? Or the wolf?
She gathered her things from the car and strode toward the cottage. The owner had warned her there was no lock on the door but promised she would be safe. This part of the woods was on private land. No one would trouble her. No one at all.
Ivy covered the cottage from the ground to the chimney. She felt as if she'd stepped back four hundred years when she crossed the threshold. Gazing around the interior, she made her day's plan. She'd build a fire in that great gray stone hearth. She'd drink tea out of ruddy earthenware mugs. She'd sleep under heavy sheets in a rustic bed with posts of rough-hewn wood. In another time and under different circumstances, she would have loved it here. But grief clawed at her heart, and her task lay hard before her.
And it wasn't in Nora's nature to relish the prospect of sleeping alone.
She took her bags upstairs to the sole bedroom and knelt on the floor by the smaller of her two suitcases. She unzipped the bag carefully, slowly, reluctantly. From a bed of velvet she pulled out a silver box the size of a pew Bible and held it in her shaking hands.
As the cottage owner had promised, she found the cobblestone path that led to the lakeshore. The smell of pine surrounded her as she wandered down the path. It was April but the scent called Christmas to mind____"O Holy Night" playing on the piano, red and green candles, silver bows, golden ornaments and Saint Nicholas coming to hide coins in the shoes of all the good little children. Idly she wished Saint Nicholas would see fit to visit her tonight. She'd welcome the company.
The path widened and ahead of her she saw the lake, its dark clear waters silver tipped in the sunlight that peeked through clouds. She stood on the stony shore at the water's edge.
She could do this. For days now she'd been preparing herself for this moment, preparing what she would say and how she would say it. She would be strong. For him, she would do this, could do this.
Nora swallowed hard and took a quick breath.
" As soon as she spoke his name she stopped. She could get no more words out. They backed up in her throat and choked her like a hand around her neck. Turning her back on the water, she half walked, half ran to the house, the silver box clutched to her chest. She couldn't let it go yet. She couldn't say goodbye.
She set the silver box on the heavy wood fireplace mantel and turned her back to it. If she pretended it wasn't there, maybe she could believe it hadn't happened.
Outside the cottage, the wind picked up. The rickety, ivy-covered shutters rattled against the stone walls. Electricity brushed against her skin. Ozone scented the air. A storm was rising.
Nora started two firesone in the great stone hearth and one in the smaller bedroom fireplace. The owner of the house had stocked the refrigerator and cabinets for her. An unnecessary kindness. She hadn't had much of an appetite for two weeks now, but she'd make herself eat if only to stave off the headaches hunger inflicted on her.
The day passed as she kept herself busy with small tasks. The cottage was clean but it gave her a sense of purpose to wash all the dishes in a large copper kettle and to sweep the hardwood floor with a witch's broom she found in the pantry. She worked until exhaustion overtook her and she lay down on top of the bed and napped.
Nora woke from a restive, dreamless sleep and ran water in the claw-foot porcelain bathtub. She sank into the heat, hoping it would seep into her skin and relax her. Yet when she emerged an hour later, pink and wrinkled, she still felt tight as a knot.
She dressed in a long white spaghetti-strap nightgown. The hemline tickled her ankles as she walked and brushed the tops of her bare feet. To distract herself, she stood in front of the mirror twisting and pinning her hair this way and that, taming the black waves into a low knot with loose tendrils that flowed over her neck and framed her face. When she finished, she almost laughed at the effect. In her white nightgown, with understated makeup and her hair coiffed in curls, she looked like a virgin bride on her wedding night. An older bride, of courseshe'd turned thirty-six last month. But still the woman in the mirror looked demure, innocent, even scared. She thought grief aged people, but tonight she felt like a teenager againrestless and waiting, aching for something she couldn't name but that she knew she needed. But what was it? Who was it?
She wandered downstairs and considered eating. Instead of feeding herself, she fed the fire. As the wood crackled and burned, lightning split the sky outside the kitchen window. Thunder rumbled close behind. Nora stood at the window and watched the night rip itself open. Bursts of thunder rattled the forest again and again. Between rumbles, Nora heard a different sound. Louder. Clearer. Closer.
Footsteps on stone.
A knock on the door.
Nora froze. No one should be out here. No one but her.
The owner had promised her privacy. This cottage was the lone house for miles, he'd said. He owned all the land around it. She would be safe. She would be alone. Another knock.
The cottage door had no lock. Whoever stood outside could walk in at any moment. For two weeks now the only emotions she'd felt were sorrow and grief. Now she felt something elsefear.
But Soren had trained her too wellHebrews 13:2, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." And such a night was fit for neither angel nor demon, saint or sinner.
She threw open the door. A man, not an angel, stood on the opposite side of the threshold.
Rain drenched his dark hair and beaded on his leather jacket.
"What the hell are you doing here?" she asked, crossing her arms over her chest, self-conscious about the low cut of her nightgown. She should have thrown on a robe.
"Begging for sanctuary. Should I do it again? Sanctuary?"
"Did you follow me?" she asked. She'd flown into Marseille last night and had dinner with him. She never dreamed he'd chase her all the way to Germany.
"I would have come sooner, but I took a wrong turn at Hansel and Gretel's. A girl in a red cloak gave me directions, and now I'm here, Snow White."
"You found your way here, Huntsman. You can find your way back," she said. "I can't give you sanctuary."
"You know what will happen if I let you in."
"Exactly what we both want to happen."
"It can't happenyou and me. And you don't need me to tell you why."
The smile faded from his face.
"You need me," he said.
"It doesn't matter. I have to do this alone."
"You don't have to do it alone." He took an almost imperceptible step forward. The toes of his rain-soaked buff-colored boots touched but did not cross the threshold. "You do too much alone."
"I can't let you in," she said, and felt that fist in her throat again.
"Would he want you to face this alone?"
"No," she said. "He wouldn't."
"Let me in."
"That sounded like an order. I told you what I am. You know I give the orders."
She could already feel her resolve crumbling. Twenty-five years old, tall, deeply tanned, dark hair with the slightest wave to it that demanded a woman's fingers run through it again and again, clear celadon eyesan inheritance from his Persian motherand a face that someone should sculpt so it would endure even after both of them turned to dust and ashes
How could she turn him away? How could anyone?
"Then order me to come inside," he said.
She closed her eyes and held the door to steady herself. This was wrong. She knew it. She'd sworn before she'd even seen him that she wouldn't do this, not ever, not with him. But then she'd met him. And now, after all that had happened and the grief that threatened to overwhelm her, could anyone blame her for taking her comfort with him? One man would blame her. But was that enough to stop her?
"Order me in," he said again, and Nora opened her eyes. "Please."
She could never resist a beautiful man begging. "Come in, Nico," she said to Kingsley's son. "That's an order."
She shut the door behind Nico and pulled him to the fireplace. She helped him out of his jacket and boots. Battered and mud crusted, his shoes looked nothing like Kingsley's spit-shined riding boots. These were work boots, steel tipped and utilitarian.
"Do I want to know how you found me?" she asked as she brushed the mud off Nico's boots and set them to dry by the fireplace.
"I followed your trail of bread crumbs."
"You might have accidentally left your bag open at the restaurant and I might have accidentally seen the address on your rental confirmation."
"Leaving my bag open was an accident," she said.
"Finding the address might not have been." He pulled off his socks and ran his hands through his hair, shaking the rain out of it.
"Like father, like son." She sighed. "You're as sneaky as Kingsley."
"Are you angry?"
"No, I'm not angry." She raised her hand to her forehead and rubbed at the tension headache lurking there. Nico pulled her hand down and looked at her with concern.
"Need food? Wine?" she asked before he could ask her how she wasa question she didn't want to answer. "Or did you bring your own?"
"There might be a bottle or two of Rosanella in the car."
"I won't make you bring them in," she said. Outside the storm still raged wild.
"I will later. First things first." Nico took her by the wrist and pulled her close.
"Don't," he said. "Don't fight me. Let me help you."
Sighing, Nora rested her head against his chest and let him rub the knot of tension in her neck. When they'd met in December she'd had Zach with her, and Nicoonly his mother called him Nicholas, he'd saidhad shown her editor/friend/ occasional lover all due deference. But when she visited again a month later, Nico did nothing to hide his delight at having her to himself. He was barely twenty-five. Handsome and young and French, what reason did he have for wanting hernearly twelve years his senior and with a long history of sleeping with the man he'd learned was his biological father? She got her answer while they were out walking one day. Two womena mother and daughterhad stopped them, asking for directions. The mother looked forty years old, the daughter around Nico's age. Both were well-dressed classic French beauties. Nico barely blinked at the daughter. To the mother he'd flashed a smile so flirtatious even his father would have been impressed. Kingsley's son had a fetish for older women.
"You're in pain," he said. "I can feel it all through you."
"I like pain," she reminded him.
"No one likes this kind of pain. I would know."
She lowered her eyes in sympathy. The man who'd raised Nico as his son had died five months ago. A month after that, she'd shown up and told him he had another father, which had torn the stitches on his still-healing grief. If anyone understood the pain she felt right now, it was Nico.
"Let me ease your pain tonight."
"How?" She looked up at him. "Can you bring people back to life?"
"I can bring you back to life."
She almost told him he was as arrogant as his father, but before she could speak, he kissed her.
Nervous as a virgin, her lips trembled under his. If it had been anyone but him, she would have wondered at this newfound shyness. She'd never been shy, never been demure, never been innocent. And yet, this was Kingsley's only son, and by sleeping with him she would lose something far more dear to her than her virginity had ever been.
"You're shaking," Nico said against her lips.
"I don't know."
"I'm here," he whispered. "You don't have to be afraid."
He was here. That was why she was afraid. But the fear didn't stop her from opening her mouth to receive his kiss. He kissed along her jawline to her ear, nipped at her earlobe. Over the pulse point in her neck, he pressed a long, languid kiss. The heat from his mouth seared her all the way to her spine. His kisses were neither tentative nor hurried. As he kissed her, her muscles slackened, her skin flushed with heat and the fear faded. For the first time in days, she felt human. Since meeting back in December, she and Nico had been in weekly contact. Emails, phone callshe even wrote her letters by hand. Letters she read and reread and answered. Letters she burned before anyone found them.
Her head fell back as Nico kissed the hollow of her throat. He placed his hands on either side of her neck and rubbed his thumbs into the tendons of her shoulders.
"What's this?" he asked as he lifted the chain of her necklace.
Nora wrapped her hand around the pendant. She couldn't talk about it yet. It meant too much to her. Especially now.
"A saint medal. It's a Catholic thing."
"I know about saints. I am one, remember?"
"Saint Nicholas brought me Christmas early this year," she said, smiling as he kissed her throat. "Although sleeping with him will put me on the naughty list for eternity."
"It's my list. I'll be the judge of that." He slipped the strap of her nightgown off her shoulder and traced her bare shoulder with his fingertips. Her body shivered with the pleasure from the touch of his work-roughened skin.
"You're so beautiful in white." Nico whispered the words into her ear as he ran his hand down her back, caressing the silk of her gown.
Nora said nothing. She'd bought the white gown to wear for Soren on their anniversary, a celebration that wouldn't happen now.