By SARA HUMPHREYS
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Sara Humphreys
All rights reserved.
"Samantha," he whispered in his dark silky voice. Sam's skin tingled deliciously with just one word from him. A smile played at her lips as she waited for him to call her again. Her silent prayer was answered as he murmured her name. "Samantha." That same delightful rush washed over her like the warm waves that rippled by her feet. She stretched languidly on the sandy beach, and her eyes fluttered open. She was home.
She sat up and glanced at the familiar seashore of her childhood home. Sam knew it was only a dream. It had become a familiar one. The ocean glowed with unnatural shades of blue as if it was lit from beneath. The sky swirled with clouds of lilac and lavender. She stood up and relished the way the soft, pebble-free sand felt on her bare feet. A gentle breeze blew Sam's golden hair off her naked shoulders, and her long white nightgown fluttered lightly over her legs.
She closed her eyes and breathed in the salty air. He was near. She could feel it. Her blood hummed, and the air around her thickened. She'd come so close to seeing him many times, but she always woke up just before she found him.
Not this time.
This time she would stay on the beach and call him to her. It was her dream after all, and she was getting tired of coming up empty-handed. Eyes closed, she tilted her face to the watercolor sky and waited. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears in perfect time with the pounding waves.
"Samantha," he whispered into her ear. She stilled, and her mouth went dry. He was standing right behind her. How the hell did he get there? Where did he come from? Why couldn't he stand right in front of her where she could actually see him? This was supposed to be her dream, her fantasy. Jeez. Can you say intimacy issues?
Sam jumped slightly and sucked in a sharp breath as large hands gently cupped her shoulders. She should open her eyes. She wanted to open her eyes, but the onslaught of sensations to her body and mind had her on overload. Samantha shuddered as he brushed his fingers lightly down her arms leaving bright trails of fire in their wake. He tangled his fingers in hers and pulled her back gently. Sam swallowed hard as his long muscular body pressed up against hers. He was tall, really tall. She sighed. If he looked half as good as he felt, she was in big trouble.
"It would seem that you've finally found me," he murmured into her ear.
Sam nodded, unable to find her voice amid the rush of his. She licked her dry lips and mustered up some courage. It was a dream after all. Nothing to be afraid of. She could always wake up. But that's what she was afraid of.
"Why don't you ever let me see you?" she said in a much huskier tone than she'd intended. She pressed her body harder against his and relished the way his fingers felt entwined with hers.
He nuzzled her hair away from her neck and placed a warm kiss on the edge of her ear. "Come home," he whispered. His tantalizing voice washed over her and he seemed to surround her completely. Body. Mind. Soul. Every single inch of her lit up like the Fourth of July.
"Please," she said in a rush of air. Sam wrapped his arms around her waist and relished the feel of him. It was like being cradled in cashmere covered steel. Leaning into him, she rubbed her head gently against his arm. He moaned softly and held her tighter. The muscles in his chest rippled behind her, and his bicep flexed deliciously against her cheek. "I need to see you."
Eyes still closed, she turned in his arms as he said softly "Samantha."
* * *
Sam tumbled out of bed and landed on the floor with a thud. Breathing heavily and lying amid her tangled bedclothes, Sam stared at the bland white ceiling of her soon-to-be former apartment.
"Talk about a buzz kill," she said to the empty room. "Typical. I can't even get good sex in my dreams." She puffed the hair from her face and pushed herself up to a sitting position. Sam grabbed her cell phone off the nightstand and swore softly when she saw the time. She was going to be late. Crap.
* * *
The steamy August air swamped Samantha the moment she stepped foot onto the cracked New York City sidewalk. On any other day the stifling summer streets of Manhattan would drive her crazy — but not today. Sam smiled. Today was her last day of work. No more horrid tourists with even more horrid tipping skills. No more nights spent fending off her married and truly unfortunate looking boss. No more waitressing at T.G.I. Friday's in Times Square. Thank God!
Sam let out a large sigh, a mixture of exhaustion and relief, and slipped her aviators on with a cursory glance up to the towering buildings. She squirmed slightly as sweat began to bead on her brow and trickle down her back. Adjusting the heavy backpack, she wove her way through the pedestrian-riddled city and nestled the small iPhone ear buds snuggly into her ears. She hit shuffle on the slim iPod. A familiar tune filled her head; she couldn't help but walk to the beat as she wove her way through the minefield of tourists. Samantha mumbled the occasional "pardon me, excuse me" as she navigated the slow-moving gawkers in Times Square. Why did they feel the need to stop and look at every skyscraper? This was another part of living and working in New York City she definitely would not miss.
Sam trotted down the steps into the subway station and pushed her sunglasses up onto her sweaty head. She swiped her card in the turnstile and slid through the narrow gateway toward the platform. Stealing cursory glances at the various subway-goers, her attention was captured by a young woman who was clearly fresh out of college. She reminded her of herself — about ten years ago. Sam smiled and shook her head as the train screeched its way up to the platform. The hot air blast that accompanied it actually provided momentary relief from her sweaty state. She pushed her way into the crowded train with the rest of the subway rats, and her gaze wandered back to the young co-ed. She sat almost expectantly on the seat across from her, as if her lifelong dream may come leaping to life right in front of her at any moment.
Sam vaguely remembered that feeling. She had moved to the city right after college graduation. The moment she had that BFA in hand she packed it all up and moved to the Big Apple. As a young artist with age-old dreams, the city seemed the only logical place to go. It held the promise of excitement and glamour, a far cry from the sleepy seaside town she grew up in. Clearly promises were made to be broken. The young girl glanced up and caught Sam's eye. She delivered a quick, shy smile before looking away. Sam couldn't blame her. No woman in her right mind would maintain eye contact with a total stranger on a city subway.
The train shuddered to a stop in Grand Central Station, and Sam made a speedy escape into the muggy, bustling crowd as she switched trains for SoHo. She had one more loose end to tie up before she could officially leave NYC.
Sam exited at the Spring Street station and hustled along the narrow side streets, grateful that the pedestrian traffic wasn't quite as crazy here as it was in midtown. She turned onto Thompson Street, and the small, but sweet gallery came into view. Sam smiled, and her heart gave an odd little squeeze, knowing that this was really it.
She opened the heavy black lacquered door with an audible grunt and stumbled into the refreshingly cool gallery. The heat made the wood swell every summer, and a body slam was commonplace to open the damn door. She was instantly greeted by a shrieking Gunther.
"Kitten," he squealed and pulled her into a vigorous hug, which was immediately followed by a kiss on both cheeks. "You're late ..." He released her with a playful shove. "I can't believe you're leaving me here all alone in this big bad city." He stuck out his lower lip in a dramatic pout, crossed his delicate arms across his chest, and stamped his foot.
Sam chuckled and dropped her backpack onto the black leather bench by the door. "Oh, please." She rolled her eyes. "You've got Milton to keep you company. He is the gardener to your flower, isn't he," she teased.
"Bitch." Gunther stuck his pierced tongue out at her, turned on his heels, and huffed back to the reception desk. "You're just jealous because my boyfriend is cuter than that douche you're dating."
Sam held up both hands in protest. "Excuse me, douche I was dating. I broke up with him like a month ago." Sam leaned onto the reception desk with her elbows and placed her chin in her hands. "We can't all be gorgeous and in high demand like you Gunther," she said, batting her eyelashes dramatically.
Gunther patted her on the head. "That's true, kitten." He sighed and brushed a stray lock of hair off her face. "Maybe if you gave yourself as much attention as you gave to your artwork, you'd find a hottie too."
Sam glared at him through narrowed eyes. "Now who's being a bitch? Besides, my experience with Roger is just the latest example of how bad my taste in men is." She let out a sound of defeat. "I give up."
"Sounds to me like someone needs to get laid," he said with haughty confidence.
Sam slapped his cheek playfully. "Gunther, not all of us think with our libidos. You know me well enough by now to understand that a man has to get me here," she said pointing to her heart, "before he can get me here." She punctuated by grabbing both of her breasts.
"Honey, you just haven't met the right man. Trust me, the right guy will get you here, there, and everywhere," he said with a flourish.
Sam laughed and shook her head doubtfully. "I don't think so, honey, at least not for me. I'll take a good book and a hot bath over sex any day."
"Clearly, you've never had good sex." He sighed and made a tsking sound.
Sam opened her mouth to protest but stopped before she said anything because the cold hard truth was that he was absolutely right.
Sam pushed herself away from the desk and turned her back on him. Worried he'd see right through her, she pretended to admire the artwork that currently occupied the tiny gallery.
Sam stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of various brown paper-wrapped pieces leaning against the back wall. Her throat tightened, and tears pricked at the back of her eyes. She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her khaki pants in an effort to get control over her conflicting emotions.
"Hey, you don't have to leave you know." Gunther's gentle tone matched the comforting arm he wrapped around her.
Sam laid her head on his shoulder and sniffled. "Well, no one can say I didn't at least give it a shot." She lifted her head up and planted a kiss on his ridiculously smooth cheek. "You gave me lots of shots. Thanks, Gunther."
Gunther snapped his fingers. "Honey, my family owns this building in which I live and work. If I can't occasionally share these luxuries with my friends then what the hell good is it? Am I right? Yes," he said, confidently answering his own question. "I am."
He smacked her on the butt as she walked away from him toward the back of the gallery.
Sam smiled and wiped at her eyes. "I'm going to miss you." She took a deep breath, hoping to steady herself. She ran her fingers along the smooth brown paper and took a mental count. One was missing, and she could tell by the sizes that it was her favorite one.
"Gunther," she said in a slightly panic-laced voice. "Where's my mother's portrait?" Woman and the Wolf. It was her favorite and most personal piece. The woman and the wolf stood side by side looking out over a stormy ocean. Her mother's hand lay gently upon the massive head of an enormous gray wolf, long golden hair blowing in the breeze. Although a storm and the ocean raged around them, both the woman and the wolf exuded serenity amid chaos.
Smiling broadly, he clapped his hands. "I was wondering how long it was going to take you to notice that piece was missing."
Sam tilted her head and gave him a confused smile. "Well, don't keep me in suspense. Where is it?"
"I sold it," he said proudly.
"Sold it? When?"
"This morning," he said with obvious satisfaction. "As soon as I opened, this guy came in and bought it. Boy, oh boy, what a hottie too." He fanned himself dramatically.
Sam shook her head. "I don't get it? If you had the pieces all wrapped up, how did he even see it?"
"Well, I know it's your favorite, but it's mine too. I was really, really hoping you'd let me keep it here. It would've been like having you with me all the time. So I had it hung behind the gallery desk." He gave her a self-satisfied smile and brushed past her to the front desk.
Sam stared after him with a dumbfounded look on her face.
He glanced over his shoulder at her. "Kitten, you look like you're catching flies."
Embarrassed by her obvious shock, Sam snapped her mouth shut.
"Here's your check," he said holding an envelope out to her. "Minus my commission, of course."
Sam took the envelope from him. She rubbed the paper between her fingers. She should've been happy, thrilled in fact, but it was sad too. That portrait had been the most personal piece she'd ever created, and it tugged at her heart to know she'd never see it again.
"I really did adore it, but I do have one question though. Why the wolf?" He placed his hands on his slim hips. "I mean, I get that it's your mother and the beach where you grew up and all of that," he said quickly. "But why the wolf? You don't see a lot of wolves at the seashore."
"No," she said absentmindedly. "You don't." She'd always had an affinity for animals, wolves in particular. They had haunted her dreams for years, but when she moved to the city the dreams had stopped — at least until recently. "I dreamed about them a lot as a child. They were never scary though. The wolf was always protective. I don't know." She sighed. "Like a talisman or something."
"Talisman? Sounds hot!" He wiggled his eyebrows at her.
Sam gave him a slap on the arm. "No, you horn-dog, it wasn't like that. They were comforting and peaceful." Her thoughts went back to her painting and she could practically hear the waves. "Just like the ocean," she murmured. "Wild and free, but somehow comforting at the same time."
The phone rang, interrupting their conversation, and Gunther rushed over to answer it. As he chattered away with one of his buyers, her thoughts wandered to the evening of her thirtieth birthday. It was a memorable day simply for the milestone it was, but it was more. That night, for the first time in over ten years, she dreamed of the wolf.
Only this time, she was the wolf.
Gunther hung up and let out a loud exasperated sigh. "I hate dealing with new buyers. They always call up and ask such stupid questions. When are you open?" He mimicked with a grimace. "I mean honestly. What in gay hell? Haven't they heard of the Internet? We have a website for a reason people!"
His rant pulled her from her memories. "Thanks for everything, Gunther," she said with a small smile. "I'll give you a call in a couple of days about where to send the others."
"That's another thing. I think we should keep these for a while. If we hang them up here, there's a chance they'll sell. Sitting in Nonie's garage ... ain't nobody gonna buy 'em. Now come over here, and give me a hug." He pulled her into his arms and planted a big wet kiss on her cheek. "You take care of yourself, kitten. Don't forget to come home and visit Milton and me once in a while."
"That's just it," she said quietly. "This city was never home for me." Her thoughts went back to the portrait. "Tomorrow I'm going home."
* * *
Malcolm stood stone still on the balcony of his family home. He overlooked the predawn ocean, which stretched endlessly before him. As he breathed in the cool, salty air, he closed his eyes and willed himself to relax. His hands gripped the railing, turning his knuckles white. He was beyond edgy, full of anticipation for the days ahead. He had waited years for her to arrive, and tomorrow she would finally be here. He shoved himself away from the railing and paced back and forth, mirroring the beast caged within. She would be here in just a few more hours. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Unleashed by SARA HUMPHREYS. Copyright © 2011 Sara Humphreys. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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