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Luc lounged—as best as a six foot three inch man could lounge—in the dainty chair at the small bistro table outside a trendy downtown San Francisco restaurant. He struggled to control his impatience. Beside him Nonna and Madam chatted happily in Italian while they awaited the arrival of Téa de Luca, or Witch Girl #1 as Luc had privately dubbed her. Because she was late, a trait that—quite literally—drove him out of his mind, he was in hurry up and wait mode, one of his least favorite memories of his military service.
It was rude. It was self-indulgent. And it gave the underlying message, "It's all about me." He despise d women who adopted that sort of attitude and avoided them like the proverbial plague.
He reached for a breadstick and pulverized it between his teeth. Where the hell was she? It wasn't like he had all day to sit around waiting on Her Witchiness.
Well, actually, he supposed he did now that he was temporarily out of a job while the cops and insurance company looked into the fire diamond heist. But there were plenty of other things he'd rather do. Like drive a spike between his ears, or tie himself to a railroad track in front of an oncoming freight train, or swim with a pack of voracious Great White sharks.
He cleared his throat and leaned toward Madam. "Where the he—" He broke off beneath the withering glare emanating from his grandmother and rethought his choice of words. "Would you mind trying Téa's cell again, Madam?"
"Do you have another appointment, Luciano?" Nonna asked. Her tone came across sweet enough, but a hint of hazel fire flashed through her eyes. A warning message he pretended not to notice.
"As a matter of fact, I do," he lied without remorse.
Madam picked up the pretty lavender cell phone she'd set on the table as gingerly as if it were a landmine. Peering through a pair of reading glasses hanging from a crystal beaded necklace around her neck, she carefully punched in a number. "No, no. That's not right," she murmured, her brow furrowing.
"I think if you just hit send several times it dials the last number," Nonna explained helpfully.
"Would you like me to take care of it?" Luc offered.
Madam passed him the cell with an amusing combination of relief and hauteur, reminding him again why she'd been given her particular moniker. "If you wouldn't mind, I would appreciate it."
"Happy to help."
He pushed the speed dial and waited for the call to connect. While it rang he automatically scanned the busy sidewalk just past the frilly wrought iron fence that separated the outdoor section of the café from the rest of humanity. It was an occupational hazard he'd developed first during his military career, and then when he'd opened his own personal security business. And it had spilled over into his current—he grimaced—or rather former job as head of security for Dantes Courier Service. With luck, the case would soon be resolved and he'd be back doing something useful instead of babysitting Witch Girl #1.
Pedestrians scurried across the intersection adjacent to the café. All except one lone woman who paused dead center in the crosswalk, juggling a briefcase and a voluminous shoulder bag from which she extracted three cell phones. Without quite knowing why, Luc shoved back his chair and stood, the phone still pressed to his ear.
The pedestrian warning signal guarding the intersection began to blink, indicating that the light would soon change. To his concern, the redhead remained oblivious as she sorted through the cell phones she'd unearthed before selecting one that, even from the distance separating them, he could see was a distinctive lavender. A distinctive lavender matching the one in his hand. She flipped it open.
A breathless greeting sounded in his ear. "Hello? Madam?"
Alarm bells clamored with painful intensity. He dropped the cell to the table, took a single step toward the waist-high wrought iron gate separating the outdoor portion of the café from the sidewalk and vaulted over it, careful to land on his good leg. He forced himself to attempt a swift jog, ignoring the red-hot stab of pain that shot from knee to hip. The light changed just then and cars began to move forward.
Get the woman!
The urgent demand roared through him, deafening him to everything else. He remembered his cousin, Nicolò, describing how his wife had been hit by a cab shortly after they'd first met. The driver had changed lanes to avoid a slow-moving vehicle and sped into the intersection, hitting Kiley. Even now, her past remained a blank as a result of the accident, although she and Nicolò were busy building new memories and creating a new life together—which included a baby due sometime in the next few weeks.
Get the woman now!
Luc watched helplessly as history decided to repeat itself. A cab swerved around a delivery truck who'd unexpectedly double parked outside a mom-and-pop market. With a blare of its horn, the cab accelerated directly toward the intersection. Clearly the driver didn't realize the woman was there, probably because he was intent on cursing at the truck driver, while the woman remained oblivious to her danger as she pressed buttons on her cell.
Get the woman now before you lose her forever!
Luc thought he shouted a warning and forced himself into a limping run, cursing a leg that would prevent him from reaching her before the cab. The driver didn't spot the hazard until the very last instant. He slammed on the brakes with an ear-splitting scream of metal and rubber. Luc forced himself to move even faster, praying his leg would hold him, but he knew he'd never be in time.
A split second before the cab hit the woman, it swerved a few precious feet. It was enough. Just enough. Luc snatched her clear and dove toward the safety of the sidewalk. He twisted so he'd absorb most of the impact, landing hard on his bad hip. Raw pain exploded through him.
"Son of a bitch!"
The woman shoved against his chest, surfacing in a tangle of deep auburn curls, lean ivory arms and legs and countless files and papers. Three cell phones rained down around them. A pair of rimless reading glasses dangled from one ear while teal-blue eyes regarded him in open outrage.
"Did you just call me a bitch?"
"Not exactly." Wincing, he grasped the woman around the waist and levered her to one side. Cautiously he sat up. His hip screamed in protest. Aw, hell. Not broken, but not in good shape, either. "Do you always stand in the middle of an intersection daring cars to hit you?" His injury gave the question more of a bite than he intended.
She wrapped herself in indignation while straightening her glasses. One of the fragile bits of wire connecting the two lenses across the bridge of her nose was severely bent, causing the lenses to sit cockeyed on her face. "I was answering a call from my grandmother." As though the explanation reminded her, she scrambled through the paraphernalia littered around them until she unearthed a lavender cell phone identical to Madam's. "Hello? Madam, are you still there?"
"Téa! Oh, my dear. Are you all right?"
The voice didn't come from the phone, but from a few feet away. Madam and Nonna hurried down the sidewalk toward them. Groaning, Luc cautiously climbed to his feet, then offered Téa a hand. And that's when it hit. A powerful spark, followed by a bone-deep burn shot from her palm to his. It flew through his veins, sinking into him, absorbed on the deepest level.
His internal alarm bells went berserk, clamoring and clashing and shrieking so loudly it destroyed all sensation but one—a desire so strong and powerful he literally shook from the desperate need to snatch this woman into his arms and carry her off. Sweep her away to someplace private where he could put his mark on her. Claim her in every way that a man claims a woman.
She stared at him in open shock and he had to assume she'd felt it, as well. Her lips parted, as though begging for his kiss, and her eyes seemed to smolder with blue-green fire. Every scrap of color drained from her face leaving behind a tiny pinprick smattering of freckles dusting her elegant nose. The foam of deep red curls tumbled down her back in bewitching disarray and provided a blazing frame for her upturned face—a face that mirrored every single emotion from bewilderment to disbelief.
She tore her gaze from his and looked at their joined hands. "What… What was that?" she whispered.
Deep down he knew, though he couldn't quite give it credence. Not yet. Not when it defied logic and understanding. Not when every fiber of his being resisted admitting the possibility of its existence. And yet… It was exactly as his grandfather had described. Exactly as his parents had told him. Exactly as what his cousins claimed happened to them. And exactly what he'd hoped would never happen to him.
"That was impossible," he answered.
"Téa?" Madam's apprehensive voice cut through the wash of desire. "Téa, I asked if you were all right."
Jerking her hand free of Luc's grasp, she turned to her grandmother. "I'm fine," she assured. "A little shaken and manhandled, but otherwise unhurt."
Luc's brows gathered into a scowl. Manhandled? Manhandled? How about snatched from the jaws of death? How about saved by the generosity of a stranger? How about rescued from a metal dragon by a poor battered knight who could have used some freaking shining armor to protect himself from injury?
Before he could argue the point, pedestrians paused to help gather up Téa's belongings which she carefully organized, tucking everything away into her briefcase and voluminous purse. The desire that had overwhelmed him minutes before eased, at least enough for him to recover her cell phones. One of them was chirping at great volume, urging, "Answer me. Answer me. Answer me, me, me!" over and over. Even these had individual slots in her handbag.
By the time she finished, reaction set in. Madam appeared on the verge of tears. Nonna's brow was lined in worry. Only Téa seemed blissfully unconcerned.
Luc, on the other hand, found it difficult to even think straight, other than to resent like hell the events of the past several moments. Pain radiated from every muscle in his body. Between his banged up knee and hip, Téa's apparent obliviousness to her near-death experience, and that undeniable sizzle of physical attraction when they'd first touched flesh-to-flesh, he was not a happy man. And the fact that Téa was ignoring the significance of each and every part of all that, only made it worse.
Luc was a man of action. Someone who took charge. Granted, he had finely tuned instincts. But he backed them with logic and split-second decisiveness that had saved his hide countless times in the past. It had also saved Téa's, though she didn't seem to quite get that fact.
Whatever had just happened had done a number on him and he resented it like hell.
Determined to revert to type, he regained control by gathering up the three women and urging them toward the café. After seeing them seated, he went in search of their waiter and ordered a new round of drinks, adding a black ale for himself. If they'd had anything stronger, he'd have chosen that instead, but until he could down a dozen anti-inflammatories chased by a stiff couple of fingers of whiskey, the beer would have to do.
"Thank goodness you were there to rescue Téa from that crazed cab driver," Madam said the minute he returned to the table.
Luc took a seat and fixed Téa with a hard gaze. "Perhaps if your granddaughter wouldn't answer her cell phone in the middle of the intersection, she wouldn't have to worry about being mowed down by crazed cab drivers."
Téa smiled sweetly. "My grandmother tells me that you were the one who phoned me. I believe that means this is your fault."
"My fault?" The waiter appeared with their drinks, but froze at Luc's tone, one he used when dressing down some gomer over his latest FUBAR. "How is it my fault that you chose to answer your phone in the middle of a busy intersection?"
"If you hadn't called—"
"Which I wouldn't have needed to do if you'd been on time—"
"—I wouldn't have answered my cell in the middle of the intersection."
"—I wouldn't have had to call you. But you're welcome."
He glanced at the waiter and gave an impatient jerk of his head toward the table. Scrambling, the waiter deposited the drinks, scribbled down their orders and made a hasty retreat.
"You're welcome?" Téa repeated.
She blinked, her eyes huge from behind the bent lenses of her reading glasses. As though suddenly aware she had them on, she shoved them into the curls on top of her head. Then her expression blossomed into a wide smile, completely transforming her face. What had been pretty before became stunning.
Heat exploded low in his gut. The urge to carry her off grew stronger, more compelling than before. He snatched up his lager and took a long swallow, praying it would douse the flames. Instead it seemed to make them more intense. All he could think about was finding a way to extract her from this ridiculous meeting and take her off someplace private. To explain in a manner as physically graphic as possible that whatever was happening between them needed to be completed. Several times, if necessary. Whatever it took until the rage of fire and need cooled and he could think rationally again.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Maybe we could start over? Thank you for saving me from being run down. I'm sorry I was late for our lunch meeting. I assure you, it was unavoidable. I don't usually answer my cell phones in the middle of a busy intersection, but it was Madam's and I always take her call, regardless of time and place."
She'd ticked off her points with the speed and precision of a drill sergeant. Where before he'd considered her scattered, now he saw what Nonna had meant by her description of Téa de Luca. It would appear she was a woman who existed in organized chaos and operated in focused oblivion.
Luc inclined his head. "Fair enough."
"That said," she continued, "I don't see the point in this meeting." She spared her grandmother a warm smile. "I appreciate your concern, but I don't need a bodyguard."
"Funny," Luc muttered. "Considering what happened just five minutes ago, I'd say that was precisely what you need."
She waved that aside. "It could have happened to anyone. Besides, he would have missed me."
It took Luc a split second to find his voice. "Have you lost your mind?"