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The man was an outsider, a visitor, and he wasn't welcome. It took only a moment for Emma to realize there was something unnatural about him, something different. The rush of cold air that scuttled in after him refused to surrender to the smoky warmth of her tavern, even after the stranger closed the door. Instead, it seemed to coalesce around him, as if feeding off his very presence.
"We're closed," Emma called from behind a worn but well-kept wooden bar. She glanced nervously at Rufus and his two burly brothers as they glared with unconcealed hostility at the stranger.
Massaging the two-day stubble sprouting from his face, Rufus muttered something to his brothers and they all snickered.
For a moment the stranger stood in the doorway and passed his gaze over the tavern, impervious to the hostile stares and low mutterings he received from the three. His long, sandy-blond hair hung limply to his shoulders, weighed down by melting snow. Crystals of ice not yet melted on his black overcoat reflected light cast by the fire burning in the center fireplace.
Emma couldn't see his eyes. Despite the fact that it was ten o'clock at night and a snowstorm had begun outside, the stranger wore a pair of red sunglasses too dark for her to see through. His attention seemed fixed on the sixteen-point trophy buck adorning the wall above her fireplace, and for a moment Emma feared he might be some PETA wacko come to give her grief about hunting animals.
"I said we're closed," she called out again, her voice loud and cold. She could hear Rufus cracking his knuckles.
The man in the doorway turned, as if noticing her for the first time. He entered, his movements as fluid as a haunting spirit.
Emma couldn't remember ever meeting a man so good-looking. His features were smooth and finely chiseled, almost angelic in their beauty. Suddenly Emma felt old, plump and gray and every bit the thirty years she had on the kid.
He reached into his left pocket and laid two hundred-dollar bills on the bar. "For dinner and drinks," he said in a soft, eerie rasp that sent the graying hairs on her arm vertical. There was something unfriendly, even sinister about him that his youth and perfect features couldn't mask, and though Emma couldn't actually see his eyes, she could feel them burning into her. Leaving her naked.
Possessing no desire to tangle stares, she looked down to his neck and found the edges of a pale, smooth scar smiling across his throat within the depths of his coat. There was only one sort of injury Emma could think of that would leave that kind of scar. Aware that she was staring, she looked back up into the lenses concealing his expression. She picked up the bills, folded them neatly and slid them into the apron strapped around her ample hips.
"It'll take a couple minutes to warm up the grill." Emma's voice, strong and brisk just moments before, now wavered.
He nodded and then took a seat in the back corner by the window, gliding into it like a hawk's shadow.
"What the hell?" Rufus demanded, thunking his near-empty mug on her oak-top table.
"You hush up, Rufus," Emma snapped, relieved to hear the customary gruffness back in her voice. "You give me two hundred dollars for dinner and I'll start up the grill for you too."
Rufus growled out a curse and swallowed a mouthful of brew.
"Jessica, how about a hand, hey?" Emma waved the bar towel at the only other woman in the bar, a buxom bottle-blonde whose glazed-over expression bordered on awe.
Damn fool girl. Emma knotted the end of the towel and thwacked it against Jessica's backside.