There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
T. S. Eliot
Henning, Colorado, Friday Afternoon
The woman was trouble.
Ian Buchanan knew it the second he set eyes on her as she climbed out of a banged-up, dust-covered, dark blue rental. Knew it as he set down his hammer, watching her walk toward him, her small frame backlit by the burning orange glow of the sweltering afternoon sun while she carefully made her way through the rugged terrain of the building site.
And the first words out of that soft, pink mouthher lips glossy and sweet looking, voice mellow with a sexy, husky little rasp to itconfirmed his suspicions.
"Mr. Buchanan, my name is Molly Stratton and I'm here because
well, I know this sounds crazy, but your mother, Elaina, asked me to come and find you."
She didn't laugh. Didn't smile. She just stared up at him with the biggest pair of brown eyes he'd ever seen. Waiting.
"Is that right?" He ignored her small outstretched hand while he pushed his sunglasses up on top of his head, picked up his Coors, and took a long swallow of the beer. The glass rim of the longneck was cool against his sweat-salted lips, the beer even cooler as it went down his dry throat in a long, icy glide. She watched him while he drank, her dark gaze snagging on the column of his throat as it worked. A soft wash of pink warmed the delicate crest of her pale, freckle-dusted cheekbones as she stared, those full lips parted the barest fraction. Something down low in Ian's belly cramped in reaction. His blood went thick.
Oh, yeah, she was trouble, all right.
Ticked at himself for reacting so easily to her, he set the bottle back down on top of his battered cooler with a distinct thud, noting from the corner of his eye the way she flinched at the harshness of the sound.
She was nervousand obviously crazy as hell. Either that, or a pathetic little con, looking for an easy score.
"So tell me, sunshine," he drawled, injecting just the right amount of ridicule into his deep voice. "You talk to the dead often, or is today just my lucky day?"
Reaching up to hook her windblown hair behind her left ear, she held his hard gaze without so much as a flicker of those long, thick lashes rimming the deep cinnamon brown of her eyes. "As a matter of fact, I do. How often depends on them
Ian stared at her while those strange words played through his mind. She'd stopped just a few feet away from where he stood, her gaze both shy and direct in that way that always captured a man's attention. The bristling Colorado mountain breeze played havoc with her shoulder-length, honey-blond curls, carrying a scent to his nose lost somewhere between want and need and something hot caught fire in his blood, like a burning glow heating him from within. Even down deep, in those forgotten places where things always stayed cool and calm
and lifelesswhere nothing and no one could touch himhe sensed an uncomfortable spark of awareness.
Dropping his sunglasses back down to shield his eyes, Ian picked up his hammer and went back to work, bracing the wall he'd just raised. He no longer held her gaze, but he still felt her, like a fine tension that vibrated from her body to his own, its rhythm rapid and quivering.
What the hell?
"I know it sounds
impossible," she added, "but it's true."
Yeah, sure it was.
"Don't they have medication for people like you, Miss Stratton?" he asked with a heavy dose of sarcasm, determined to ignore her
the irritating beads of sweat snaking down his spine beneath the damp cotton of his T-shirt. Not to mention the unwanted sexual hunger twisting belligerently in his gut. "What'd you do, miss a dose?"
"I'm not psychotic or delusional." She sighed, sounding tired. Weary even. "And I'm not after your money or"
"Good," he grunted with a low laugh, his grin crooked as he glanced up at her through the dark shield of his glasses, "because I ain't got any. Would you believe I blew every cent I own on the Psychic Friends Network?"
She frowned, but determination etched the delicate angles of her face, giving her the illusion of being tough, when he knew instinctively that she was anything but. Crazy? Obviously. But there was something vulnerable and soft in her that fascinated the hell out of him.
God, he was so fucked.
"Look, I realize this seems like some kind of joke to you, but I'm not trying to scam you," she murmured, her left hand fidgeting with the bottom button of her shirt, just above the waistband of her jeans. "I really don't want your money or anything else. The only thing I'm asking is that you pay attention to what I have to tell you."
"Now see," he replied in a slow slide of words worthy of any natural-born Southerner, "the problem is that I'm too much of a bastard to pay you even that." He pointed the hammer in the direction of her car, needing her gone. Now. Before he gave in and forgot why bedding her would be such a bad idea. "So why don't you just hightail your crazy little ass out of Henning and back to wherever it is you came from."
A soft sound of irritation rumbled in her chest, making him grin despite himself. It was refreshing to know that little miss innocent looking had a temper, and he found himself wondering what she looked like when that passionate temper was truly riled.
Sweat popped out on his forehead that had nothing to do with the heat rolling up at them in waves from the sweltering groundand everything to do with the feminine package standing before him. It was his own fault, but he'd been too long without a woman. Now he was in a bad way, and Ian knew he should've ignored his waning interest and dropped by Kendra Wilcox's earlier in the week. If he'd gone ahead and gotten laid, then maybe he wouldn't be getting geared up over the strange little female standing in front of him, talking about conversations with his mother's ghost.
"Look, Mr. Buchanan. If forgetting about this whole thing was an option, then believe me, I would. Unfortunately, it isn't. I've no other choice than to follow through with this, whether you act like an arrogant jerk or a gentleman."
Mumbling around the nail he'd just placed between his lips, Ian arched one brow. "Much to my mother's heartache, I never did take to the whole Southern gentleman way of life. It all started the fateful afternoon I put a frog down Sally Simpson's pants in kindergarten," he informed her, setting the nail in place. He flashed her an unrepentant smile, getting a perverse pleasure out of pushing her buttons. "And I've never changed."
"And you sound remarkably proud of that fact." Her voice held a hint of challenge that twisted the irritating hunger in his gut a notch tighter, and he nearly smashed his thumb as he swung down on the nail head. "A rebel through and through."
"Which really shouldn't come as a surprise," he rumbled softly. "If you're so chatty with my mother, then I'm sure she's already warned you that I'm a stubborn son of a bitch. You're wasting your time here, Molly."
The use of her first name had her blinking with an odd look of surprise. And damn, but if he didn't feel that strange little jolt between them again, like something electric and tangible skittering on the air. Something too intimate for comfort. He didn't know why he'd used her first name, but he couldn't deny that he liked the way it felt on his lips.
"She's told me enough for me to know that you'd be less than cooperative," she answered after a moment, while the wind picked up, molding the soft cotton of her plain white shirt to a petite pair of high, rounded breasts. "She also warned me that you'd react this way."
Ian cut her a sharp look from behind his dark lenses, but bit back an even sharper retort. It was twisted, but the harder she pushed him, the more he wanted her.
"So, we can either go ahead and have this conversation here," she pressed on with firm conviction, taking advantage of his silence, "or I can follow you around night and day until you give in and listen to what I have to say. Your mother isn't going to leave me alone until you do."
Bent over, his weight resting on one arm while he held the hammer in the other hand, Ian studied her. Studied her in the way a fighter sizes up his next opponent. She sounded so confident, but her body language told a different story. The little details he picked up on, like the way she kept licking at her lower lip, her left hand now clenching and unclenching at her side while her right held on to the leather strap of her purse as if it was a lifeline, told a story of their own. White knuckles. Rigid spine. In the base of her pale throat, her pulse fluttered with a telltale sign of nerves. Or was it fear? Arousal?
Whatever it was, Ian suddenly found himself captivated by the intimate sight of the pulsing vein beneath that smooth, flawless skin. It looked too delicate, too fragile, like something he could so easily sink his teeth into and mark. Taste. Something that was too much like the dreams he'd been having, and it scared the shit out of him.
"Even if what you're saying is true, which I don't believe for one second, what could my mother want with me?" he asked in a low, rough blast of words that felt ripped out of his chest, all traces of sarcasm and humor gone. "We didn't talk for the last sixteen years of her life and she's been gone for five months. Seems a little late to start mending fences now."
"Elaina regrets that all those years were wasted," she said with such an earnest expression, he honestly believed that she was buying her own bullshit. God, she really was a whack job. "Still, she contacted me because there are things she wants you to know. Important things she wishes she had explained while she still had the time. But first
" She paused, and the look in those big brown eyes made him want to reach out to her and hell, Ian didn't have a clue what he would have done. He was saved from finding out when she cleared her throat, wet her bottom lip with a nervous flick of her tongue, then quietly said, "I'm sorry to have to tell you that someone close to you is in danger."
Aw, shit. What kind of sick game was this woman playing? Whatever it was, his patience was at an end.
"In case you've missed the clues, Miss Stratton, I'm going to spell it out for you all nice and slow like. I do not think this kind of crap is funny." Each word came from his lips with biting precision, his voice low, hard, expression even harder as he pulled off his glasses and glared at her through narrowed eyes. "Never have, even when my mother was parading her psycho friends in and out of our lives and putting my little brother and sister through an emotional wringer. I'm warning you now, get back in your dingy little rental and just get the hell away from me."
She crossed her arms over her chest, as if she could shield herself from the blast of his anger, but she didn't budge. "Trust me, Mr. Buchanan. Ian. I'm not enjoying this any more than you are, but I made a promise to your mother and I'm keeping it. I know she made mistakes, but she's trying to set things right. And if you don't listen to herto meto us
then someone is going to end up hurt. I can feel it."
Why in God's name do I always have to go for the psychotic ones? he silently cursed, running one hand through his hair so hard that his scalp stung. Must be in my goddamn genes.
That was one of the reasons he'd kept things going with Kendrathe simple fact that she was so different from the women he usually hooked up with. The hard-nosed CPA didn't take to bullshit any more than Ian did, and they both got what they wanted from each other, even if their encounters left him with that gnawing edge in his gut. Left him cold inside. Left him
It sucked, surebut he'd learned to live with it.
"Like I said before, my mother died five months ago. Now get off my property. This is private land and you're trespassing."
He watched her mouth firm. Then those delicate, narrow shoulders pulled back, determination showing in every rigid line of her soft, womanly body. "No."
Ian laid down his hammer and rose to his full height, expecting her to turn and hightail it away. At six-four, he was tall and broad, with enough muscles to make most people back down when he wanted them to. Wearing his meanest scowl, he held her stare, the look in his eyes purposefully hostile and fury-darkened. When he finally spoke, his words came in a low, silken rasp that he expected to buy results. Immediate ones. "What do you mean, no?"
What did she mean? She had no idea.
You are insane, Molly. Freaking certifiable.
How did you explain death and ghosts and pure, bone-chilling evil?
How did you explain the existence of hell on earth
or the fact that monsters really did hide in the shadows?
That something was watching you over your shoulder?
That we, humanity, were no longer alone?
How did you explain to someone that their entire world was about to change, never to be the same again?
Molly didn't knowdidn't have the answers. She was only the bearer of bad news, not its source, and she thought of the old saying: Don't shoot the messenger.
Somehow, she didn't think Ian Buchanan was going to be so understanding. Her mind felt dazed, and she knew why. It was pathetic, but the man's physical presence had short-circuited her mental faculties. He was
she faltered for a word that would do all that beautiful, hard-edged male power and arrogance justice, but failed. Elaina had warned her that he'd be distrustful, but she hadn't mentioned how bitter he'd become.
Or how gorgeous. Despite his crass rudeness, the man was a walking, talking poster boy for every woman's hidden bad-boy fantasy.