“So why’d you try to give my buddy alcohol poisoning tonight?”

Joely remembered even now how it felt to be caught between her hotel room door and the large, muscled man with dirty-blond hair and just the hint then of reddish five o’clock shadow. The air between them was charged with heat and electricity, and it excited her.

“It was the only way I could put him out of commission,” she’d said.

He chuckled low. “Telling him he’s not your type would’ve been cheaper.”

“I agree. I tried that first.”

Harry had moved in closer. “Yeah, he’s a little thick sometimes, but he’s a good guy.”

“Is that why you waited? I saw you watching me.”

He’d leaned down then, bringing his lips within an inch of hers, his hands still at his sides. “I waited to give my buddy his shot. It’s only fair. He saw you first,” he said, reaching up to tuck a strand of her blonde hair behind her ear. “And I saw you watching me back. Same look in your eyes then as now, baby. Like what you see?”

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Exposed: The Education of Sarah Brown

“Dance with me.” Paul took her into his arms and began slowly initiating her into the steps of the waltz.

“I’ve never danced to classical music in my life.”

His smile was infectious. “Then it’s past time, don’t you think? Just follow me. One, two, three, one, two, three. See? Easy as breathing.” They twirled around together as Sarah found her footing. It was more than any young woman could ask for—the perfect date. Almost.

No longer needing to watch her feet, Sarah looked up at Paul, who towered over her. The look in his eyes said 'I want you,' but his actions said 'I can wait.' In that moment, Sarah didn’t want to wait. It was a vacation. After tonight or tomorrow, she’d never see this man again, and she wanted to satisfy at least one small curiosity, one that wouldn’t violate her promise to either Anno or herself—not much, anyway.

“Paul?”

“Hmmn?” He maintained eye contact without missing a step. His hand on her waist shifted, lightly caressing her lower back.

“Kiss me.” She whispered the command with as much confidence as she could muster.

Paul stopped mid-step, the casual look on his face turning serious. He searched her eyes, seemed to find the answer he was looking for, then pulled Sarah in for a long, soft kiss. It was lovely, but not the deep kiss she was looking for, now longing for. She reached her arms higher, wrapping them around his neck and deepened the kiss. She took the initiative, tasting his lips, sucking his tongue, and drawing him in as close as she dared.

Paul let her do with him as she wished. It was incredibly sweet and tempting. He could feel her body pressed against his, urgent and seeking. His own body responded, growing hard as his hands pulled her hips closer still, but he held back, eventually breaking the kiss. Looking down into her passion-glazed eyes, he knew he could have her, but suddenly realized that was not all he wanted. He dropped soft kisses onto her cheek, and pulling her back to him, began to dance again.

Sarah was disappointed, but also thankful. The kiss was great, hot and sexy. The fact that he pulled back made her want more. Still, it was her own volition that deemed she wouldn’t let things get out of control with him tonight. But it rattled a little. Doesn’t he want me? A frown creased her brow, one he couldn’t see.

But he felt it. “I do want you, Sarah. Believe me...” he said as he ground her hips against his. Her body responded, heating up. “But let’s take it slow. Let’s savor this time and each other for a little while longer, yes?” He leaned back a bit and looked into her eyes.

After the no-holds-bar passionate affair with Anthony, Sarah didn’t know what to make of this. However, she took him at his word, and nodded. “Okay.”

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DARKEST COMMUNION

Their candle sputtered and danced on a cold breeze as the door to the tavern swung inward. Meghan turned her head to see the source of the chill creeping over her skin and locked eyes with the most beautiful man she had ever seen.

The door closed leaving the entryway in silhouette, but she could still see the outline of a chiseled face surveying the room. She couldn't see his eyes anymore, but had an odd sense he was staring at her. Her face warmed.

The momentary hush that fell over the establishment began to pick up pace again as people turned back to their companions to continue conversations. The man walked out of the shadow and into the glow given off by the fire. He wore a long, dark leather trench coat. Meghan couldn't tell if it was dark brown or black in the lighting. It looked expensive though. Below the hem of the coat she saw dark slacks and expensive-looking leather shoes. Her eyes came back up again to his face, noticing the shine of his dark hair. It looked almost black in the dim interior, but the firelight picked up on the rich caramel strands. He wore it long and tied back in a leather thong. She could tell it was wavy and felt her fingers flex with a desire to run her hands through his thick mane.

The man walked over to a corner table and sat with his back against the wall. He shrugged out of the trench coat letting it fall over the back of the seat. His eyes surveyed the room and all within it as he made himself comfortable. Meghan turned back to her friend, but could still spy him from the corner of her eye. She knew the moment his gaze lit upon her because it felt like a physical touch.

Dana continued to talk, but she, too, had noticed the man. Reaching for the silver cross that rested around her neck, she said a silent prayer. In Romania, there were stories of the "dark ones". She'd grown up on them. Never once, though, had she believed her grandmother when she spun her tales to a young girl at bedtime. They were just stories, after all. Her grandmother was a direct descendant of a gypsy clan that came from the mountains in Moldava. She told young Dana that gypsy blood flowed through her, even if it was watered down by the weaker Hungarian blood of her father -- Grandmother never approved of her daughter's choice of husband. "You will know the truth of my stories one day, little one," she had said. "When you come into the presence of one of the dark ones, you will feel it deep inside, like feeling on fire from within." Her warning seemed so dire, Dana had giggled. 'Silence!" said Grandmamma. "When you feel this fire, run! Your life will depend on it."

It had been nearly twenty years ago since Dana last heard that vehement warning spoken in the night by the light of a candle, and she had chalked it up to good theater. Gypsies were known for being dramatic. Now, as a fire built within her bosom, she knew the truth of those words. The man who walked in and sat down, the man with a face like an angel, was one of the dark ones. Everything inside her screamed "Run!" She felt both silly and terrified at the same time.

Dana noticed that Meghan had locked eyes with the man, and that the man was staring at her friend at this moment. She also knew the moment his eyes slid to her. The fire inside her turned suddenly cold. She heard a deep voice in her head sneer -- "Gypsy". Dana startled, and turned her now frightened eyes in his direction. For one second their gazes locked. In that brief moment, he smiled at her, and she knew she must do as her grandmamma had bid her to do all those years ago. Run!

"Meghan, we should go now. I have early class." Meghan jerked her head around at Dana's words. Her tone had changed from happy and jovial to clipped and stern. She wondered momentarily if she had accidentally missed something her friend had said while she was checking out the hunky man and inadvertently offended her.

"Sorry, did I miss something?" she asked.

"No. It is later than I first realized. Really, we must go now!" Dana tried to keep her words light so
as not to alarm Meghan that anything was wrong, but something in her dark eyes told a different story.
She rose up out of the booth, grabbing her coat and sliding her arms into it. Then Dana helped a slower Meghan slip into her own coat. Ilana approached after noticing the two women preparing to leave.

"Leaving so soon, cousin?" she smiled, unaware of Dana's urgency.

"Ya, Ilana. How much do I owe you for dinner?" Dana asked while reaching inside her purse for her wallet.

Meghan, too, had reached inside her own purse to retrieve money for her half of the bill.

Ilana patted both women's hands. "No, not necessary. You are family. No pay usually, but as it happens..."

"I have bought your dinner for you. I hope you don't mind." Meghan turned at the sound of this new deep and vibrant voice. The man, the one with an angel's face smiled down at her with such rugged beauty she almost forgot to breathe.

"Tha..thank you" Meghan stumbled over her thanks feeling a little embarrassed.

"My pleasure," he said, taking Meghan's hand and bestowing the lightest touch of his lips on the back of her knuckles. She felt the strangest sensation of electricity tingling where those lips had touched her skin.

"It's not every day I encounter so much loveliness. Perhaps I could persuade you ladies to stay and have one drink with me before you leave?" His eyes gleamed at Meghan who blushed behind her smile. Then, he slid his penetrating, dark gaze over at Dana, staring down into her terrified eyes. "What say you?" Gypsy.

That last word was never spoken aloud, but Dana heard it as clear as a bell tolling a death knell. At her quick side glance to her companion, Dana knew she had not moved fast enough. Meghan was staring at this dark creature as if he were the most charming, most handsome man on the planet. Dana knew she had failed her grandmother by not believing her all those winters past. This man was, indeed, one of the dark ones, and he wanted Meghan, just as sure as the sun rose and set. He also knew that Dana knew what he was. He knew what she was as well; a gypsy descendant. It might be too late, but she would not let him have her friend. The gypsy people were loyal, if nothing else.

"So sorry, but we must go. Thank you for dinner." Before Meghan could say a word, Dana grabbed her hand and pulled her to the door.

"Dana!" said Meghan, sending an apologetic look over her shoulder at the beautiful man.
He smiled slowly, and bowed his head in her direction never losing eye contact. Before she was pulled completely out of the door, he winked at her and her heart fluttered wildly in her chest.

"Another time," he said. Meghan shrugged before the tavern door closed cutting him off from her sight.
Dana marched quickly back toward campus where she was determined to deposit Meghan safely in her room. She knew now she would need to go see her grandmother tonight. There was no time to waste. As the wind howled, and stray drops of rain smacked the cobbles of the street, she could hear the faint laughter of the dark one inside her head.

Waiting a Lifetime

"You didn't have to help, you know. I can handle carrying my own plate." Melissa dumped the plates into the trash can. Wade stood behind her leaning against the counter.

"I know that." He watched her shake the basket and then turn to rinse it out in the sink.

"How would you know that?" She glanced at him sideways, slightly annoyed.

"Because Jed says you're stubborn as a mule and twice as independent."

"Jed shouldn't be talking about me to his friends." She turned off the water and dried her hands on the towel.

"I don't know, he's awfully proud of you." Wade stuck his hands in his pockets and crossed one foot over the other.

Melissa didn't know what to say to that. Wade continued leaning casually, watching her.

"He says you're, like, a professional photographer."

The corner of her lip lifted at that. "Not a professional. I just really like taking pictures, and I've sold some."

"Sounds like a professional to me. Maybe you'll show me sometime?"

Melissa looked at Wade. She was trying to decide if he was seriously interested or just being nice. Other than her family and the sites that had purchased her work, she'd never shown her photographs to anyone. They were personal, an extension of herself. He held her gaze, and for the life of her, she couldn't look away. The slight smile tugging the corners of his full lips made her blush. The tension in the air around her, and between them, sizzled with awareness, an awareness she didn't know how to handle or know what to do with it.

Wade leaned closer maintaining eye contact. "Are you thinking about saying yes?"

Melissa felt the full-force of his presence and leaned backward. As she did, her crutch slipped from her hand and she listed sideways onto her weaker right leg. Wade reached out and wrapped his arms around her. She found herself held tightly to his chest, his face only inches away from her own.

"Melissa, all you had to do was say yes. No need to fall for me, too." His whispered words held a teasing humor.
Feeling confused and embarrassed, she put her hand on his chest to give herself some space. "You don't have to tease me, you know."

Wade saw the hurt in her eyes. He realized she wasn't used to someone flirting with her. He helped her get her balance, but didn't let go of the hold he had on her just yet. His face became serious. "I didn't mean anything by it. It's just hard not to flirt with you. You're so pretty."

Shock replaced her confusion and hurt. She lowered her eyes and let her hair slide forward to hide her face. Wade reached out to tuck the sleek strands behind her ear, and then gently cupped her face urging her to look up. "Hasn't anyone ever told you?" His thumb caressed her cheek.

"No." The word was spoken so low, he almost didn't hear what she said. He searched her eyes and saw only honesty. She seemed so fragile, like the wrong word would break her.

"Well I'll be..." He let his gaze roam over her face.

Finally, she couldn't take it anymore. "What?"

He smiled. "I'm the first guy to tell you how beautiful you are. That's kind of special."

Melissa swallowed. First he called her pretty, and now he was saying she was beautiful. She didn't know how to respond. She just stood there with her mouth open, her lips forming an 'O'.

Wade noticed her surprise, and his eyes dropped to her lips. Soft, naturally pink, and free of any lipstick. Without any doubt, he knew she'd never been kissed. The temptation to add another first to her list pulled him in closer. Their noses touched and he turned his head slightly, angling closer. The space of a single breath separated them. Wade sunk his fingers into her hair, gently caressing her scalp. He'd never wanted to kiss anyone in his life as badly as he wanted to kiss Melissa Ryan at that moment.

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