Sarah Overton sat on a fallen log along the edges of the Annual Harlow soiree, her hand lifted in a half-hearted wave at Emilia Bonacci. Radiant Emilia. She stood across the clearing with her fingers curved around the crook of Blaine Callaghan’s arm. Her coffee-colored curls entwined about her dainty jasmine crown, her rose-pink fairy costume only adding to her overall angelic glow and her sweet, apologetic smile.
Sarah’s stomach hardened. The immaculate woman made hating her impossible. Meanwhile, Blaine—Sarah’s ex-fiancé—shone with pride, his emerald gaze permanently fixed on his new girlfriend.
Sarah turned away and opted to stare at the thicket of trees ahead. Sure, she wanted Blaine, a man she’d dated for three whole years, to be happy. But not this happy.
A golf-ball sized rock smacked into the tree next to her head, ripping her mind away from her deep remorse.
“Oh man, you missed.” Aaron Chadley’s wobbly teenage voice had her twisting toward the bushes behind her. Presumably, he berated his brother. “Your aim sucks, Weasel.”
As if being sidelined at this party wasn’t humiliating enough, the music slowed and couples cuddled together. Sarah groaned, intent not to encourage the boy and his two equally annoying siblings with any kind of protest. What with Blaine and Emilia’s earlier saccharine scene, the loved-up dancing couples now, and the ever-irritating Chadley brothers… maybe it was time to leave.
She’d taken in Mirabella Falls and its wooded perfection, the soiree’s candy stands, costumed guests, and twinkling fairy lights. Enough people had seen her here that maybe tomorrow’s town whispers about the state of her jilted and broken heart would simply not happen.
Any minute now, she’d get up and get on with her life. A quiet life. One she would have had if she never decided to fall in love.
Unlike all the other under thirty-year-olds in this town, she wasn’t all that enamored with change or drama. She hated surprises, preferred stability. Heck, craved sameness and having control of what happened to her next.
More rocks. Fudging Chadleys!
She dipped her chin to her overly long costume’s crushed turquoise velvet.
Ignore them. Just ignore them.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
Right, well, since she was about to leave anyway…
She shot to her feet, the center of her chest all prickly and hot, her gaze darting over the crowd.
The Chadley parents were nowhere, their absence in itself enough to light her desire to drag those pesky little beasts out and return them to their handlers. Even if she did hate playing mom to other people’s kids.
She stormed into the dense brush behind her, pine twigs snapping underfoot, determined to end the Chadley reign of terror, then go home alone. Just like she’d planned. A plan she would never stray from again.
The tangle of branches in her way wasn’t enough to stop her, nor the mild scratches those branches left behind, her bare forearms lined in red welts. Despite the fairy dress and her long blond hair, the Chadleys were about to find out that she was far from Harlow’s sweet and wilting flower and could and would damn well defend herself.
She yanked her long hem, the heavy material dragging behind her; all while she grumbled under her breath, the warm Minnesotan night hugging her from every angle. The theme for this year’s soiree was A Midsummer Night’s Dream—perfect, given the spring season, late hour, and wooded location. But hell, Shakespearean costumes were not great for traipsing through forests.
And yes, she’d put others’ happiness above her own, her lack of festive spirit largely her fault—not that she’d had much choice when it came to Blaine and Emilia—but the Chadley boys simply added to her current misery.
So much for doing the right thing. The right thing felt less fuzzy and warm, more stabby and excruciating, like a blunt knife to an already bruised and tortured heart.
She stopped in a clearing and peered about.
“Okay, fine.” Her raised voice disappeared into the trees around her, but she listened for the expected sounds of the Chadley’s laughter and rustling leaves. “I tried. So if you get lost, I’m not taking the blame. You hear?”
She scanned her dark surroundings once more. The soiree lights faded in the distance, a warning not to wander too far.
Her shoulders rolled forward, and she blew out a hard breath. Time to head home. In a quick few minutes, she’d be in the parking lot, ready to drive away. Meanwhile, her long hem had caught on another gnarled branch, and her escape wouldn’t happen until she wrangled herself free.
She swore under her breath and yanked hard. A ripping sound filled the air. Great. Just great. The snapping fabric propelled her forward, a motion that should have given her a quick introduction with the ground, except her face hit a different kind of unforgiving surface altogether.
Her forehead throbbed and she stumbled back, squinting up against the dull moonlight. A broad and stubbled jaw flashed in her vision. She craned her neck farther, attempting to inspect this man with an exceptionally long torso.
He loomed above her like a giant oak tree. Well, maybe not that tall, but his head did surpass hers by many inches. Maybe 6’6 to her 5’9, so two giants standing in the woods—kinda hilarious, really. Still, her mouth fell open in silent wonder. Not just at his height. No, but his rich, wavy, jet-black hair shrouding his brow in stark contrast to his startling, cobalt blue eyes.
His flat expression should have concerned her. She couldn’t explain her general calm, but somehow, he gave no real sense of danger. The inconvenient flutter low in her belly though… that flutter that prompted her to splutter out something, anything, to break the silence…
“Forgot your costume?”
Dean Holloway expected the usual mumbled apology people gave when they bumped into him, which happened a lot despite his height. But this woman. This woman with her classic beauty and startled gape, she simply let loose with a smart-ass question.
A slow grin tugged at his lips. What was wrong with her? She stood here alone with him. A man. Not just any man. One much larger than the average. One she’d never met. And in a location that kept her invisible to those at the party.
He pushed his smile down, not wanting to allow this strange woman a glimpse into his inner world. Her amber-green eyes glinted up at him, her pretty pout still parted; maybe he had scared her. Maybe she wasn’t so irrational after all…
He knew what he looked like—a solid brick house dressed completely in black. His “look” downright paid his bills. The fact he lurked back here, in a dark forest… yeah, that probably didn’t make him look any less intimidating to Miss American Peach, whose gaze darted behind him now, like she’d already wised up and sought her escape route.
He put special effort into keeping a quiet presence. He couldn’t blame her for not initially noticing him. He softened his scowl, the scowl he wore as a permanent mask. “Silly me.”
Instilling fear meant people bothered him less, but for once, he didn’t want to scare someone.
His heart did a quick double-beat.
Still, he dismissed the reaction. Dismissed his desire to inspect her every detail, even though he’d already done a lot of that in the seconds before she’d quite literally bumped into him. He needed to get on with tonight’s job, which meant he had to convince her not to run.
The last thing I need is this woman freaking out and telling everyone I’m here.
“I take it you’re from out of town?” Her voice stayed relaxed, confident even, but her retreating steps betrayed her tone.
He pretended not to notice and gave an easy shrug, forcing his gaze not to pore over her ground-skimming fairy dress, the clingy turquoise velvet highlighting a trim figure underneath. Not exactly the most practical outfit for stomping through the woods.
His pulse hammered a little faster; his mind caught on how her impractical clothes had caused their collision and the brief knowledge of what her body felt like against his.
I know it’s been too long, but shit, get your mind out of the gutter. I’m a man, not an animal.
“Someone at the grocery store mentioned a party.” He focused on her eyes to forget about her body, the amber-green hue in no way a downgrade from anything lower. He could handle his attraction. Handle it like he handled everything else. With efficiency and control… “I thought I’d take a look while I’m in town.”
Her posture eased, confirming he’d been right to mention a local spot like the grocery store. Familiarity did wonders for soothing most people’s concerns.
See? Handling it.
“And let me guess.” She lifted her chin, her thick row of lashes fluttering in her pause. “You missed the part where this was a costume party?”
He grinned, another effective way to cover a lie. Meanwhile, her cheeks flashed red, those dainty lashes beating heavier, like the animated wings of a dragonfly. Though her gaze veered to the side, he wanted to maintain a semblance of normalcy and refused to look anywhere but at her.
He pointed to a tiny red scratch across her thin collar bone. “You cut yourself. Let me help.”
The lady blinked, and before she could protest, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the wound.
“Who the hell carries a handkerchief?”
His jaw clenched at how close he stood, so close her breath brushed at his hand and her citrusy-sweet scent enveloped him. A thick knot formed in his throat. She smelled like goddamn orange blossoms on a hot summer’s day.
Her hand rose, her fingers wrapping around his wrist. She narrowed her eyes, hinting that he needed to answer her question.
The handkerchief. Right.
“You never know when you’ll need one.”
Like wiping away fingerprints after a job. Not that I’ll admit that to you, lady.
He beamed at her, committing to the part of a friendly giant. Though he didn’t move, her honey-blonde hair fluttered in the night breeze, that hair still a mess from their earlier collision, the wisps flying in a halo about her head and lending to her wild air.
He’d been told many times that he had an endearing smile. Hopefully, that smile would work right about now, when he wanted to keep her talking long enough for her to decide he was no one worth mentioning to her friends.
The woman’s fingers closed tighter at his wrist, the tinkle of jewelry drawing his attention to a chain bracelet jangling on her arm, the adornment fashioned with pointed gold leaves and probably how she’d cut herself.
He smiled wider. Useless dress. Useless jewelry. His useless thoughts of relieving her of both…
“Right.” Her flat tone gave little away. “Did you see two boys pass through here?”
Her gaze shifted to her surroundings, momentarily pulling the heat off him.
He made a show of looking about. “No. Why?”
“They threw rocks at me. I came out here to find them.”
An unexpected strain pulled at his brow, and he slammed his gaze back to her. “They threw rocks at you?”
Maybe he wasn’t all that qualified to judge, but of all the bad he’d ever done, none of it had been for mere entertainment.
“Well, they tried.” The muscles over the woman’s face eased, and the blush returned to her cheeks, like she verged on a smile. Maybe his concern hadn’t been all that expected. “But those Chadleys have always had terrible aim.”
His shoulders dropped, and his next breath landed deeper within his lungs. He took his hand from her collarbone and eased back, her orange blossom scent still taunting him from a distance.
He nodded to her scratch. “You’re not bleeding anymore, and those boys ran back to the party.”
He eyed the light red mark over the bridge of her straight nose, a souvenir from her face connecting with his chest. Just like the Chadleys, he’d seen her approach from a mile off. He could have stopped her before she’d crashed into him. Why hadn’t he?
His wayward gaze provided the answer, landing on her general lithe build, and then homing in on the tops of her small, pert breasts peeking out from her dress’s low neckline. The smooth, honeyed skin there evoked thoughts of silk, and peaches and cream…
Orange blossoms? Silk? Peaches and cream?
Somehow, she’d highjacked his brain, leaving him with a yearning to lean down and kiss her; but damn, her narrowed stare said he’d be a fool to try.
Strength and beauty, with this one. And the strength always comes first.
The woman cleared her throat, only slightly dowsing the heat that rushed his body.
“You can still join the party.” She lifted her brows along with her posture, as if she noticed his staring and now toyed with him in showcasing the swell of her breasts.
A little witch in the best kind of way.
“Everyone’s dressed like fairies, but with your height, no one would think twice if you said you were an ogre.”