Friday, June 9, 2017

Taming Her Tiger (Tiger Shifters 9) -- EXCERPT

Enjoy this excerpt from TAMING HER TIGER (Tiger Shifters 9)

Chapter One

Amy Donovan hurried up the wooden stairs to the fifth floor of the Brooklyn art studio, out of breath and trying not to panic about being late. Damned weekend subways. She cleared the huge, rolling steel doors and stepped into the brightly lit, high-ceilinged loft, winter sun pouring in from the wall of windows opposite her. The gray sunlight was augmented by the overhead lights, reflecting off the scuffed pale wood floors and bright white walls.

She sighed in relief when she saw the open session hadn’t started yet.

The familiar smells of the art studio—paint, solvent, charcoal, paper, and canvas—filled Amy with that sense of belonging, settling into her bones. The familiarity helped slow her racing, panicky heartbeat as she made her way across the room to a free space. Easels, chairs, and tables were already arranged in a rough semi-circle around a central model platform, the piles of pillows in the middle of the platform were draped in neutral, tan sheets. A dozen artists, the monitor, and the model coordinator all hovered around the room. A few people stood in small groups, chatting and drinking take-away cups of coffee and tea. Others were already at chairs or easels, setting out their materials or flicking through their sketch books.

She waved at acquaintances and other studio members as she wove past a section of seats to her easel. This was the final long-pose session of a four-week cycle, her last opportunity to have the figure model in front of her while she finished her oil painting.

Thoughts of said model scattered her focus and she nearly tripped over someone’s bag. Apologizing, she hurried to her spot, pushing the momentary lapse aside. She was a professional; this was a professional setting. She refused to entertain the strong feelings and longings she’d experienced when Ethan Gupta had first taken the dais three weeks ago.

It hadn’t exactly been a sexual reaction, though that was part of it. She’d done so many life drawing sessions over the years, she didn’t really view the nude models that way—she saw lines, shadows, proportion, perspective, angles, and light contrasts. Or at least she had before Ethan.

But her reaction to him had been a lot more than just the sexual punch of seeing a man as beautifully masculine and perfect as Ethan was in real life. It was more stunned shock, a realization that she was staring at an actual muse. Her brain had exploded with images, colors, a longing to capture…something. Him.

She didn’t believe in muses, exactly. Not in the mythical sense of the word. She knew a good figure model could inspire and energize her and her art. She’d had the experience on numerous occasions. But with Ethan, everything was different. More instant, more overwhelming, more…vivid.

That first time, she’d even sensed him before he’d come into the room, as if he projected an aura of creative inspiration she could feel along the length of her spine without having to look at him. The fact that she could sense him now, even though she couldn’t see him, even though she knew the feeling was just a figment of her imagination, left her edgy and anxious.

After that first three-hour session, she found herself counting the days until the next one, and the one after that. Yet a part of her also dreaded each session, dreaded that sense of being overwhelmed and awed. The sense that her skills would never be good enough to capture the purity of the inspiration he offered.

Settling into the area she’d used for the last three sessions, she focused on putting out her supplies, collecting her canvas from one of the storage lockers provided to regular members, organizing her brushes, setting up her palette, studying her progress on her painting, determining where she needed to make adjustments and what she’d need to do to get the work done today…

One of her dearest friends, Reese Jordan, sat down next to her in a place already set up and ready for the session to start. Reese was a superbly talented sketch artist, oil painter, and sometimes sculptor. He was also the person who’d originally directed Amy to this studio and encouraged her to become a member. They’d known each other since Amy had come back to the art world two years earlier, and now she couldn’t imagine her life without him. At forty-three, Reese tended to treat her like a little sister, and he’d become the big brother as well as the art mentor Amy had never had.

He kissed her cheek. “I thought you were going to miss the class.”

“Subways,” she growled, making him grin.

On her other side, Devine, artist, gallery manager, and another of Amy’s good friends, settled into her station, rubbing Amy’s arm by way of hello. Despite being in her mid-thirties, Devine was ageless, with flawless, smooth skin, hair that changed colors and cut frequently—that week it was a beautiful pale lavender shaped to imitate a 1950s flip—and blue eyes she accented with perfectly penciled black liner drawn to make her eyes look tilted and cat-like. She’d confided to Amy once that her ever-changing look was designed to appeal to her clients because they expected artists to be eccentric and “artsy.” Devine ran a gallery in Soho that catered to art collectors of the rich-but-not-very-knowledgeable type. She could sell sand in the desert and ice in the arctic.

And for reasons Amy had never figured out, Devine kept encouraging Amy to take her art more seriously, turn it into an actual career. Despite Amy’s insistence that it wouldn’t happen anytime soon. Her refusal to accept the possibility of art as a career had never deterred Devine from nagging her about it.

Before Amy could say more than hello, the shuffling, shifting sounds of people settling into their seats distracted her. She looked past Devine…in time to see Ethan step out of the bathroom at the rear of the studio, near the storage lockers and slop sinks. He’d changed out of his street clothes and into his simple dark blue robe, a color that did fantastic things to his wavy dark hair and eyes. He paused at the back of the room to chat with the coordinator and monitor, smiling and relaxed.

Amy caught herself staring, her gaze drawn to the perfect shape of his mouth, the solid line of his jaw, the way his hair curled around his ear. She blinked a few times, trying in vain to look away. She felt like such a fool, such a cliché, becoming obsessed with a model. But once he came into the room, she had trouble concentrating on anything else. To her embarrassment, he glanced up and caught her staring. His soft smile and nod of greeting only humiliated her more. She nodded back and turned to face her canvas, heat crawling along her skin and making her scalp prickle. He wasn’t on the dais yet. He wasn’t hers to study. He was a skilled human being who deserved her respect and admiration—not her obsessive ogling.

“He’s magnetic, isn’t he?” Reese leaned closer and said. “I can’t stop watching him either.”

His voice was quiet, but Amy still looked around to see who might overhear them.

“He’s just so damned good at holding these long poses and still being…present, isn’t he?” Devine said. “It’s like watching performance art every time he hits the platform.”

“I keep forgetting I’m supposed to draw and not just stare,” Reese said, chuckling. “If I don’t sell this piece, the world has no taste whatsoever.”

Amy smiled at that. Reese’s oil paintings and charcoal sketches were displayed in galleries across Manhattan and Brooklyn. He was one of the most gifted artists she’d ever encountered, and his work sold regularly even in the competitive New York market.

“The world doesn’t have taste, darling,” Devine said. “That’s why I have a job.”

Reese snorted. “And we’re all very grateful for the job you do.”

Devine nodded at Amy’s unfinished painting. “That’ll be worthy of sale, too, when you’re done.”

Amy stared at the canvas, at the way Ethan occupied the scene she’d built around him, the long, muscled lines of his body draped across the pillows like an ancient god. “Maybe,” she said noncommittally. More than her resistance to considering art as a profession, the thought of parting with this particular painting actually caused something tight and painful to collect in her chest.

The final shuffling and noise of preparation settled and silence descended around the room as Ethan stepped up to the platform and dropped his robe.


Ethan settled onto the pillows, using the tape set down by the moderator after the last session to resume the exact position he’d held for the last month. The pose was comfortable, his upper body resting against the piled pillows, one knee bent and one arm resting on that knee. He could recline like this for the thirty-minute period without it hurting too much and without drifting off to sleep.

He concentrated on his own body, putting himself in exactly the same angles as the weeks before. Keeping his mind off the beautiful artist just to his right.

Amy Donovan.

She caused him more difficulty than he’d ever had during a life drawing class. Usually, he let his mind drift into a zone that embodied the pose, managing to remain present without focusing on any of the artists around him. But an awareness of Amy kept him on edge the entire time. He’d been hyper attuned to her for the last four weeks, and it was all he could do to keep his body from showing just how much he wanted her.

After seeing her, catching her scent at the first session, he’d very nearly backed out of this job. It wouldn’t have done his reputation in the art world any good, but for the sake of self-preservation, he’d almost made the sacrifice. Only a keen sense of wanting to finish what he’d started kept him coming back. That and sheer, stubborn pride.

By the end of the first session, he’d managed to convince himself that his reaction was just because Amy bore a resemblance to a woman Ethan didn’t want to remember. The thick dark hair, the blue eyes, the pale skin were superficially the same as Siya’s. Amy’s hair was curly where Siya’s had been straight. Amy was a little taller and curvier than Siya. But the similarities in appearance were hard to ignore. And they made a great excuse for dismissing his reaction to Amy. Nothing he had to worry about. He’d be over that superficial attraction by the time he saw her again.

Unfortunately, when he’d shown up for the second session, he’d had to admit he wasn’t just struck by Amy’s beauty. She drew him the way a magnet pulled metal. He found himself overly focused on her, aware of where she was even when he couldn’t see her, conscious of the subtle shifts in her scent—honeysuckle and art studio and woman. A combination that set his blood on fire.

He’d had a very similar reaction to Siya. And that was the real danger.

He hadn’t had that kind of reaction to any other woman before or since—until Amy. It felt a little like obsession, impossible to control, overwhelming and consuming. Like being around Amy was as necessary as his next breath. He hated that feeling more than just about anything he’d ever experienced before. The same kind of preoccupation with Siya had almost gotten him killed. He could not do that again. He’d come to New York to escape the memory of Siya and what she’d done to him. He’d refused to have anything to do with the tiger shifter world, outside of his immediate family, after that.

Amy was human, which should have made her safe. But she called to his tiger so strongly it reminded him of being around a tigress. Which meant he should avoid Amy Donovan at all costs.

And yet, he couldn’t bring himself to cancel the remaining two sessions. He was a professional, it was just once a week for a few hours, and for the most part, Amy seemed intent on avoiding him. He assured himself all of that would make it easier, and he wouldn’t have to sacrifice his reputation just to avoid a human woman who didn’t seem particularly interested in interacting with him anyway.

Unfortunately, his keen sense of smell picked up her attraction, the spice of desire in her scent, the way it enhanced the womanly musk that was part of her essence. He wanted to disregard that flavor, to pretend he didn’t know she wanted him, too. She never showed any signs of acting on the chemistry and lust. He didn’t have to act on those feelings either.

But his tiger saw her resistance to her own desire as a challenge—a challenge that was impossible to ignore. So hard he’d found himself walking past her during each break at the third session, making excuses to exchange small talk with her, to pass a comment on the progress of her painting. Despite his efforts to resist, he still pulled in her scent, holding his breath to keep the flavors on his tongue as long as possible, savoring the complexity. And more often than he cared to admit, his mind wandered to more erotic thoughts, musings that had been invading his dreams during the intervening week. What her skin might taste like, feel like, what she’d look like stripped out of the loose jeans and t-shirt she always wore to the studio, what she’d look like in the throes of orgasm…

Those thoughts during a nude session were not good. The entire room would notice his erection, which wasn’t exactly the look he was going for with this pose. It happened to male models sometimes, and artists generally ignored it. But as a tiger shifter, Ethan rarely noticed being nude and never had trouble controlling his body while he was. He’d spent his life taking his clothes off in front of other shifters so he could let his tiger out. Unlike most humans, Ethan was as comfortable without clothes as he was with them.

Except with Amy Donovan in the room.

Even now, during what was thankfully the last session of the four-week cycle, it took a concerted effort on his part not to let his awareness of Amy show. The room was mostly silent except for the sounds of brushes lapping over canvas and pencils scraping across paper, or the occasional groan of a seat as someone adjusted their position. His pose kept his focus on a point in the room where the steel frame around one window butted up against the white wall, so he only caught glimpses of Amy from the corner of his eye. If he didn’t focus on it, her scent blended in with all the other smells in the large, open space, just one more part of the complex essence of an art studio.

But even without trying, he still ended up parsing her scent out from the more complicated background. And her lust was there, tamped down by her concentration but still there, heady and rich…and tempting.

If it wasn’t so quiet in the room, he might have groaned out loud.

This was the last session, he reminded himself. After this, he wouldn’t see her again, and he’d go back to living his life without this preoccupation. He couldn’t afford to lose his heart and soul to a woman again. In fact, he wasn’t sure how much he had left to lose after the damage Siya had done. Amy called to that part of him, and he just couldn’t give in to the desire and risk any more pain. So lust or no lust, Amy Donovan was off limits.

At the first break, he donned his robe and made a circuit of the room, stretching and loosening muscles that had gotten stiff over the last half hour. Some of the artists stopped him to make small talk. One or two gave him their cards, offering the possibility of future work. He managed to keep his distance from Amy, but only barely. His tiger kept urging him to walk past her, test her reaction to him, see if he could make her desire overcome her focus on her painting…

His focus on keeping Amy at a distance while still being utterly aware of her was his excuse for missing the feel of another tiger shifter nearby.

He frowned and glanced at the huge windows. What the hell was another tiger doing in this area?

Settling back onto the dais, Ethan opened his senses to that other shifter, trying to get a sense of who it was.

There were two other males in the city. When Ethan had moved here, they’d met to set up territorial boundaries which would allow them to remain neighbors without conflict. Of necessity, they did occasionally have to move through each other’s territories, but those incursions were overlooked if they didn’t last long or happen too frequently. Ethan specifically chose modelling jobs that avoided the other males’ territories—usually in places that were neutral. His freelance work as a tax accountant rarely brought him into contact with the others either.

He’d never sensed one of the other New York males nearby during his previous sessions here, but he supposed it wasn’t out of the question for one to have come into Brooklyn for personal reasons. This was neutral ground, so there was no reason for one of the other males to avoid the area. And being New York, tiger shifters from other places did make their way into and through the city on business, travel, or just as tourists. But this area of Brooklyn wasn’t on the typical tourist routes, and it was a Sunday afternoon, so there shouldn’t be a lot of reason for a tiger to be here for business.

Despite his senses being fully open, the other shifter remained just at the edges of his awareness, too far to give Ethan much information. He couldn’t even be sure if the tiger was male or female. He kept his attention on the shifter throughout the next half-hour period, and the tiger remained in the same place the entire time—maybe eating at a local restaurant?

When the break was called, Ethan blinked in surprise. He hadn’t even noticed his wrist on his bent knee falling asleep. He rose, slipped into his robe, and wandered close to the big windows in his circuit to stretch his muscles. Glancing outside in hopes of catching sight of the other tiger didn’t help. Whoever it was, they weren’t in plain sight from the studio.

With his mind on the mysterious shifter, Ethan didn’t realize he’d wandered close to Amy until her scent hit him hard. He fought off a scowl when he noticed he’d stopped just behind her. She didn’t glance back at him, but she did sit a little straighter on her chair.

Cursing his unconscious pull to her, he made an effort to look at her painting so he could pass a comment as an excuse for why he was just standing there.

For a long moment, he stared at the painting, unable to actually form a coherent word. When he could speak, he said, very quietly, “That’s magnificent. You’re amazing.”

Pleasure and surprise filled her honeysuckle scent with citrus and a touch of vanilla. He edged closer, unable to resist her, wishing there weren’t so many people in the room watching this exchange.

Wishing he could back away before he lost his mind completely.

“Thank you,” she murmured. She glanced over her shoulder, smiling shyly at him, her blue eyes sparking with pleasure through the fringe of her long lashes.

The sexy look combined with the husky sound of her voice hit him hard, right in the gut and lower. His blood pounded, his breathing sped. In that moment, he was extremely glad to have his robe on because his body reacted instantly. He took a half step closer to her when she faced her painting again, raising a hand to test the texture of her hair before he realized what he was doing. He snatched his hand back and with a grunt, he spun away from her and stalked to the farthest end of the studio.

Damn but she was dangerous. Without even trying. Even the puzzle of a strange tiger in the area couldn’t fully distract him.

If he wasn’t careful, he was going to give in to this lust, and to hell with the consequences.

He sighed when his tiger growled in his head—in approval.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

What A Tiger Wants (Tiger Shifters 8) EXCERPT

Enjoy this excerpt from WHAT A TIGER WANTS (Tiger Shifters 8)

Chapter One

Dmitry Chernikov parked his truck outside his older brother’s cozy house in Eirene, Colorado, opened the driver’s side door and pulled in a deep breath. Pine and snow, rich earth, squirrels, the faint scent of Nick’s diner a short walk away on Main Street, and the definite scents of his brother, his sister-in-law, and—Dom smiled—their five-month-old baby girl.

He climbed out of the truck, stretching sore muscles and savoring the crisp, sharp bite of Colorado in December. The late afternoon sun hung low in the sky. He’d driven for several days to get here, stopping a few times to sleep but otherwise continuing straight through from West Virginia. He’d been spending so damned much time at the elders’ US compound lately, helping his friend Victor Romanov with the compound’s security, he’d barely seen the inside of his own home in Vermont. Not that it had much lure. It was just the building where he stored his stuff.

He looked in the direction of Nick’s diner. Dom’s heart had been in Eirene for a long time…

The door to Nick’s house opened. Dom glanced back to see his older brother framed against a riot of bright, colorful Christmas decorations.

“Tiana says to come inside,” Nick called, “before the ladies get a look at you and invade the house.”

Dom rolled his eyes and snorted softly as he climbed the two wooden steps up to Nick’s front porch. “That would be Mitch causing all the female rioting. How’s Chrissy?”

“Sleeping so keep your voice down. I, on the other hand, haven’t slept in months.”

“You want a nap now?”

“Nah.” Nick grinned. “Just need a little more quiet before the excitement starts again.”

Dom had never seen his brother look so light and happy. Not since they were kids. In fact, Nick hadn’t looked this easy and content since before they’d found their mother’s body when they were both so young.

“What smells like peppermint?” he asked when the faint scent wafted out to him from somewhere close to his brother.

“Nothing,” Nick said. “I don’t know. Maybe Tiana’s hot chocolate. Get inside before we freeze.”

Dom raised his brows at Nick’s weird tone but shrugged it off, figuring the sleep deprivation was getting to him. Dom stomped his boots off on the mat outside the front door—a new addition he attributed to Nick’s wife—and walked into the house, shrugging out of the light jacket he used more as camouflage than for actual warmth.

“Who’s cooking at the diner today?” he asked, then looked into the living room and spotted his sister-in-law. “Tiana. You look beautiful.”

He spoke quietly because she was cradling a sleeping baby across her lap, one hand supporting the now quite large five-month-old and the other holding a tablet. The coffee table had been scooted close to the couch and held a cup of what smelled like mint-flavored hot chocolate.

Dom nodded to the cup. “Guess that is the mint smell.”

Tiana looked past him to Nick with an amused expression Dom couldn’t interpret. When he glanced at Nick, Nick was scowling.

“Hey, Dom,” Tiana greeted, facing him again and smiling. “Come on in and get comfortable. Chrissy should be waking up soon. We weren’t expecting you for a couple more days. I’m surprised Victor let you leave ahead of him.”

The whole extended Chernikov clan was gathering in Eirene for the winter holidays and to celebrate little Chrissy’s five-month birthday. Christina Loban-Chernikov was the first female born into the Chernikov family in more than a century—since Dom’s grandmother, as far as he knew. Which meant Chrissy was going to be extremely spoiled and doted on. The five-month birthday celebration was actually his grandmother, the elder Elizaveta Chernikova’s idea because she wanted another excuse to come visit her great-granddaughter.

“Last I saw,” Dom said, “Alexis was dragging Victor away from his ongoing campaign to keep the security at the compound from ever being compromised again. They’ll fly into Denver at the end of the week.”

“You drove?” Nick asked, motioning Dom into the living room. “Did they have a room for you at the motel or do you need to stay here?”

Dom took a free chair across from the couch so Tiana wouldn’t have to turn too much to talk to him. The chair was large and soft, the light from a huge front window at his back giving the room a warm glow. There was a small fire in the fireplace, but a window somewhere in the back was open to keep the house from getting too warm for their higher tiger shifter metabolisms.

“I checked into the motel before coming here,” Dom said. “And yeah, I drove from West Virginia. I needed the quiet.”

Since he’d started helping Victor with the security at the compound—neglecting his own security business to do it—he’d been surrounded by other tigers almost constantly for months now. He never spent that much time with his own kind. Even his brothers, though they were close and talked a lot. He was, in a lot of ways, a stereotypical tiger—much happier on his own than surrounding by others.
Except, for some reason, here in Eirene he felt comfortable. Not crowded. Never hemmed in. Not even with the place full of other tigers—like it had been for Nick and Tiana’s wedding back in May. Something about the place…

Or maybe it was because she lived here.

He shook off the thought, but it did remind him. “You didn’t answer my question earlier. Who’s watching the diner?”

“That new cook who came into town a few months back. She’s working out really well. Been doing a fine job giving me a little extra time to spend with Tiana and Chrissy.”

“Which means you’ll be buying her her own restaurant soon, then?” Dom asked, not entirely joking. His stoic, grumpy, occasionally broody big brother was a secret philanthropist who kept giving his best cooks money to open their own restaurants in other towns. One, a place in Vail, was starting to get international notice now. All because Nick fronted the owner enough money to open her restaurant.

Nick scowled. Tiana laughed softly. Chrissy snuffled a little in her sleep and rolled closer to Tiana, snuggling against her arm. Tiana smiled down at the baby’s soft, fuzzy head.

“Anyway,” Nick said, “Lulu has the grill, and Jane is minding the front.”

Dom had perfected not reacting to the mention of Nick’s head waitress over the last six years. He kept everything he was feeling neatly tucked under a casual screen of curiosity.

“How’s Jane doing? Ben started college this fall, didn’t he?”

“He did,” Tiana answered. “Jane survived. But barely.” She grinned. “She’s better now, but I think that’s because Ben is home for the winter break.”

“Is he? I’ll have to stop in and say hi.”

“Bet he’d love that,” Tiana said.

“I’m sure Jane will be glad to see you, too,” Nick added without any hint of innuendo.

That didn’t keep Dom from a knee-jerk suspicion that Nick already knew his secret.

Not that it mattered. Jane had made the situation clear when they’d first met, not long after Nick had moved to Eirene and Dom had come for a visit. She wasn’t interested in dating or relationships. She was well and truly done with men. And the woman was just stubborn enough to mean it.

Dom decided thinking about Jane would get him into trouble, so he switched to other topics. “How are things with the wolf pack?” he asked Nick. “They’re okay with another invasion of tigers at the edge of their territory?”

“Since the tigers are coming into my territory, it’s none of their business,” Nick said, his voice just a little deeper than it had been a moment earlier. “Their businesses in town are doing good—especially Siobhan Walsh’s boutique.”


“But there’s infighting.” Nick shrugged. “You know how it is when a new alpha takes over. There can be years of settling out.”

Dom nodded. He knew very little about wolf politics, and cared even less. But the Colorado pack’s territory butted up against Nick’s, close enough to be trouble. Anyone or anything that might cause trouble for either of his brothers was Dom’s business.

“You hungry?” Nick asked. “I’m sure I can whip something up.”

“You’re tired.” Dom waved him away. “For good reason. I’ll go across to the diner, see how good this new cook of yours really is. Before you lose her.” Dom stood and grinned unrepentantly at his brother’s frown.

He crossed to Tiana and kissed her lightly on the head, letting his gaze linger on his new niece. A baby girl in the family. He was still a little stunned by the reality of it. None of the Chernikov brothers thought they’d have kids. He let his hand hover above Chrissy’s soft, sweet-smelling head, afraid if he touched her he’d wake her up, then smiled at Tiana and headed back to the front door.

“You guys rest,” he said, slipping into his coat. “While you can. I’ll be back in a few hour.”

“Say hi to Jane for us,” Tiana said, casually.

“Will do.” He turned toward the door but didn’t miss the look Tiana exchanged with her husband. He just chose to ignore it.
Nick’s diner was a classic, homey place, with tables lined in paper that children could draw on, wooden accents, and a Formica counter with bar stools facing the kitchen, visible through a large order window. It always smelled of delicious food and good, fresh coffee.

The entire town congregated at Nick’s diner to eat and visit. This time of the afternoon, between the dinner and lunch rushes, the place was relatively quiet. Old Charlie Sanchez—an Eirene fixture—sat at the counter regaling a tourist with town “history,” which if Charlie was telling it would be embellished past the point of recognizable fact. Dom caught a few sentences and had to hide his smile—Charlie was telling a story about an ancient mythical beast that had stalked the area at night when Charlie was a kid, the beast preying on the unsuspecting.

If only Charlie knew the diner he sat in was owned by a “mythical beast.”

A handful of other people sat at the tables and booths filling the dining area. Dom recognized a few locals, but the rest were tourists.

He sat at the counter, a few stools down from Charlie and his unwitting victim, and let the feel of the place settle into his bones. More than most anywhere Dom had ever been, the diner felt like home.
Though he tried not to make it obvious, Dom watched for Jane, carefully pulling in the various scents of the place, looking for hers… And there it was, under the perpetual coffee and grease smell, under the more pervasive, territorial scent of Nick and Tiana, the very faint touch of Jane’s human, earthy, pine and fresh grass scent.

As if taking in her essence called her, Jane came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with two plates of sandwiches and fries. She was dressed in her work uniform—a pair of snug-fitting, low-rise jeans that always did amazing things to her ass, a light blue polyester shirt that should not have been sexy but somehow was because it hugged her glorious curves, and a short apron where she stored her pen and order book. Her thick, dark brown hair was pulled up into a bun, but tendrils of springy curls had escaped to frame her face, highlighting her high cheekbones. Her dark eyes were framed by thick lashes. Her full lips, as always, looked lush and kissable.

His heartbeat thudded hard and he flexed his hands against the counter, working to control the instant hit of lust.

She spotted him and nodded, smiling faintly as she carried the tray to a couple obviously in Colorado for the skiing.

“Be right with you, Dom,” she said in passing.

He returned her nod of greeting and remained casually seated at the counter, not following her with his gaze, not straining to hear her speaking to the customers…and impressed he managed that much. He hadn’t seen her since Nick and Tiana’s big wedding bash in May, which wasn’t unusual. He made an effort to go as long as he could without seeing her. Somehow he was always drawn back to Eirene, to Jane, and to the certain and hopeless knowledge that she refused to admit to the attraction between them.

He smiled in greeting when she rounded the counter, keeping the barrier between them, and stopped to pour him a coffee.

“How did you know?” he asked.

“Everyone needs coffee or tea at this time of the afternoon.”

She looked up from the cup to grin, the expression crinkling the corners of her eyes in that way he adored. He wrapped his hands around the mug to keep from reaching for her.

“When did you arrive?” she asked.

“Half hour ago. Chrissy is napping so I thought I’d get some food. And try out this new cook Nick’s hired.”

“You’re gonna be impressed. She’s almost as good as Nick. What’ll you have?”

You. Aloud, he said, “What’s best?”

She narrowed her eyes at him, her mouth pursed as she considered. The expression drew his attention to her mouth and he almost groaned aloud. He loved her mouth. She had such perfect heart-shaped lips, and all he could think about in that moment was pulling her into his arms and kissing her hard.

“Think you’ll love the fajita sandwich,” she finally said.

He blinked and focused on her eyes. Which didn’t actually help the erotic fantasies his imagination was torturing him with.

“It’s one of Lulu’s specialties,” she added. “Be right back.” She paused on her way into the kitchen, looking over her shoulder at him. “It’s good seeing you again, Dom. Always nice to have you back in town.”

He didn’t let the pain show in his expression, but he was grateful Nick wasn’t around because Dom’s scent filled with a longing he knew was pointless. He should have stayed away, despite his grandmother’s insistence that everyone be here. He really needed to keep as far from Jane as he could get. For his own mental well-being. She didn’t want him, or any man for that matter—a small mercy—and she’d made it clear years ago that she wasn’t ever going to change her mind.

The worst of it was, she was attracted to him. He caught delicious, tempting hints of it in her scent, and tormented himself by memorizing those elusive flavors of spice and want. If she hadn’t revealed that much to him, if his tiger could just be convinced there was no hope, Dom was pretty sure he’d have been over this obsession by now.

His heart thumped harder when she came back out of the kitchen and he sighed quietly. Well, maybe not exactly over the obsession. But at least there wouldn’t be even a hint of hope in his soul. There wouldn’t be this nagging sense that maybe, just maybe she’d change her mind.

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