The Heart's Stronghold - Excerpt

The Heart's Stronghold
Untamed Spirit Publishing
(August 13, 2012)

Trade Paperback & Digital
ISBN-10:  1478180595
ISBN-13:  978-1478180593

» Back Cover


The damned merger fell through.

Patrick O’Bannon banged a fist against the steering wheel and ground his teeth together. He stepped on the gas a little more. Giving the wheel a hard jerk to the right, he swerved into the passing lane to cruise around the SUV that was determined on crawling down the highway.

Sixteen months of preparation, and on the day two of the most powerful, private electronics companies would become one publically traded corporation, his goddamned client decided thirty-six billion dollars wasn’t enough. Thirty-six billion dollars, of which, Patrick would have seen a solid four in commissions. As if that weren’t enough, his client made the shocking announcement without telling him ahead of time.


He thumped his fist against the leather-wrapped wheel again. He darted back into the right hand lane and grimaced when a horn blared. Through the rearview mirror, he caught a glimpse of a raised middle finger and took a deep breath. Home lurked just around the next mile-marker, along with his wife.

Tatum would cure this annoyance. Beautiful, perfect, Tatum. She always knew how to ease the embarrassment of idiotic clients. All she had to do was look at him, and he felt powerful once again. Like the entire world could turn against him, and somehow he’d find a way to overcome and succeed.

She made him feel like a man.

He smiled at the thought, his fury with his client temporarily forgotten. An hour or two with Tatum before he returned to the office would right the afternoon’s wrongs. Nothing soothed more than having her in his arms—the way she turned soft and pliant, the way she trembled with a breathless gasp.

Just the mere thought had his cock rising to attention. He shifted in the seat. God, he didn’t even have to touch her, didn’t have to be in the same room with her, and she could make him hard. Andrew had done an exceptional job in screening her eight years ago. Vowed she was the best candidate out of Patrick’s many choices. Patrick would have never believed after this long Tatum could still have such a strong effect on him. Yet, amazingly, she did. Not one day passed that he didn’t appreciate Andrew’s meticulous research.

Patrick navigated off the highway, onto the side street that led to his southern California estate. A right, a left, another left, and tall iron gates loomed before him. He punched the button on the controller attached to his visor and waited. In slow motion the gates swung inward.

“Hurry up,” he muttered beneath his breath.

He eased his foot down on the accelerator, creeping through the still-widening opening. On the other side, pristine pavement wove through bright flowerbeds. Tatum loved the flowers. Especially the blood-red rose bushes he’d ordered for her birthday two years ago. She’d wept then, and to this day became teary-eyed when he plucked one of the thorny blooms and brought it inside for her.

As he eased into his driveway, he glanced down at the clock. 6:00. She wouldn’t be expecting him so early; he always worked late on Thursdays.

With a smile still dancing on his mouth, he shut off the BMW and climbed out. On the porch, he fished out his pocket knife and snipped off a tender, unopened rosebud. Lifting it to his nose, he inhaled the sweet scent. Delicate. Perfect.

Just like his wife.

He opened the door quietly and let himself inside. Her subtle perfume, a blend of his favorite vanilla and mint, wafted in the air, and he savored the familiar aroma. His gaze canvassed their expansive living room, resting briefly on the overstuffed couch, the slick black table, the wide-screen television mounted on the far wall. No Tatum. Where the hell was she?

A flash of white from beyond the balcony’s sliding glass doors drew his attention. Her back to him, she sat with her feet tucked beneath her on a balcony chair, a hard-bound book in her lap. She lifted a dainty hand to brush a tendril of hair out of her face. The orange glow of the setting sun made her wedding ring glint.

His gut tightened at the gesture. His pulse jumped to life as he imagined her expression when she noticed he’d come home.

With quiet steps, he crossed the hardwood floor and stepped onto the balcony. Saying nothing, he moved behind her. He set one hand on her shoulder and placed the rose in her lap with the other. “I’m home.”

She shut her book but didn’t reply.

Patrick dipped his head to press a kiss against the side of her throat. Her breathless exhale sent fire to his groin. His half-mast erection rose to full attention. Beneath his lips, the vein along the side of her neck pulsed an erratic rhythm. She responded so easily. So damnably easy.

“No dinner?” he murmured in a low whisper.

“There’s chicken in the refrigerator. I’ll warm it for you.”

She eased to her feet, dropped her book on the chair, laid the rose carefully atop it, and turned to the doors. The breeze caught her lightweight sundress, molding it to her shapely curves and drawing his gaze to the sway of her hips. Such grace and poise—no man could be luckier. A fact his many clients had remarked on over the years.

He followed at a distance, content to watch as she moved through the kitchen, gathering plates, glasses, a dish from the fridge, a bottle of wine from their wine rack. No meal was simple for Tatum. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, she knew exactly what foods complimented each other, and he never hesitated to hold business dinners at home. She could melt pallets as easily as top-rated chefs.

Tatum possessed a refinement Patrick depended on. He couldn’t survive without her. When his schedule forbade him the ability to entertain visiting clients, her knowledge of the arts, of the finer places California offered for upscale entertainment, saved his ass. On more than one occasion, she’d smoothed over angry businessmen who expected him to drop everything and see to their immediate needs.

Businessmen like his client who destroyed multi-billion dollar mergers in the blink of an eye.

Patrick ground his teeth together as a fresh burst of rage surged through his veins. Damn bastard. What he wouldn’t give to drive his fist into the asshole’s nose and flatten it into his face. Randall had humiliated him. Made him look stupid and weak.

God, he needed to get today behind him. Forget it happened. Move on and focus on the conference call he couldn’t miss two hours from now.


She startled. The bowl she held slipped from her fingers and clattered into the sink. The shatter of stoneware echoed in the silence. She set her hands on the counter, her shoulders rising as she sucked in a deep breath. “You’ve had a bad day, haven’t you?”

He couldn’t help but smile. She knew him so well. Understood what made him tick. No one else had ever come close. Andrew had promised she would. Someday Patrick would have to thank the private dick.

“I have about an hour before I have to go back to the office. Come spend it with me, princess.”

She nodded as she gathered the broken shards of pottery. “I’ll be right there.”

“I’ll wait in the other room.”

Peeling off his jacket and tie, he laid the garments neatly over the back of his leather recliner and unfastened the top two buttons on his shirt. His belt came next, a firm tug freeing the silver buckle. As he pulled it through his belt loops, Tatum appeared in the doorway. He glanced up, his smile widening as he took in her beauty.

High cheekbones offset a perfectly straight, aquiline nose. Her long neck, the way she’d tied her hair back at the nape of it, gave her a regal appearance. In the setting sunlight, her jet-black hair fell to her waist and glinted with a touch of faint indigo, adding brilliance to a pair of bright, sky-blue eyes.

She offered him a hesitant smile that had him pulling in a ragged breath. Eight years together, and she was still the demure innocent he’d unveiled on their wedding day. She hadn’t grown comfortable with him, hadn’t acquired the sharp tongue or freedom with her body other women developed after years of marriage. She never would. She knew how much it pleased him that she hadn’t.

His gaze hardened as he took in the flimsy material of her lightweight sundress. “Strip.”

With a slow blink, she nodded. Dutifully, she pulled one spaghetti strap loose, then the other. A shrug of her shoulders dropped the material to her waist where it hung on her hips for a long heartbeat before pooling at her feet. First one foot, then the other, she stepped free of the ankle-length dress and kicked it to the side.

Patrick swallowed hard.

Tatum made no move to cover herself, innately understanding he wanted to look. Wanted to appreciate her before he surrendered to pleasure. Firm breasts tightened in the breeze, accenting her narrow waist and flat belly. Her fingertips brushed against the tops of her thighs, her years of horseback riding adding strength to slender legs.

Covering her torso, a mottling of blue and purple marred her silky skin. They turned into a thick swathe across her ribs before disappearing behind her back. He looked lower, noting her shins bore fainter, yellow-brown blotches that faded out across her thighs but reappeared in dark, blackish tones at her hips.

Bruises that branded her as his.

His gaze locked with hers, and his heart kicked hard. Adrenaline coursed through his veins.

Her smile wavered, her lower lip trembled. Desire rose hard and swift, surging through him like accelerant on a fire. But what pushed him beyond the point of no return, what aroused him so fiercely he could scarcely breathe, was the look behind her unblinking stare.

In those sky-blue eyes, terror gleamed.

Chapter One


County Kerry, Ireland
Eight months later…

In the early morning light that drifted through the narrow bedroom window, Natalie St. James leaned closer to the mirror, inspecting her makeup. She fingered the soft tissue beneath her left eye, gingerly avoiding five narrow stitches above her cheekbone. She couldn’t see the purple—at least not with the coating of foundation—and the swelling had diminished. Still, she winced. The deep bruise was tender. The cut stung.

At least the surgeries were over. Four rounds of reconstruction over the course of seven months, and she had a face once more, though it looked nothing like what she’d grown up with. Then again, her best friend’s husband and plastic surgeon hadn’t had much to work with. He’d done a remarkable job, all things considered. As long as the rest of Natalie’s carefully doctored identity remained intact, she’d be safe.

She grabbed her wide-framed sunglasses from atop the antique vanity, slid them up her nose with care, and eased off the bench. Glancing over her shoulder, she sighed in dismay. The stitches were still visible. But at least no one would notice the bruise.

She opened her room’s rough-hewn door, stepped out into the thirteenth century stone hall, and made her way to the wide staircase. Below, the clattering of dishes and silverware alerted her to breakfast. She checked her watch—quarter past nine. Later than she ever slept.

Entering the wide front foyer, she stopped to take in the towering, cathedral-like ceiling. Etched into the stone high above her head, various images of Ireland’s legendary heroes adorned the smooth surfaces. She’d never dreamed the historic Cunchulan Castle was a masterpiece of art inside as well as outside. Given the elaborate nature of this entry room, this afternoon’s tour promised amazement.

Her appreciative gaze fell on an engraving of St. Patrick depicted with a cross in one hand while snakes slithered away from his feet.

She shuddered. Enough beauty for one morning.

Her stomach growled in agreement. Following her nose and ears, she set out for the restaurant. Down a long hall, through a wide set of double doors, and into the expansive dining room, her steps were quick, purposeful.

Rich, masculine laughter rumbled from the entry, drawing her gaze to broad shoulders and cropped, sandy-brown hair that looked as if the wind had played chase through it. A strong jaw complimented sensual lips that parted in a smile. Her heart stuttered. She’d seen the profile a thousand times in her fantasies. No. She knew that laugh. It can’t be…

Martin lived in New York these days.

She peered through the bodies near the front desk, trying to get a better glimpse. Hope blended with fear. Martin, here? She yearned to call out, to see if that powerful man acknowledged the name she hadn’t uttered in three years, the name she’d made herself forget. She prayed for the stranger to move. To shift, to swivel…to look her way.

Yet the tall imposing figure didn’t turn around. Instead, a muscular arm lifted to loop around a leggy blonde’s shoulders. He nuzzled the woman’s cheek, an intimate gesture that made Natalie’s stomach turn with regret. But the man’s profile sent her pulse skyrocketing. Straight nose, long lashes, eyes that crinkled with deep crows’ feet. So similar.

No, not similar. Identical .

Excitement burst through her.

Stop it. It’s impossible.

Martin couldn’t be standing in the lobby. She was imagining things. Her heart just wanted him to be here—it had always found him in the most unlikely places. Besides, no matter what her heart might want, if he were here, she’d have to leave. Immediately.

“Natalie!” A hearty male voice crashed through her daydream.

At the sound of her new name, she dismissed the fleeting fancy that the man who owned her heart stood in the lobby and turned around. When her gaze fell on renowned author Casey Carmichael, she waved. After meeting him on her arrival last night, his easy charm had kept her up late talking for hours. He was exactly what she envisioned when she thought of starting over. Calm, quiet, and intellectual. Nothing like the passionate, playful, larger-than-life Martin.

She smiled. “Good morning, Casey.”

He rose from his chair and beckoned her to sit. “Good morning to you. I see you took advantage of the comfortable beds?” He teased with a grin.

Gentlemanly too. But refined manners didn’t mean anything. Patrick’s manners were impeccable in public.

“I, ah…” Her gaze drifted back to the lobby for another glimpse of broad shoulders. Impossible. Forget him.

Easing into the chair beside Casey, she answered, “Yes. It was nice to sleep in. I spent some time in Paris before coming here. It kept me so busy, I hit those sheets and slept like a baby.”

“You looked a little worn out last night. I’m glad you stopped to have a cup of coffee with me though.”

“Did you get any sleep?”

“No. Inspiration struck, and I spent a couple hours writing.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” She turned to acknowledge the waiter who appeared at her right. Looking slightly beyond the boy’s narrow frame, she scoured the lobby for Martin’s uncanny look alike. Dismayed to find the great hall empty, she forced a pleasant smile to her lips. Whoever he’d been, he was gone.

“May I help you, Miss?” Tall and young, the man’s lyrical Irish brogue held an exotic ring.

“Coffee. Black, please.”

“It’ll be my pleasure, Miss.” His appreciative gaze wandered down her short sundress before he quickly strode through a pair of swinging, metal doors.

Beside her, Casey chuckled.

She peered at him in curiosity. “What’s so funny?”

“I’d say he likes you.”

She let out a light laugh. “He can’t be much over eighteen. I suppose I ought to be flattered.”

“Well, you don’t look a day older than twenty-five.”

Her laughter came harder. Fighting off the urge to wince at the accompanying aches, she shook her head. “Thanks, Casey, but I’m thirty. Remind me to buy your coffee for that.”

“You’d never know it.” His soft brown eyes twinkled with warmth.

She returned his flattery with an awkward smile. No one would know her age, because her face didn’t belong to her. It was less than a year old. Ashley’s husband had designed it, and he’d erased the marks of time. Even facial recognition software couldn’t identify her now.

The waiter appeared again. Grateful for his interruption, Natalie accepted her coffee and took a long sip. With luck, Casey would change the subject before she set the cup down.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like Casey. Truth be told, he was attractive. His shoulder-length dark hair, warm brown eyes, and the solitary dimple in his right cheek gave him an air of youth. Of average height, his body was toned and well-maintained, strong enough to be supportive, but far from intimidating. His easy smile, combined with his frequent laughter, made him even more appealing.

He liked her. And that interest made her think about kisses. Kisses that meant something. Ones she might actually enjoy. Like she’d dreamt of with…

She shook off the rising memory and trained her thoughts back to Casey. He was real. Last night, after meeting him, she’d imagined how that mouth might feel. Looking at it now, a little spark of excitement flickered somewhere deep inside. How long had it been since she’d looked forward to kissing a man?

Three years ago, and the kiss had never come.

She pushed aside the thought and focused on what those moving lips were saying.

“Are you taking the castle tour this afternoon?”

She nodded. “What I’ve seen so far is amazing. I’m anxious to hear the history. My best friend booked my rooms here—I know little about Cunchulan.”

“You’ll enjoy the tour. They say there’s a ghost in the dungeon. Keep your eyes open.”

When his expressive eyes met hers, that little spark of excitement burned brighter. Casey really was quite handsome—especially when the light softened his features. He held her gaze, and she let the light in his eyes sink in, let it seep slowly through her. It felt good to be appreciated. Felt even better to realize she wasn’t dead inside. The closest she’d come in the last eight years was a long-ago summer that ended long before it began.

A beautiful, forbidden summer.

The laughter she’d heard earlier drifted up from her memory, tugging at her heartstrings. God, if he were here…

Natalie chased an unexpected lump in her throat with a sip of coffee. She tried humor to relieve her discomfort. “I suppose the gardens are full of brownies and gnomes?”

“In Ireland, it’s Leprechauns.” He grinned.

She rolled her eyes. “I’m sure I’ll find a pot of gold too.”

The sarcastic remark erased Casey’s merriment. His features hardened into a somber expression. “This is Ireland, Natalie. If you’re moving here, you’d better keep an open mind about legends. You can’t escape them in this country.”

Something about his tone, the lecturing nature of his reply, made her mentally kick herself. She knew better than to speak without thought. She’d learned the lessons of loose tongues years ago.

“I’m sorry.” She pushed her empty plate aside. “I’m usually not this flippant. It must be exhaustion.” More correctly, freedom transformed her normally demure attitude. And frankly, she liked it.

He leaned back in his chair, his smile once again dancing across his mouth. “Tell you what—you go on your tour, then rest a bit. After, how about you have dinner with me down in Dunquin?”

Natalie almost choked on her coffee. A date. Apprehension rose, prickling the hair on the back of her neck. Could she? Alone with a stranger? What if…

She stopped the thought. Yes, she could. She’d come here to start over. Dating was part of that plan.

She felt her head bob before she told it to, and a smile struggled to life. “What time?” Her pulse fluttered. A date. A real date. The last step to putting her former life behind her.


“I’ll be ready.”

He eased out of his chair with casual grace. “Very well, Natalie St. James. I’ll meet you in the lobby at six and take you wherever you wish to go. You choose.”

She blinked, but he was already halfway across the room. Choose? He knew the town, yet he wanted her to choose where they would eat? Talk about a let down. She wasn’t supposed to have to plan her own date.

The excited rush in her veins diminished.

Natalie rummaged through the small collection of gold jewelry, deciding on a pair of teardrop earrings and two bangle bracelets. But as she moved to close the velvet-lined box, the glitter of a diamond caught her attention. Almost unwillingly, she reached for the ostentatious ring. Slipping the tip of her forefinger into the gold band, she spun it around to inspect the engraved inscription inside.

Forever, my love.

She squeezed the ring into her palm and gritted her teeth. My love. Patrick didn’t know the meaning of love. About the only honest portion of the long-ago sentiment was forever. Even divorced, he refused to let her go.

As if the trinket suddenly caught fire, she flung it back into the box, snapped the lid shut, and marched into the bathroom. Moving faster than intended, she winced as her body complained against the sudden effort. Too much exercise too soon, she acknowledged with a deep sigh. Repeated pelvic bone grafts didn’t heal quickly, and taking it easy didn’t include a four-hour tour of an ancient castle.

“Damn you, Patrick,” she muttered.

A glance at the digital clock near her bed told her it was almost six. Steeling herself against the complaints in her body, she grabbed her tiny clutch and headed for the stairwell. Casey waited.

As she stepped onto the ornate rug that carpeted the immense great hall, she peered through an open set of double doors into the castle’s vast library. Bent over a rough-hewn table, Casey was nose-deep in a book. Curled with a slight wave, his dark brown hair fell over his eyes, shielding her from his view.

She rushed to greet him. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting.”

His head snapped up. But when his gaze met hers, his surprised expression gave way to a smile. “No, not long.”

Natalie glanced at the book before him and bit back a chuckle. From what she could tell, he’d read almost a third of the novel. Either he’d started it earlier, or he’d been waiting a good hour. Warmth crept into her cheeks. “You’re being polite.”

He took her hand and lifted it to his lips. Old fashioned manners. More to like about him.

“You’re well worth the wait. You look lovely, Natalie. Where did you want to go? I’m starving.” His gaze roamed down her body, before wandering up to fasten on the jagged crease across her cheek. He hadn’t asked yet, likely because of those same old-fashioned manners. He would though, and she didn’t know what she’d tell him. She hadn’t planned that part out. Hadn’t really expected to date so soon.

Instantly awkward, she scrutinized the book-lined shelves, avoiding his probing gaze. “There’s a little café down the hill called The Green Goose. They’ve got a pianist tonight. I thought we could have a few drinks after dinner—talk a while, get to know each other.”

Casey nodded as he offered his arm. His natural chivalry soothed her discomfort. Pleased, she looped her elbow through his and fell into step beside him. But as he opened the door, his eyes fastened on her stitches once again. She tamped down a nervous tremble. She’d have to think of something quick.

Casey couldn’t take his eyes off the redhead across from him. Her cool outward demeanor, along with her apparent immunity to his flattery, fascinated him. Every once in a while, she blushed, telling him something he said made an impact. But those instances occurred all too infrequently.

Unlike the rest of the women he’d met through the years, Natalie St. James possessed a natural elegance. Her Chanel pants and shoes spoke of either a keen fashion sense or financial security. Yet there was something about her he couldn’t explain. Something mysterious that made her all the more attractive. He’d spent three hours talking with her tonight, and he still didn’t know her any better than when she’d rushed into the castle at ten o’clock last night and interrupted his late-night research by banging on the front desk’s bell. That allure only increased his desire to learn all he could. “Natalie?”

Her eyes met his over the brim of her wineglass. “Hm?”

“What happened to your cheek?”

She gave a light laugh, accompanied by a dismissive wave. “The day before I flew out, I fell off my horse and hit a rock.”


She nodded, chuckling again, but when she answered, she focused on the painting behind him. “I’m glad you asked, though.”

He gave her a quizzical look.

“It makes it easier to tell you I’m starting to feel the pain. I need to go back for my medication.”

His spirits sank at the prospect of a shortened evening, but he couldn’t protest. The last thing he wanted was for her to feel miserable all night. He’d much rather part early and spend another evening with her.

Nodding, he rose, then moved to her to guide her chair away from the table. As she stood, she slipped her hand into his. Giving it a quick squeeze, he led her to the exit.

With her settled in his Mercedes, he pushed the keyless ignition and the engine roared to life. From the corner of his eye, he noticed she tipped her head toward her lap to massage her temples. What a fall—head-first into stone. She was lucky she hadn’t done more damage than simply splitting her cheek open.

“You okay?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“Yeah. I’m sorry to cut the evening short. I just overdid today.”

“No, don’t be.”

The smile she gave him, full of silent gratitude, warmed his blood. There was something about this woman, something he couldn’t put his finger on, that had him wanting to snatch her up and take care of her.

“I had a lovely time tonight,” she offered.

He chuckled. “I didn’t bore you to tears?”

“Absolutely not.”

The conviction in her voice gave him pause. He hadn’t expected to hear that. Had, in fact, thought perhaps he’d failed miserably. Not many women liked to hear about the traveling he did for book research, or his rather plain, uneventful life. He gave her a brief glance before oncoming lights forced his attention back to the road. “Think you’d let me take you out again?”

“I’d like that, Casey.” Her smile said she meant it.

“You tell me when you feel up to it.”

She leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes.

Sensing the depth of her discomfort, he let her ride in silence as he navigated the car up the hillside to the gravel drive. At night, Cunchulan Castle hulked against the fog-covered horizon like a sleeping giant. He loved to write here. It always filled him with peace. Erased the hustle-bustle of his life at home in Seattle.

When he eased into a parking space and shut the engine off, Natalie sat forward. Her attention riveted out the window on a sleek, black stretch limo. “Looks like someone important’s here.” She twisted in the seat, looking toward the brightly-lit front doors.

“I heard the lady at the desk say something about the castle’s owner being in residence.” A little jolt of unease churned in his gut. The visitor was the last thing he wanted around. Especially when he’d met a woman he liked. Martin St. James had the power to steal even the most devoted wife away.

Natalie stared at the limo in fascination as she eased open her car door. She’d seen several limousines in her life, but never expected to find them in a remote seaboard Irish county. Why she’d never considered such, she didn’t know. America wasn’t the only country where the rich moved about in long, black-glassed vehicles. But this little corner of the island seemed entirely inappropriate for such lavishness. Who owned the castle? She should have looked at those brochures, but she’d been too busy listening to a tour guide who was more interested in discussing what the castle had been used for, as opposed to its present owner.

Casey appeared at her side, his hand extended. When she accepted it, he smiled. His grip was warm and comfortable, but the simple act of holding his hand felt somehow wrong.

She shook the thought off, dismissing it to nerves. This was starting over. Something she must do, no matter how awkward.

She’d kiss him tonight, which would help ease her discomfort. She’d convince him to escort her to her room to say goodnight, and there, she’d discover if she felt anything. If she were even capable of kissing a man again.

Casey seemed to have different intentions, however, for when he led her inside the castle’s great hall, instead of proceeding to the stairwell, he made a sharp right turn toward the library. “It’s early. I’m going to do some more work before I call it a night.”

He stopped at the doorway and released her hand. She returned his smile with false confidence. Please don’t let him intend to go without a goodnight kiss. If he didn’t try tonight, by morning she’d lose her nerve.

He looked over his shoulder at his abandoned novel, saying nothing. She waited, her breath held in anticipation. Dismay bubbled in her gut as she considered the very real possibility that he might do no more than bid her a polite farewell. But his eyes slid back to hers, and her disappointment slipped away.

Dark eyebrows lifted, as if to ask permission.

She tipped her head, allowing him the liberty.

Hesitant, he set his hands on her hips and took a step closer. Already feeling the way his arms would wrap around her, she closed her eyes. His lips brushed against hers, soft and warm, just as she’d thought they would be. As he played them across hers, she inhaled the clean aroma of soap. The tip of his tongue slipped out to slide along her lower lip. She brushed hers against it, curiously exploring what might happen next.

He slanted his mouth to deepen the kiss. She looped her arms around his neck in welcome. Yet when his hands should slide around her waist and pull her closer, he remained motionless. Where she anticipated feeling light-headed by his nearness, she found herself oddly disappointed. No magic in the feel of his tongue dancing with hers, no dizzy sensations from the moist heat.


Maybe she couldn’t kiss any more. Maybe Patrick had killed that too. Or maybe Casey just wasn’t letting go enough. She held on to that idea, desperate to feel normal.

When he brought the kiss to a close, he grinned. “Good night, Natalie.”

She nodded as he retreated into the library.

Turning toward the stairwell, her brows pulled into a puzzled frown. What the hell went wrong? That was supposed to be the kiss of a lifetime, the one she forgot the past with. Casey fit all the right criteria, all her ideals, yet something had gone drastically awry.

“Don’t look so disappointed. From my perspective, that was one hell of a kiss.” A masculine voice disrupted her thoughts.

Spinning about, Natalie searched for its owner.

In a shadowed corner of the great hall, partially hidden by a gleaming set of full plate armor, a tall man with unkempt sandy-brown-hair leaned against the wall. Dressed in a casual pair of light blue jeans and a deep green polo shirt, he cut a confident appearance. She’d have squeaked in surprise, but she could do no more than stare as approached.

“Martin St. James.” He offered his hand. “I didn’t mean to offend.”

Her gaze fell to his outstretched arm, noting the strength in his forearm, the powerful expanse of his hand. The little spark of excitement Casey provoked was nothing compared to the way her insides suddenly went weak. Everything inside her jumped up, screaming for attention. She couldn’t move, could do nothing but stare at Martin’s long fingers, the soft dusting of bronzed hair over his wrist.

After a few awkward seconds of silence, he retracted his hand and tucked it casually into his front pocket. “Well then,” he said with a chuckle. “I own this old place. I assume you’re a guest?”

His gaze lifted to hers, amusement still dancing in his eyes. She took in their vivid green color as they bored into her with dark intensity. Oh, God. Her mouth went dry. Her stomach curled in on itself. Somehow, she managed to nod.

“Your name?” he prompted.

It took a few moments for his question to register. Her name. He wanted her name. He doesn’t recognize me. Stephen really had changed her into a foreign entity.

“Tat-” She caught herself and swallowed. “Tate,” she concluded with a sharp nod. Lord, she’d almost forgotten. Death waited down that path.

Martin grinned again, and Natalie’s stomach flipped upside down. That heart-stopping smile made his eyes sparkle brighter and deepened the crinkles near their corners. “Tate? Unusually interesting?”

She blinked to clear the fog from her mind. Pull yourself together. “It’s short for Natalie.” She took a step back. “I have to go.”

Before he could say another word, Natalie turned from him. It took all her willpower to mount the stairs. To ignore the need to run. But once she stepped onto the landing to her darkened hallway, her steps quickened until she trotted to her room.

Her heart beat in triple time. As she fished the key out of her clutch and tried to unlock the door, she fumbled, her hands slipping as they shook. She took a deep breath, reminded herself he hadn’t followed. Squinting, she focused on fitting the key into its hole.

When the door opened, she darted inside and flung it closed behind her. Safe inside her chambers, she leaned against the door, gasping for air.

Martin. Here.

She didn’t need an introduction. For God’s sake, she’d stolen the man’s last name. He, whom she never thought she’d see again.

She closed her eyes, willing her panic to ebb, listening to the blood rushing in her ears.

Martin St. James knew her secrets.

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