With his plan officially scrapped, Tanner guided our steps towards a path that ran alongside a tranquil pond.  “I have to say,” he began, “I’m surprised your aim doesn’t carry over to your arrows.”

I twitched a smile and shrugged.  “I never cared for bows growing up.”  I really hadn’t.  Shooting a gun was practical—the self-defense/get-the-heck-outta-my-house kind of practical that might come in handy one day.  Shooting arrows, on the other hand, was only good for two things: hunting or landing a spot on an Olympic Archery team.  Though in hindsight, had Daddy stressed what a benefit practicing would prove down the road, I’d be a regular Robin Hood right now.  Maybe.

Without breaking from the relaxed pace of our strides, Tanner collected a rock from off the ground and began tossing it in his hand—seemingly one for each of his thoughts.  “Then again, archery does require a different state of mind.”

A groan pushed past my lips.  “So I’ve heard from Silas — on a number of occasions.”  I placed a hand on my chest and inclined my head.  “You should be able to see with your ears and hear with your eyes,” I said, mimicking his sagely tone to a T.

Tanner halted his throw mid-swing, humored by my spot-on imitation.  “Personally, I think you’re trying too hard.  You need to let go of everything and just shoot — without giving the target too much thought.  The best shots always come by surprise.”

“So stop self-sabotaging myself and take a leap of faith?” I submitted, half-teasing.

A doubtless grin lit his face as he hurled the rock towards the water.  “Precisely.”

I stared vacantly at the rock as it skipped across the pond, my vision blurring at the ceaseless spread of ripples.  I supposed it was possible I’d been guilty of that.  Though I still felt something else was holding me back—something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.   Either way, what he’d proposed sounded as crazy as it did potentially dangerous.  But I’d give it a go the next time the situation presented itself.  Though certainly not here, not with all those Virgin-balloons floating around like shiny red apples, waiting to be plucked out of the sky.  Those I could hit blindfolded; the passengers in their baskets guaranteed it.

Tanner picked up another rock and rolled out yet another Guinness Book worthy fling.  Impressed, my steps came to a stop.  “You’re really good at that.”

“Would you believe the World Championship of Stone Skimming is actually tomorrow, up in Easdale, Scotland?”

I arched a brow.  “Oh, I see — So now the truth comes out.  You didn’t bring me here just for a sphene and a head-clearing.”

“Not true,” Tanner laughed as he reached for another stone.  “And as much as I like friendly shows of sport, I’m not one for grand competitions.  Never have been,” the former gladiator made a point of adding.  “The only person I have to prove anything to is myself.”

I pondered his words as he hurled the rock with another expert flick of his wrist.  What he’d said was undeniably true.  A person ran the risk of losing a lot of self-value when trying to prove their worth to strangers.  Strangers who didn’t know what lay inside your heart or even cared to make an honest attempt to find out for themselves.  The same strangers whose rulings were way off-base ninety-five percent of the time because of their close-minded beliefs and prejudices.

Strangers like Maria, I grumbled silently.  Stone or no, I think she saw in people what she wanted to see.  And I knew there was no swaying the opinions of a person as stubborn as that—not ever.  And still, I’d always found coping with those types of individuals a constant struggle.  For something to be so effortless and invisible, words hurt—plain and simple.  And the only thing fleeting about them was the heedlessness and speed in which they rolled off a person’s tongue.  And with me, the bad one’s tended to take precedence, seeding a tiny trace of doubt inside my head where it inevitably took root and then festered and festered until it carried the weight of a tangled forest of thickets.  Maybe ignoring their words was something maturity granted as well, like a mental shield you earned after accruing so many battle stripes of having to listen to all those opinionated know-it-alls and head-up-their-own-asses perfectionists.  Then again, maybe all I needed was some supernatural strength weed-killer.  For me to claim a stone that granted immunity to illusions, I couldn’t seem to combat the ones they spawned in my head.

From the corner of my eye, I noticed Tanner shaking a rock for me to take.  “Give it try,” he urged, pulling me out of my trance.

I declined his offer with a dismissive wave of my hand.  “I would, if I didn’t think you were trying to trick me into a tie-breaker.”

Tanner drew back his hand and flung the stone towards the water with a laugh.  “No suckering you, I see.”  He bent down and started to pick up a rock near his foot when he paused to reach for another one roughly an arm’s length from it instead.  He rose with an oval shaped stone in his palm, his eyes beaming as if he’d just snatched a four-leafed clover out of the clutches of a tight-fisted leprechaun.  “Here,” Tanner said proudly and handed it to me.

I clasped the stone between my fingers, holding it up for an inspection against the fade of the early evening sun.  Its surface was slightly bumpy, giving it a marbleized look of parchment paper, and its coloring was mostly gray, a shade similar to the lead of a pencil.  Aside from an interesting white blaze that ran like a stripe of paint down its center, dividing the stone perfectly longwise, it was nothing more than a magic-less piece of flint.

 “I think my father had one of these,” I remarked.  “Only his had little plastic eyes that moved when you shook it.”

Tanner scolded me with a glare.  “I’ll have you know that’s not a pet rock — it’s a thunderstone.”

“But it is just a rock, right?” I submitted.  “No magic whatsoever?”

“No magic, save for what you put into it,” he replied.  “Thunderstones were seen as powerful stones across many cultures.  Romans carried them to ward off insanity.”

“Oh… So you’re giving me this to keep away the crazy,” I submitted matter-of-factly.  “How thoughtful.”

“By insanity, I’m talking about their outlook.  They placed their hopes inside the stone,” he explained.  “And as long as they held on to it and believed in its power, their hopes would never fade.”

I tapped the stone in my hand reflectively.  “You have one of these… On the desk in your study.”

Tanner nodded.  “I’ve had that particular one for over five centuries.”

“And all this time I thought it was just some cheesy paper weight.”

“Far from it.”  Even with his stare locked solely on me, the surety of his laugh was indicative of personal experience.  “It helped me when I was going through a rough patch, and I’ve held on to it ever since.”  He nodded to the stone, his eyes holding the gleam of an evocative memory.  “Hope creates its own magic… The kind that’s as boundless and indestructible as what you make it.”  He ran a finger down the length of the stone.  “The white blaze is what makes it a thunderstone.  Its legend suggests that the stone was struck by lightning, and finding one with that mark isn’t an easy thing,” he added.  “Though somehow, they always seem to turn up when someone needs them most.  So if I were you, I’d take it as a promising sign,” he said and then batted the tip of my nose with a swipe of his finger.

I yielded a smile and gave my new stone several pensive strokes.  With every pass, I placed my hopes into it—all of my hopes—starting with my wishes for an untold number of times like this with Tanner and finishing with my unwavering desire to find my wand.  Given its small size, how strongly I felt about those two things, and the way my fingers were steamrolling my hopes into the stone, I was actually surprised all that pressure hadn’t reduced it to rubble in my palm.

“Thank you,” I replied and then slipped it into the concealed pocket that ran along the seam of my dress.

With our strides reflective of picturesque summer sunsets and lazy evenings lit by fireflies, we resumed our stroll along the earthy trail we’d been following.  I noticed its wind carried on through the trees, further away from the hotel.

Further way from food, my stomach rumbled.  And if mine was turning cartwheels, odds were his was too.

“So where are we going?”  Tanner’s only answer was a markedly sly smile as he pushed an overstretched limb out of my path.  With the obstruction cleared, my eyes caught the subtle glow of lanterns hanging from the trees and surrounding bushes.  An airy feeling spiraled through me the closer my steps carried me to the winking lights.  A chirruping robin shot through the air, and I trailed its flight past the kaleidoscope of hydrangeas and onto the enchanting canvas that lay before my disbelieving eyes.  Countless clusters of water lilies of purest white and the most vibrant of pinks laced the pond’s mazarine blue waters like a Monet painting come to life.  My smile widened when a pair of swans paddled past, their feathery forms gracing the scene with an added touch of loveliness.  My gaze turned to the face of a dutiful male hotel attendant who was standing in front of a plaid blanket of scarlet, butterscotch, and honey-gold already laid out on the ground, his hands clutching a wicker picnic basket.

Tanner relieved the attendant of the basket with a nod of approval, and I watched him disappear down the path we’d arrived.  “We can eat in one of the restaurants if you prefer.”  His eyes swept the scene around us.  “But I figured, why waste the daylight.”  Tanner placed the picnic basket on the blanket, his gaze clouding at my non-responsive frame.  “You are hungry, aren’t you?”

He’d totally misread my catatonic state.  “You know I am,” I said with an unabashed laugh.  I eased a hand towards the charming display.  “It’s just that I can’t believe how much thought you always put into everything.”

His eyes became imbued with that soulful lavender hue as he stepped towards me.  “Only when it comes to you,” he said, twining his fingers with mine.

My face was struck with an instant blush from his words and the way they stole my heart like a smooth-handed pickpocket every time.  And regardless of how much I loved hearing him say that, this stubborn recess in my brain cried like a banshee with speculations over how many times he’d done things like this to this degree for other women.  In my book, saying something like, “Only when it comes to you” meant, “no one else — like, ever”.  And considering the number of candles on his cake, I was having a hard time believing it was one-hundred-percent true.  A considerate guy-lie, obviously.  Which, in all fairness, was no different than the mother of all female white-lies—the one that was never-to-be-openly-questioned when 99% of them opted for the purest of colors on their wedding days.  So I pretty much had to give him a pass.

With a curious gaze, Tanner led me to the blanket.  “Is something wrong?”

I shook off any lingering traces of my daze and sat down.  “No,” I said.  “Just feeling a little spoiled — that’s all.”  An honest admission, in part.

“I think the word you’re looking for is pampered,” Tanner clarified as he sat down.   “Spoiling implies that what I do runs the risk of harming your character.  And that would be impossible considering the depth of your heart.”

A rush of warm reflections lifted the corners of my lips.  “Then you can thank my father for that.  He was my biggest influence,” I professed. Samuel, on the other hand, got to take full credit for my willful and ornery-side.  And I didn’t feel the need to mention my mother’s suspected contribution: my inability to stop the writhe of my insides whenever I was with him.

Most definitely, I affirmed, knowing the desire was there—always there—carrying the punch of a lemon-scented air freshener, 24-7.

The jolting “pop” of a cork jerked me out of my musings, and in turn, replaced them with the churn of an interesting thought as I stared at the bottle of champagne.  Tanner had promised me a full day of relaxation when we’d left Inverness this morning—even going as far as to vow that he would act as my quote, “eyes and ears”.  And technically, I was legal over here.  Not that being able to drink was a magic potion that granted instant maturity.  If anything, I found its draw more symbolic.  And of course, there was the added perk of the alcohol’s chillaxing effects.

Without the slightest hesitation, I removed my amethyst and moonstone.  “Here,” I said, dropping them onto the blanket beside him.

He looked at the stones, his eyes flickering their amusement.  “Do you think that’s wise?  Best I can remember, the last time you were drunk in a hotel without these you ended up begging me to kiss you.”

The sound of my neck cracking when I pulled back was startling enough to spook the birds into halting their songs like a needle screeching off a vinyl record.  “No,” I corrected.  “You tricked me into kissing you.”

The press of his lips tightened—no doubt a sorry attempt at tempering the guilt fueling his grin.  “You’re the one who assumed I had to kiss you,” Tanner retorted.  “And again, as I recall, you made a point of being quite vocal about it — which only proves what sort of trouble you can get into under the influence of alcohol.”

I stiffened my back and hoisted a hand.  “Then you can put all of your worries to rest because I promise, right here and now, that I won’t be begging you for any kisses.”  Then I reached for the flute of champagne he’d poured and eased it out of his hand.  “For the rest of the evening,” I added, sealing my vow with a crisp “clank” to his glass.

Not a bad remedy, I thought as I took a sip.  Presto!  No tongue—No temptation.  Now all I had to contend with was the crafty shade of amaranthine building in his eyes—the one that held both the gleam and color of a wax one might choose use when stamping someone’s death warrant.

Tanner tucked my stones into his pocket.  “We’ll see,” he intoned, eyeing the flow of champagne as it disappeared from my glass.  I’d no sooner emptied my flute when he appeared at my side, eager to pour me another.  “Keep drinking at this rate, and I’ll have to chain you to a tree so I can finish my meal.”

The rim of my flute came to a stop at my lips when I paused to slide him a steely look.  “I think I’m capable of controlling myself.”

His brow lifted as if to say, Really?

I quickly acknowledged and returned his assertive look with a firm nod of, Oh, Yeah — REALLY.  No matter how much it killed me, I wasn’t caving.  Not after that crap.

He brushed his mouth against the shell of my ear.  “I think we’ve just found our tie-breaker,” he challenged, his voice an ache of a whisper.  Then he tipped the foot of my glass with his fingers, sending all of the champagne he’d poured into my mouth and straight down my throat.  And at that moment, I began praying he wasn’t upping its potency—because if he was, this ship didn’t stand a chance of staying afloat.

A second hadn’t passed when a feeling of light-headedness had me swiping the bottle out of his hand.  “Back to your corner!” I ordered, pointing to the other side of the blanket.  “You’re not allowed to mickey me!”

Tanner held up his hands like a caught criminal and then heeded my demands, though not before leaving a trail of his secret weapon wafting in his wake—thick enough to stripe a skunk green with jealousy.

“And NO BLISSING!” I fussed, fanning my hands like I actually stood a chance of dissipating it.  I glared at him and clucked my tongue.  At this rate, my only recourse to his underhandedness was to keep my mouth preoccupied with the constant shove of food.  And though I’d never chewed a single bite the physician-recommended “thirty-two times” in my entire life, I could see that streak coming to a definite end tonight.

Our picnic dinner turned out to be as tasty as it was amusing; his stare riveted to mine with a pair of eyes so unblinking it forced my hand into returning the favor, trying my best to remain stormy-eyed while I watched him take the most overindulgent and seductive bites of his food—moistening his lips like they were feasting on actual flesh as opposed to the skins of fresh berries and fruit.  And from the moment a humorous image of the spaghetti scene from The Lady and the Tramp surfaced in my head, I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.  A lot of which, I was certain, had to do with the dwindling level of the champagne bottle that hadn’t been far from my reach throughout our picnic.

I unburied my face with a drop of my hands and postured myself with a deep breath.  “You can stop anytime,” I said, knowing I couldn’t halt my chuckles long enough to beg for a kiss if I tried, let alone pucker my lips.

Tanner cleared his mouth with an objectionable swallow.  “I’ll have you know that a good number of women find a sense of humor a turn on.”

Wide-eyed, I pitched the grape I was about to eat straight at his face—only to watch him catch it in his mouth and then swallow it with a cheeky grin.

Ass, I glared.

It wasn’t long before we’d gobbled up the last of the grapes and berries, all the antipasto salad was gone, right along with every petite sandwich and the assortment of delicious savories the basket had held.  There wasn’t even the tiniest crumb of caramel fudge cheesecake left to occupy my mouth.  Then I really found myself in trouble when Tanner lifted my hand to his lips, claiming my fingers still had traces of chocolate on them.  Though instead of indulging in any licks, he swiped them clean with a napkin.

“There,” he said, his eyes holding a conquering gleam.  “All gone.”

“Thank you,” I said while the voice in my head blared to the tune of, Tease.  Then, instead of returning to his spot, Tanner stretched out beside me and propped his head against my thigh.

I looked down at him as he wiggled his head into a comfortable position.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Letting my food settle,” he assured, eyes closed and sporting one of the laziest grins I’d ever seen.

“There’s a nice tree root over there you could use as a pillow,” I remarked.

“Sorry — You’ll have to carry me over there.  I can’t move.”

With his eyes closed, he couldn’t see the heavy roll of my own.  “Stuffing your gut with grapes will do that to you.”  Especially when someone is too busy working a set of come hither eyes to notice how many they’ve chucked down their throat.

“That’s not it.”  He opened his eyes and brushed his fingertips along the curve of my jaw.  “I can’t move because yet again you have me trapped under your spell.”  His fingers traced the edge of my bottom lip like the warm stroke of a kitten.  “I’m helpless to the powers of your bliss.”

I held his gaze, captured by its moon-like glow of sincerity.  So that one had hit its mark, which was evident from the hitch of my breaths and how achingly aware I was of his lips at this angle—as well as the throb of my own.

He lay there, staring at me in a moment of serious contemplation, his eyes pulsing like his mind was thumbing through a file cabinet’s worth of strategies, trying to find the right one that was sure to push me over the edge.  No wonder I flinched like a goner when he lifted straight out of his lounge and rose to his feet so abruptly.

“Dance with me,” he breathed.

I wasn’t sure if it was his out of the blue request or my tipsy state, but I remained where I was, amused and laughing quite loudly.  “So that’s your grand plan?” I questioned, ignoring the soft tenor of his request.  “Dancing with me until I start begging?”

He slipped off his shoes.  “It’s the only decent card I have left to play.”  He sized me up with a shrewd look.  “And if you didn’t think it would work, you’d already be up here and in my arms.”

I arched a disciplined brow.  “Maybe I don’t feel like dancing?”

Tanner bent down and started removing my shoes, not paying the slightest heed to the committed front I was putting forth.  “I understand if you’re all danced-out.”  He roused a sympathetic wince.  “I’m sure an army of muscle-clad Scots can do that to a person.”

A breeze glided over my bare feet, coiling my toes uncomfortably.  Oh, if only my arrows could hit a target as good as one of his guilt-trips.

“We don’t have any music,” I countered, determined to stay strong.

A wounded look accompanied the tip of his head.  “Aw, now… That hasn’t stopped you before.”

I averted my stare.   Ty and me — in his courtyard…  Oh, yeah.  I’d go to hell and back for aim like that.  I met his gaze and hiked a brow in warning.  “Fine,” I conceded and placed my hand in his.  With a guided tug, I was on my feet, my body swaying a bit, and staring into his eyes.  “But no blissing.”

He slid a hand around my waist and eased me towards his chest.  “Don’t need it.”

The confidence I sensed bolstering his claim had me more than a little concerned—enough that I scrutinized his expression as he remained where he stood, his countenance holding an air of critical focus and his frame as still as a statue.  So that was more than curious.

Umm… Dancing requires that you move me around a little.”

With a smirk of amusement, Tanner chided me with a gentle shush.  “I’m trying to pick a song.”

I was about to inquire as to what the heck he was talking about when from out of nowhere I heard the crisp and playful notes of a guitar in my head—and not through my ears either.  Somehow, the chords were being streamed straight into my brain.

My eyes flared with clueless intrigue as the melody grew louder, and then unexpectedly, the relaxed and velvety voices of a male and female swaddled my insides.  “W—Where is that coming from?”

“From one of the dining rooms inside the hotel,” he revealed as casually as if he would have said, From my iPod.

Okaaay, I thought, still needing some elaboration.  “Well, how am I even hearing it?”

“Through my larimar,” he confessed.  My stare dropped to below his neck where tiny shafts of the stone’s glow were leaking through the placket of his shirt.  My eyes flicked to the lock of our hands as I felt the larimar’s sensory magic seeping into my fingers.  It was tingly and warm and humming a dynamic path straight through me—proving yet again how talented those hands of his truly were.

I averted my gaze from his hand as our bodies fell into step with the sway of the music.  A light giggle pushed past my lips as he twirled me around.  This was absolutely amazing, like having a symphony radiating from within.  And as my gaze drifted past his shoulders, I noticed everything looked magnified, both the colors and textures of the flora, even the mirrored violet glow of twilight that shimmered atop the pond.  My eyes shot into a disbelieving blink.  It was almost the same kind of amazing that the jungle in my dreams claimed, which I heeded as a wake-up call to stay on my guard.  No matter how stratospherically incredible it felt.

It wasn’t long before my worst fears were confirmed; his vanilla and musk scent turning even sweeter and more seducing, and his breaths luring me in with promises of rich, ambrosial kisses that were sure to last for hours.  As powerful as what his larimar’s magic was, I had to do something to distract my mounting desires.  I needed to focus on the smoothness of the music and let its legato carry me away—not the noticeably silkier caress of his hand or the satiny glides of our cheeks brushing and burning their wants.

Though I had to give it to him.  His plan proved a good one with the drunken state I was in—the likes of which an evil genius would craft.

My only defense now was to delve into the powers of my diamond, giving the notes thrumming inside me a hefty boost, essentially turning myself into the physical embodiment of a mystical amplifier—to drown out my other senses.  With the ease of turning the dial of a stereo, the melody took on a powerful life of its own as it spilled through me, every chord vibrating my muscles like I was standing in the middle of an orchestra.  Surround-sound was one thing, but the rock of this…  The way the music was rooted inside me…  How its tempo guided my breaths…  Even the way the fluidity of its notes took control of my steps and stoked my senses…  Everything about it had me feeling so weightlessly wrapped in its thrall, like I was actually a part of the music, my body in a constant writhe and determined to be heard.

I was so consumed with the wonderment of its vibes coursing through my insides, I soon found myself heavy-lidded and craving more of its stroke—needing to see how far I could push its rhythmic caress.  I sensed a peculiar sort of bliss calling to me from some unfamiliar place, like there was something untouched and strangely euphoric around the corner if I could only summon enough of my magic to reach it.  A conscious stir of something powerful and freeing that I felt myself steadily climbing towards, building inside my instrument like the dynamic rise of a crescendo.

Tanner whispered my name, his voice calling to me with what I’d thought was hesitation in his tone.  But I was too entranced by the feeling and too entrenched in the powers of my diamond to acknowledge him, other than to tighten the hold I had on his hand and hug him closer.

I hadn’t realized my eyes had fallen to a close until I felt a sharp uptick in the music’s surge that sent the sweetest of aches roiling through me.  Then the next thing I knew, my breaths had become more restless, shorter and much shallower.  And my heart—my heart was raging and roaring like a thunderstorm.  Even my core felt sinfully aflutter.  And the moment I felt the insides of my thighs rock into an unstoppable quiver, their tremble as rapid and as restless as a runaway vibrato, it was far too late to loosen the grip I had on my powers.

My eyes flew open, jolted by a shudder ripping through me as swift and strong as the launch of a rocket.  The sensation had come so fast and forceful—and just as abrupt as the piercing, gasp of a cry my lungs had trumpeted along with it.  Then I found myself standing there, my breaths heavy as I arched into Tanner, my hips pressing against his with the drive of a battering ram and teetering with aftershocks—numbly aware of what I thought I’d just done.

And if it weren’t for the fierce strain of my sockets, I would swear my eyes had popped straight of my head.

No—NO!  NO!  NO!  HERE?  Of all places?

The imagined claps of my red-suited devil sent a flashflood of embarrassment rushing through me, drowning me from within.  If I’d learned anything from this whole mortifying lesson, it was this: a drunk virgin who genetically claims her mother’s Whore-Gene should never mix larimars and diamonds with fully-cleared chakras.

Insides melting, I closed my mouth and buried my head into his shoulder, assuring myself I could stay this way forever—never having to look him in the eyes.  A paralyzing chill raced along my nerves as I looked to the sky.  Any second and one of those cataclysmic solar flares would come along like a knight-in-shining-armor, putting me out of my misery.  And I wasn’t opposed to an earth-leveling asteroid either.  Or even a sinkhole that ran like an express elevator to the center of the earth.  I seriously wanted to die right now.  Even more so as I stood here, breathless, still leaning into him—his own arousal as full-frontal clear as the smack of cinderblocks.

I sensed something wet under my fingernails, and then it hit me: they were sunk into his flesh and they were still there—in his hand and in his back, straight through the fabric of his shirt.  I started to pull them out when his voiced charged into my head like a thunderous stampede of wild stallions.  “Kiss me,” he demanded.

The carnality of his tone drove my mouth straight to his with a crash, his kisses carrying the rock of landmines the harder we crushed our bodies against each other.

My lips eventually broke from his with a swallow, though I still couldn’t stomach a look at him.  So I aimed my stare towards his chest, faced with a hefty smack of reality.  The first of which was my awareness of what had happened, courtesy of my diamond turning me into a supernatural wand comparable to what my mother kept tucked in a shoebox underneath her bed.  Something Chloe and I had oopsied upon while innocently hunting for Christmas presents six years ago.  The second, that I was drunk—but not to the point that I wasn’t aware of the dangerous ground I was presently treading and that things had become so unavoidably blurry.  So daggone blurry that I knew if I didn’t get my moonstone or amethyst back so I could sober up, my red-suited devil would be calling the shots by the time we hit the elevator.  Yeah, I could feel her in there, pom-poms waving, still riding the rush of what she considered a pre-game show.  But I had to be slick about it.  The last thing I wanted was to come off as the little girl who’d lost her control because she couldn’t handle a few drinks.  Though I was pretty sure he already knew.

Right along with the other, I surmised.

The angle of my stare dropped to the ground where I quickly discovered there wasn’t any earth at my feet—only water.  We were standing atop the surface of the pond, Tanner’s powers keeping us afloat.

“How long have we been out here,” I muttered.

The tips of his fingers sought out my chin, and then he lifted my gaze to his.  “Most of the dance.”

Peering into his eyes, I’d never felt more molten-to-the-core or more speechless or embarrassed.  But I had to say something.

“So the way I see it,” I began, “I sort of won.”  Technically speaking, a plea such as “kiss me” counted as a beg—from him.

His eyes glistened under the handsome canopy of his widow’s peak, his lips broad with a grin.  “And then some.”

So on that note and at my urging, we wrapped up our romantic picnic and began making our way back to the hotel.  I wished the night sky darkening its drapes could have made the reason for my suggestion less conspicuous, but I wasn’t crazy.  He knew.  And I kept waiting for him to make another cutesy-comment somewhere along the way, but he hadn’t so far—to my relief.  Probably because he knew I would turn myself invisible.  Which, for the record, was what I’d really, really wanted to do—preferably, twenty-one minutes ago.  But he wisely kept mum, despite my suspicions that he’d come up with some pretty good jabs, especially knowing I had.  Little Blow Peep, being my personal favorite.

I fought off a nauseating cringe with a firm press of my lips—still finding it hard to shove that sound I’d made out of my head.

Though the longer we were out here, winding through the tapestry of stone walkways and terraces, distracted by the beauty of the fountains and flowerbeds, the more I began to loosen up.  Gradually easing into a little more eye contact…  Unfolding my arms from my chest so he could hold my hand…  Rocking quick nods here and there at his comments…  I took it as a mixed blessing that he hadn’t returned my amethyst or moonstone yet, fearing sobriety’s harsh light.  And if I thought there was even a remote chance that getting drunker could have possibly cleared my head of the whole incident, I’d be parked at one of the hotel’s bars right now, drinking away the most embarrassing moment of my entire life.  Surely there wasn’t anything out there that could prove any worse—not if there was any justice in the universe.

I shot a hopeful glance skyward.  Just sayin’

Tanner guided our steps towards a side entrance tucked within a bay of windows that stretched two stories high.  The smell of chlorine filled my head when we entered, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the azure blueness of the pool, and how the lighted mirrors above it reflected its color—a very entrancing effect that made the ceiling shine like a halo.

I’d no sooner lowered my head when someone thought it would be funny to send a stream of water snaking around my leg.  So into the pool I went, my head pounding with scene after scene of westerns I’d watched with my father on several occasions.  And if this was Tanner’s non-kiss version of sobering me up like they did the drunks outside the saloons, it was a downright sucky, sucky move.

I surfaced, my hands smacking the water with a violent splash.  “Typical!

Still standing at the edge of the pool, bone-dry, Tanner bent down with a laugh.  “It speaks,” he announced with a laugh-like gasp.  “Finally.”

I frowned.  So maybe I was making the situation into a bigger deal than it actually was.  Though in all fairness, I wasn’t a guy.  My first orgasm shouldn’t have come accidentally, by my own devices—let alone fully dressed.  A girl wasn’t supposed to go blindly stumbling into something like that.  Though considering how my first-kiss had come about, (which didn’t count as my first kiss), from having to snap someone out of a poison-induced coma, and now this…  I was starting to fear what the stars had in store for my “first time”.  Especially when bad things happened in threes.

I studied his cardboard stance as I smoothed back my tresses.  “Aren’t you getting in?”

Tanner shook his head, smiling.

I started to swim towards the ladder, only to realize I couldn’t—not with the ironclad clasp the water had on my legs.  It was like trying to kickbox myself out of a skin-tight, sopping wet sleeping bag.

“This isn’t a fair fight without my moonstone!” I hollered.

He held up his hand, flashing my moonstone ring where it rested on his pinky—on the hand that bore the glaring evidence of my blissful wrath.  “I’ll give it back after all of my battle wounds have healed,” he announced, taunting me with a grin and patting his back with a fake wince.

I summoned a gust that scooped up enough water to send a modest tidal wave crashing towards him.  And it might have actually stood a chance of bowling him over had I been a little quicker and if he wasn’t so annoyingly sober.

“Easy,” Tanner warned, damming the water into a wall before he funneled it back into the pool like the bend of a swan’s neck.  Then he willed the water to act like an undertow and beneath the surface I went.

As soon as I wiggled loose of the water’s hold, I shot from its depths.  “This little joke of yours is getting seriously old!”

Tanner popped off a husky laugh.  “Not from this angle, it isn’t.”  Then under the surface I went again, though this time in a more creative fashion, with him using his powers to spin me to the bottom, trapped in the clutches of a turbulent whirlpool.

In a pout, I latched onto the drain, ready to stay down here all night if need be.  Besides, I’d always wondered if being able to breathe underwater meant I could sleep underneath it too.  And what better time than now to find out, post-humiliation.

After a vigorous round of unsuccessful tugs, the water’s hold began to wane.  “Come on, crybaby,” Tanner called to my head.  I swam over to where he was kneeling with a hand extended.  And as much as I wanted to yank him in, I resisted and just took it willingly.

With the help of a swift pull, I was smoothing my hands over the muscles of his chest, courtesy of his shirt’s slick fibers.  His arms were securely wound around my waist by the time my fingers reached his neck.  “I think you like getting me wet,” I accused.  And I knew what I’d said had come out so, so wrong just as soon as I caught the wicked look of opportunity flashing in his eyes.

“Almost as much as you do,” he teased with the straightest of faces.  And even worse than that, was the loud, bone-cracking drop of my jaw.  Then, with the smuggest of brows, he added, “I told you I was keeping track of all those age-cracks.”

Eyes flaring, I shoved away from him and then stomped a sodden path towards the door.  So now I was back to total breath-robbing mortification.  I was almost out the door when he called for me to hold up.  And the only reason I did was because of how truly apologetic his tone had sounded.

I met his gaze upon his arrival and cocked my head.  “You wanted to say something?” I posed, my ears unfurling like the welcoming roll of a red carpet.

“No,” Tanner replied.  “But I did want to do this.”  He wound a hand around to my rear, and with a swift jerk, he tugged the length of my dress back over my butt.  “I’d hate for you to suffer any more embarrassment.”

“Thank you,” I said like I was chomping on a mouth full of rock candy, sweet and gravely.  I held out my hand.  “May I have my stones back, now?

His eyes looked contemplative.  “If you’re seeking the quickest route to sobriety, you could beg me — like the last time.”

I sketched a key locking my lips and then reached for the door.

He grabbed my arm.  “You’re going to track water all the way to the room.”

 I shrugged a pouty, I don’t care, in response.  I’d pulled my gaze from his and was about to head through the door when he stepped in front of me and captured my lips.  And again I found myself at the mercy of my molten insides, kissing him with enough heat fueling my tongue to burn this hotel straight to the ground.  Though to my dismay, when our mouths parted, the only thing sobering about his kiss was the fact that he’d left me senseless.  And dammit if he hadn’t even bothered to wring me dry.  Not even a little bit.

Tanner homed in on my surprised expression and then shot a frivolous glance to my dripping frame.  “I’m sorry.  Were you looking for some sort of magical intervention?

I shot him a withering glare and pushed open the door.  “I expect those stones in my hand when we get to the room,” I announced—or the next kiss I gave him would literally leave him blind.  And I had the topazes to do it.

Upon arriving at an elevator, I found its doors conveniently open and its interior empty.  The only thing that would have made the situation more advantageous was if I actually knew the number of our suite.  Only then could I have given him a proper ditching of, I’m pissed.

The doors had almost come to a close when Tanner appeared, his hands pushing the panels back, and his eyes an earnest, almost ass-kissy shade of lavender.  He started to say something when a voice from behind him said, “Excuse me.”

Tanner entered and then shifted to the side where the panel of buttons rested on the wall, not one of them illuminated.  He pressed the one marked with the number, 4 and then politely turned to the person who’d entered after him.  Which just happened to be the woman from the lobby this morning—the mature butterfly.

My eyes fluttered into a foul roll as I slumped against the back wall.  Surprise, surprise

“What floor?” Tanner asked her politely.

She looked to the panel and then roused a risqué smile.  “That one works for me.”

No she didn’t!  I’d seen straws leave more water in a glass compared to the way her eyes were drinking him in, not missing a drop.

Tanner acknowledged her response with an emotionless smile and then trained his stare to the metal doors, pretending to be oblivious to the intent behind her reply.  My stare, however, fell to the key in her hand, the one that was clearly tagged with the numbers 237.  Humph.  I couldn’t recall a time I’d felt this invisible—including all the hours I’d spent cloaked underneath my golden veil.

I scowled.  Brazen, brazen bitch.

Upon arriving at our floor, the doors pushed open, and Tanner took a step back.  “After you,” he said to the woman, waving a courteous hand towards the hall.

With her apple cheeks set aglow by a mission-accomplished grin, she strutted out of the cab.  His hand flew to the control panel where his finger landed on the CLOSE button with a firm punch, leaving the woman alone in the hall when she turned around to the sight of him whisking me into his arms, straight into the kind of smothering, passionate kiss one would find at the close of a movie.  So now I had to forgive all of his cracks, on top of not drying me out or sobering me up yet again—because in the world of virtually-impossible-to-earn guy brownie points, he’d managed to score a full ten of them.

“What was that for?” I submitted innocently.

He pulled back, eyeing me cannily.  “To keep you from turning her dress into a pantsuit — this time.”

I flashed a pair of doll-sized eyes, unaware that he’d caught my first attack.  But he was right.  And after the way she’d strutted out of here so proud, admittedly, that chick was on a fast-track to tasting a little silk.  And though I didn’t speak a verbal “thank you”, the breadth of my smile clued him in as to how appreciative I was that he’d acknowledged her rudeness and had set her straight in front of me.

“So?” Tanner rustled.  “Am I forgiven?”

I issued his lips a quick peck.  “And then some.”

Thankfully, the woman was nowhere to be found when the doors opened.  Tanner slipped the key to our suite out of his pocket and nodded to our left, where we began traversing what had to be the longest stretch of hall in existence, passing what seemed like a never-ending stream of scones, wainscoting, and dark wooden doors—my impatience made worse by my bladder screaming its silent pleas for the closest toilet.  I’d kind of forgotten all about what a nuisance that was, and how the urge came on with the speed and stealth of a camouflaged commando pressing a knife to your gut.  Which I suspected Tanner knew, based on the tortoise-like creep of his steps.  And if the guy who was shielding a hand over the number stamped on the key ring didn’t pick up the pace soon, September 4th was going down as the day I’d racked up the two of the most humiliating moments in my life.

“Oh, I requested the concierge send up some night clothes,” Tanner remarked, his eyes particularly bright.  “So you wouldn’t feel, and I quote, ‘like such a bum’.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said.

“I kind of did,” he confessed.  “What with us sharing a suite, and the fact that I didn’t pack any.”

“Oh,” I muttered through the phantom kicks I had to issue my red-suited devil, in an attempt to drive her butt back to her corner.  So there was yet another piece I got to add to my puzzle.  That he slept in the buff when he was alone—not lying in his connected larimar-infused sheets—the same as he swam in his lagoon when by himself.

Our steps eventually came to an end in front of Suite Number 434.  The cool air struck my drenched frame upon my entry like I’d stepped into the walk-in freezer of the Sterling Drive-In.  Thankfully the feeling faded at the sight of how elegant the suite was, blowing me away to the point that I didn’t care if icicles were dripping from my arms.

A symphony of grays flooded my eyes, an ombré palette whose tints and shades stretched like a ravenous thundercloud peeling away from the silvery-white glow of a full moon.  And the furnishings it held proved a testament its balanced narrative all the more—nothing appearing on the side of being too feminine or too masculine.  Soft fabrics and frills were met and matched with manly hues of gray, espresso stained wood, and clean lines bending its furniture.  Even the gleaming accents of glass and crystal and chrome and mirrors seemed more sleek than showy, giving the room the tailored, glamorous feel of a dazzling diamond choker as they cast our reflections all around the room.  And that made me notice something else, how prominent Tanner and I were in this sophisticated and dramatic setting, our bodies being its only accent colors—our exposed flesh and the hues of our clothes—making the two of us stand out all the more.  Without a doubt, it was a space that put the S-E-X in sexy, which churned my nervousness like a ready-to-blow volcano.

Tanner collected a garment bag from off a hook beside the door and lowered its zipper.  First, he removed a set of men’s pajamas, the color of charcoal, and laid them on the back of a chair.  Then he blindly reached in and pulled out the other item, which turned out to be a far cry from any p.j.’s I’d ever casually slept in.

My eyes swept every inch of the negligee, noticing what little icy-blue satin lay between its ecru lace borders.  I met his gaze, an emboldened grin lighting my face.  “That color is going to look sooo pretty on you.”

His stupefied look carried the cast of concrete it was set onto his mug so painfully stiff.  “This isn’t what I requested.”

I approached him with a skeptical hum.  “I don’t know.  I’m finding it hard to believe that this is a mistake.  Not with your track-record of perfect planning.”

Tanner pulled back, his gaze narrowing with disbelief.  “It’s not my mistake — It’s theirs.”

My hand made a frivolous swipe across the back of the tufted velvet sofa.   “Whatever you say,” I sang.  Oh, I believed him; I was just having too much fun watching him squirm.  And, yeah—paybacks were a bitch.  I only wished the fabric of that nightie was an even more incriminating shade of violet.  Though if I had to take a stab at how the mistake could have come about, my guess would be that it had something to do with the concierge assuming the brunette who was standing beside him at the front desk like a tick on a hound dog was the one who’d be wearing it.

“Don’t worry.”  Tanner strode towards a mirrored desk where a phone sat on its surface.  He picked up the receiver.  “It’s not a problem that doesn’t have an easy remedy.”

I rushed over and grabbed the negligee out of his hand.  “You’re not going to send it back, are you?”   My lips sank with a slight pucker as I held it up for a further inspection, eyeing its delicate ribbon straps and the racy length of its split.   “It’s too pretty.”

 Tanner pulled back and pitched a brow.  “So you plan on wearing it?”

The room was spinning, the same as my head.  Was that a question or a challenge?  Regardless of which, a rush of daring overcame my senses.  “Yes,” I finally announced, pressing it to my chest.  “But not tonight.  I’ll save it for when I’m back in my dorm.”  I held it out for a final inspection.  “When I’m all curled up in my twin-size bed.”

Then I turned to the chair where his pajamas lay.  The top looked long enough to serve as a decent replacement.  Definitely longer than some of my sleep shirts

“I’ll just wear this,” I announced as I snatched it up and then laid it in the bend of my arm.  “By the way — Nice try.”

Tanner cocked a brow.  “Now that’s funny coming from someone who tricked me out of half of my clothes.”  He grabbed his pajama bottoms and slung them over his shoulder.  “You didn’t need to resort to such deception.”  He removed my moonstone from his finger and then reached into his pocket for my amethyst.  “All you had to do was ask,” he said, laying both stones down on the table, and then swaggered off to find the bedroom that held his backpack.

I walked over to the table and collected my stones, head shaking.  Though the rakish wink he’d fired before disappearing may have charmed a grin on my face, my head still roared to the tune of, Such an ass, for the cocky way he’d thrown my craftiness back in my face.








I lay within the curved confines of the claw-foot tub, cocooned in the warmth of its water.  And though my stare remained indulgently trance-like, my eyes were well aware of everything.  Aware of the steam rising all around me…  The moist licks it took…  How it bathed my skin with its glisten…  The way its touch lay heavy on my lips…  And the feverish ache that came with every rivulet that teased a path down my chest…  All of my thoughts were of the handsome water elemental, as if every droplet had been personally dealt and delivered by his misty hands.

A flush had me craning my neck in search of cooler air, where I rested my head against the sloped ledge of the tub.  I was stripped as I lay here, everything naked—my mind, body, and soul—naked except for my moonstone ring and amethyst pendant.  Teetotal sober too.  The writhe of my insides nowhere near PG.  And consumed with a mind-cleaving amount of confusion.

My gaze drifted to my toes peeking out of the water, their press firm against the tub and feeling their brace.  Oh, I was seriously, seriously in trouble.  Literally, up to my neck in its drench.

If only I could have passed out before I’d returned my stones back to their respective places.  There was good reason lucidity was supposed to come the next morning—naturally, without any supernatural assistance—and not in a blinding rush of truth that smacked you with every detail like the steadfast charge of a train fresh out of a dark tunnel.  The mar of its humiliation was as cold as it was brutal.  None of it muted, all of it painfully pure and right there for your mind to replay over and over again.  From here on out, if I ever caught anyone climbing out a window in search of a questionable escape, you could bet I’d know why, without having to take a dip inside their head.  There was no sifting through the random bits of stupid this time; I knew what I’d done—as well as how I presently felt.

My eyes traveled around the room in search of a distraction, where they ultimately fell upon the black and white retro-looking floor tiles.  Which ironically, turned out to be anything but a much-needed break from my thoughts.

With a critical eye, I examined the tiles, both their color and the shape of their lines.  If I looked at them one way, their arrangement brought forth a field of circles and diamonds.  But when I switched my perspective, pulling the black shapes into the foreground, it changed their entire look, magically turning the canvas into a lattice-like pattern of X’s formed of rounded leaves.  It reminded me of that positive/negative space art-exercise: the one where if you homed in on the patch of white in the center of the illustration, your eyes perceived a vase.  But if you turned your attention to the sections of black that framed it, then voilà—you saw the silhouettes of two identical faces.

I resumed my lounge in the tub.  Perspective, I thought.  What your mind formed from the prominent images it held—the ones that had been impactful enough to leave their insightful marks like the fiery poke of a cattle brand—the same images that served to guide your choices and dictated your actions.  It was perspective that I was grappling with now.  Specifically, how mine wasn’t as divinely concrete as I’d always believed, not when my emotions were thrown into the mix.  And that was my present struggle: trying to shift through the truth and illusion of it all, now that I found myself caught in the crosshairs of my longstanding affirmations and my newfound, chaste-less desires.

I sank into the bathwater, deep enough to feel its lap on my chin.  The only things that were chimingly clear at the moment was that I was never getting drunk again, not as long as I lived, and the tantalizing sight I envisioned waiting for me in the sitting room.  The latter of which was a major concern.  Alarming enough that as soon as I got dressed, I was sending Tanner a telepathic, Goodnight, and then diving straight into bed, covers stretched to my neck.  I couldn’t risk the swing of an open door.  Not with my libido feeling so devil-may-care.  Not when I could already imagine a freshly-showered landscape of finely-honed muscles that embodied the marble likeness of a Greek God.  Which I’d thought was a funny turn of events at the time.  Though now…  Now it wasn’t.   Not with me firmly seated on the wagon of hard sobriety, its ride nothing short of ass-splintering.

I flipped the trip lever with a quick flick of my toes and then rose from the tub, head shaking.  That’ll learn me.

I reached for a towel and began drying off, my strokes turning vigorous and antsy.  I didn’t like feeling this way, so hormonally whipped and weak.  Didn’t like feeling so borderline-helpless to it one bit.  So tempted.  Not when there was still so much I wanted to know about him—so much I should know about him before entertaining anything more physical.

So many things he should want to tell me, I reminded myself—without having to force his hand with some silly, allotted daily question.  It had seemed like the perfect solution at the time, a way of finding out a little about his almost 2000 years, gradually.  Though something told me that if he wasn’t ready to share an answer to whatever question I asked, he wouldn’t—either by way of a polite refusal or skirting around the truth with a half-answer.  And the ambiguity of what his reasons could be filled my head with cries for me to take pause.  Along with my white-winged savior’s numerous warnings about not wading in those two pools of violet for too long, out of fear I would find myself drowning in them—drowning to the point to where I didn’t care why he was being so tight-lipped.   Not as long as his eyes were on me, holding the heat of their gaze.

I ran a hand across the mirror, wiping away enough of the steam to see my face.  A slap of realization struck as my reflection emerged.  Why am I even getting so worked up about this?  He felt the same.  At least he did on his island.  Surely his opinion hasn’t changed…  Regardless of his striptease… Or the way he’d kissed me in the forest…  Like the lure of a magnet, the tips of my fingers eased a caressing path straight to my lips.  Or how he’d kissed me this evening… The electrifying charge of his second chakra evident every single time.

A clocktick hadn’t passed when thoughts of what I’d done down at the pond got me to thinking about our time on his island and how he’d blocked my roving hand from going any lower than his hips.  And all that did was make me want to dive back into the tub before all the water drained out of it.  Though a good enough bump to my noggin might put the brakes on all the back-and-forth crazy I felt spinning my head.

I laid my hands on the sides of the marble vanity, gripping its edges mindfully.  Then, as I looked into the mirror, four years of memories emerged before my eyes, brought forth by the haze of steam peeling away from its glass like the fluid sweep of a curtain.

I hadn’t gone on a single date throughout my high school years (Mike still didn’t count), let alone held the title of being someone’s “girlfriend”.  Though simply walking its halls and hopping cars at the Drive-In, it sure felt like I had.  All the couplings I’d witnessed, along with their tumultuous and teary breakups.  And thanks to loose lips, Finstargram accounts, the steamy windows of cars tucked in not-so-secret spots, and the unsightly scarves of hickeys, you pretty much knew everyone’s rap sheet—or at least had a good idea what it held based on the evidence.  And it wasn’t just the guys bragging.  Plenty of girls were just as quick to shout their exploits from the rooftops as well.

At first, I’d thought it was just me, holding on to some old-fashioned and unrealistic ideal about my first time.  Then, as the years went on, I realized it wasn’t so much how I’d romanticized it in my mind as it was seeing something so intimate turned into something so commonplace and expected.  I hadn’t wanted that then, and I knew I didn’t want it now.  Not after seeing how all those pairings had ended; all those written-in-the-stars relationships with their exchanged I-love-yous and the unspoken vows of loyalty their words hinted—the same ones that had turned out to be half-hearted flings, built on nothing more than empty promises and lies that came in the form of sweet nothings and sugary smiles.  And the debris field was always the same: one person was left to wallow in the dust of their devastation while the other eagerly moved on down the line of lockers on a hunt for their next conquest.  No hands extending any comforting tissues and no looking back.  I knew of only one pairing from my graduating class that was still standing—Heath and Tammy—last I’d heard.  Four years of following my high school’s dating scene like a Reality TV show, and they were it.

And Tammy was pregnant—due in December.

So no.  As far as my perceptions formed based on what I’d witnessed from my peers, there wasn’t anything stellar to rave about when it came to the likelihood of lasting relationships.  If anything, it was a drama-rich ride through an asteroid field rife with tales of emotional pain where all you were left with was a broken heart and sexual experience, 99% of them destined for doom.

My stare crashed to the sink, my weary eyes feeling the invisible tug from its drain.  Damn, that’s depressing…  Did I judge them for it?  No.  Did I see their repeated mistakes as a cautionary tale, a lesson to be learned for my own self, without having to get my hands dirty?  Hell yeah, I did.  But every one had to pay the piper eventually; no one was immune.  And now, I was faced with a relationship where I could find myself unknowingly in the same emotional boat, where its ride ran the spectrum of sunny days and smooth sailing to the toss of rough seas and stormy skies.  A relationship where I had absolutely no physical experience.  None.  And despite the sense of pride I’d always held about that fact, the flipside of it scared the hell out of me.  All those sweet tingles and cravings to go further… Oh, I got it now.  I knew why they’d given their trust away so rashly.  Though as far as “relationship experience” went with respect to both the mental and physical intricacies, it wouldn’t be an issue if all those super-secret government scientists would get a move on those Sci-Fi sleep chambers like in the all those deep-space movies.  I could climb into one, pre-programed with a loop of virtual reality experiences and then come out a year or two later thinking it was tomorrow, baked into a worldly and wise woman.  Confident in every respect.

I took a step back from the mirror, seeking to pull the plug on the movie-reel of visions whirling inside my head, having fully acknowledged where my perspective was faltering.  Specifically, that constant struggle between my rational head and the physical wants of my heart—all to keep my soul protected and strong.  And no…  My first time didn’t have to involve years and years of dating or a marriage proposal, or anyone sprinkling a path of rose petals that led to some Sultan-esque sized bed framed with gossamer panels that billowed in the breeze.  And I didn’t need fireworks exploding in the sky either.  All I needed were the ones booming in my heart.  The ones I knew would still be bursting throughout the foreseeable future.

Like trick birthday candles, I noted.  The kind a hurricane couldn’t snuff out.  Really, really long ones, I added, casting a nod to my reflection.  Similar to the size of the six-foot pillar that guy at The Pink Elephant had crafted to help me find my wand.

I slipped into the cozy white robe I’d found hanging on a hook beside the bathroom door, the brush of its nap similar to the hug of the one I’d left back in Welch…  The one in the closet of my bedroom… The one tucked inside a cranny within the walls of a house my father had built for his family—his two daughters and the wife who had been cheating on him for years.

A foul shudder sent my shoulders into an angered roll as I knotted the tie of the robe.  I still didn’t know how many years Charlotte’s infidelities stretched.  Still didn’t know how many men there had been, or how many my father had known about throughout the years.  Surely finding out about the first one to have crushed him.  Had the second?  Or the third?  Samuel had told me that Daddy was aware of them, and despite my mother’s betrayal, he’d stayed with her.  And it wasn’t like they’d had a loveless marriage, I didn’t think—not the entire length of it.  I remembered the affectionate looks they used to pass each other when I was little.  And in my heart, I knew the reason why he’d chosen to stick it out—because of me and my little sister.  His girls.  The two things that mattered to him most.

My hands gripped the frame of the doorway with a reflective sigh.  Chloe…  Thinking about my little sister forced a raw bitterness to rise in my chest.  No.  I couldn’t forget about her contribution in the grand scope of all this perspective I was contending with.

I reached back to flip off the bathroom light and then headed into the bedroom, feeling as if I’d stepped through a doorway in time, my mind being spirited back to the last week of June before my Senior year like the Ghost of Christmas-Past had dragged me there on a point-proving mission—back to the day when Chloe had broken up with her little Ninth Grade boyfriend for cheating on her.

For two solid weeks after, my little sister had moped around the house constantly crying, pitifully red-faced, and a tissue never far from her eyes or nose like it was the latest fashion trend.  And there was no escaping her wails, whether inside or out in the yard.  Not when every window in our house was raised because our A/C unit had run out of Freon.

Charlotte had spent the entire time babying her—mother/daughter movies on the sofa, a few trips to the mall, showering her with an excessive amount of compliments.  Daddy, on the other hand, had been particularly quiet, if not a bit sour.  Naturally, I assumed it was from the prolonged drama—until I was heading off to work one Saturday afternoon.

I was about to climb into my Charger when Daddy hollered for me to come to the backyard, where he and Samuel were partaking in a little target practice.  Seeing that I had a few minutes to spare, I delayed my departure and headed out back, as requested.  Truth be told, I could have been running late and still went because of the dire firmness of, Git your butt back here, I’d read in his tone.

“Somethin’ wrong?” I’d asked upon my approach, looking between the two of them.  I remembered both of their grins. Daddy’s looked particularly strained, like someone who’d taken a dare to swallow a jagged hunk of glass.  Samuel’s, on the other hand, had struck me as awkward and kind of cringey, like the guy who had to sit and watch it.  Neither of their expressions anything close to sunny.

I remembered the curious gleam my father’s blue-green eyes held as he stepped towards me and then announced, “I’ve been thinkin’ about sellin’ the Charger.”

“Oh,” I’d replied in mumble, selfishly pouting, Well, crap… There goes my wheels.

“But if I do, I can’t leave you without a car — not with you workin’ at the Drive-In,” Daddy added.  “So I’ll buy you a brand new one.  Would you like that?”

Considering the strange vibe that clung in the air as thick as smoke off a charcoal grill, admittedly, I was taken aback.  “Yeah,” I’d replied at first and then quickly added, “What kind?

“A Corvette,” Daddy replied without missing a beat.  “I know how fond you are of them.”

Upon hearing that too-good-to-be true declaration, I’d immediately started searching for empty beer boxes—expecting to see more than a few crushed cases lying about and finding none to my surprise.  “Seriously?  You’re going to buy me a brand new black C-7 loaded-out?”  If Santa Claus was offering, I was going to make my request as specific as possible.

“In whatever color and however you’d like it,” Daddy answered, his face particularly alight.

Knowing my father had never lied to me before, I knew there had to be a catch somewhere.  He would never take out a loan for a car that didn’t serve some sort of function other than to look boss as hell cruising down the road.  Something was up.

I lifted a brow, challenging his claim.  “And you’re just going to buy it for me because—”

Daddy cut me off.  “Oh, I’m not buyin’ you a Corvette outright,” he corrected, followed by the release of a hearty laugh.  “You have to win it.”

My brow furrowed.  “Win it?” I parroted.

Daddy nodded and then pointed to the bale of hay that held one of his shooting targets.  “All you have to do is hit that fellow right between the eyes and it’s yours.  And if you miss, I’ll still sell the car, but I won’t be buying you a ’Vette.”

My hands hit my hips with a squeeze.  “What will you buy me instead?”

“Nothin’,” Daddy replied, unblinking.

Had there been a horse fly buzzing around anywhere near my face at that moment, it would have found a roomy new home inside the cavernous gape of my mouth.  Nothing?  Then I turned to Samuel where he sat wiggling around on a bale of hay, looking about as comfortable as a cat trying to score a little lovin’ off the hide of a cactus—and failing miserably.

“But you just said that you couldn’t leave me without a car?” I questioned, my tone as accusatory as Daddy’s Girl could get away with.

My father shrugged.  “I changed my mind.”

On that particularly bizarre and out of the blue turn of events, I swung my wide-eyed stare back to the target and drew deep into my thoughts.  I could make that shot—had made that shot plenty of times.  And at a much further distance from where they’d been shooting roughly fifty feet away.  So that settled that.

I extended a confident hand towards the shotgun lying in the bend of my father’s arm.  “Deal,” I announced.

My father’s answering smile hit me as hard as what he’d actually placed in my hands—instead of his shotgun.

My muscles froze as I stared at the recurve bow, aware of what really lay in my grip—my hitch and his loophole.  A bow?  Seriously?  And it was missing the laser rangefinder it held any other time.

An eerie vibe washed through me, and I met the target with a fresher pair of eyes.  I whirled to my father.  “Why didn’t you tell me this part sooner?”  Along with the other, I grumped.

Daddy’s expression shone with an innocent look.  “Was I supposed to?”

“No,” I reckoned in a mumble.  “But it would’ve been nice to know your true intentions upfront.”

Daddy titled his head with a knowing smile.  “Because that’s what you expected — because that’s what you would have done?”

“Yeah,” I said, despite how naïve it sounded.

The tight crinkle of my father’s eyes felt particularly incisive.  “The world doesn’t operate like that, Shi.  People work things to their advantage all the time.”

No shit… For a second, I didn’t even think the man standing before me was my father.  This was so unlike him—to come across so calculating, so cold and uncaring.  Like he’d intended to pull the wool over my eyes.  And this was someone I loved.  Someone who loved me.

Daddy picked up a wooden arrow, waving it in a taunting fashion as he handed it to me.  “Anytime you’re ready.”

I took the arrow without any further hesitation, driven by the desire to put an end to this exchange the quickest way I knew how.  With a committed and strong-minded smile, I started to ready my draw, only to be stopped by a niggle of warning.

“How many tries do I get?” I asked.  I wasn’t delusional.  Not when it came to the limits of my archery skills.  One shot out of ten—if I was lucky.  That was where I’d put my odds of hitting it.

“Just the one,” Daddy replied.

I swallowed away my last breath.  One, my mind echoed.  No.  This wasn’t just any loophole; you could drive a coal truck through the gap he’d left.

My muscles coiled with pause as I cut a glance to the target.  “And if I don’t want to shoot…”  I turned to meet his gaze, eyes squinting.  “Can I back out of the deal?”

Daddy’s expression lightened with an air of tenderness only an adoring father could radiate.  “Shi, you can always say, no  — to anything that comes out of anyone’s mouth,” he stressed, almost in an imploring sort of way.  Then he lifted his head with a smile.  “And along with that no, I won’t sell your car.  You can keep it for as long as you like.”  Daddy paused to tighten his jaw.  “Preferably till you’re out of college,” he added, his tone a touch trenchant.

Okay, I thought, throwing Samuel a discreet look that cried, If it makes it THAT LONG.  A look that was fully returned by way of my surrogate father rolling his eyes in disbelief.  Undoubtedly, even he agreed what a stretch that would be.

I turned back to the target, feeling like the tip of an inflated balloon that someone had forgotten to tie.  I nocked my arrow and straightened my stance as I drew my bow.  Then I stood there, eyeing the sweet spot I needed to hit while I debated whether or not to even take the shot.  And all throughout my contemplation, Daddy kept egging me on—worse than my red-suited devil ever had.  Telling me over and over that I had the right equipment and conditions to make the shot.  A brand-new, fresh out-of-the-box arrow, straight as a pin with a fletching that hadn’t seen any action…  That the bow in my hand was the one I’d always used, a perfect match for my height and strength…  That the lack of any gusty breezes put the winds in my favor.  And on top of all that, I knew where the arrowhead was supposed to go.  Tip to target, easy enough.  But he didn’t stop there.  His so-called “pep talk” turned to my dream car.   How good lookin’ they were…  How fast they would go…  He even speculated his guesses as to how excited I would feel sitting behind its wheel for the first time…  Even if I couldn’t take it up past 65 mph on our curvy mountain roads…  Even if it was too much engine for me to handle, given what little driving experience I had…  Even if it only held two people…  Even if I ended up spending my entire paycheck on gas for it…  It was worth it, just to be seen with it—just to be able to say it was mine…  And despite his attempt at selling me on the idea, his tone had taken a noticeably grittier turn.  So I wasn’t quite sure who the heck’s side he was on.  Not really.

And in the end, after hearing all that and knowing what I stood to lose because of my longstanding love of wicked-hot sports cars and how much I desired to park my tail behind the steering wheel of one someday, I wasn’t willing to risk it.  Not at the cost of being stranded with no car to speak of—no way to get to work, let alone around Welch whenever I liked.  Ugh.  And I’d have to ride the bus, to and from school.  Yes.  I might have everything I needed to shoot: both the equipment and the desire, but what I lacked was the hours of experience to ensure I would hit the daggone target—nor the confidence that I would nail it right between the eyes.

I lowered the bow and slipped out my arrow with a thoughtful sigh.  Not a sigh of defeat, more like one that breathed my full awareness.  Then I handed them both back to Daddy.

“Why didn’t you take the shot?” my father questioned.

Wasn’t it obvious?  Did I have to say it?  “Because I lack the experience I need,” I huffed.  “And I’ll miss — I know I will.  And I’ve only got one shot,” I replied.  “And once it’s gone — it’s gone.”  And by gone, I meant my Charger.

Daddy turned his stare towards the house, aiming a glare at Chloe’s open window and shaking his head, where she sat in her room, crying as loud as ever.  “That’s right, Shi.  Sometimes in life, you only have one of somethin’,” my father said gruffly and then stormed off to his workshop, his boots kicking up a mess of dust and gravel with each of his steps.  “And the worst thing you can do is waste it on the wrong choice!

My stare remained on the back of his head until he disappeared into his workshop, followed by a door slam that sent a couple of loose sideboards crashing to the ground with a clatter.  My mouth dropped into a gape.  And here I thought I’d made the wise decision.

My eyes flicked to Samuel.  “What the heck was that about?”

Samuel shoved to his feet and loosed a sigh.  “Ignore him, honey.  Caiden’s just…in a mood.”

At the time, I’d passed off his alleged “bad mood” as perhaps a rough day at work—or week, considering how harsh his behavior had seemed.  But later that night, after my shift at the Drive In, when I’d overheard Charlotte consoling Chloe behind the closed door of her bedroom, I realized the truth behind Daddy’s bizarre bet and what he’d intended it to be: a lecture about my virginity—because Chloe had lost hers.  That’s what had been fueling my little sister’s rainstorm of tears over the past couple of weeks.  She’d given that special part of herself to her boyfriend, only to find out a week later that he’d been messing around with one of her friends from school—when another one of her friends told her about the pair getting caught skinny-dipping afterhours at the Linkous Park Pool.  My little sister’s innocence was gone—gone at the ripe old age of fifteen—and given away to some jerk who viewed it as nothing more than a step-up from the rub of a lotioned hand or another tube sock he’d yanked out of his drawer.  And they’d done it while walking out on Shiloh Ridge behind our house, no less—before his mom came back to pick him up.  A romantic “quickie” on the ground.  Grass and dirt.  Real classy.  If that had been me, you could bet the Onyx would have shown up and the guy’s Levi’s wouldn’t have made it down past his knees.  And the boy who’d texted my little sister religiously and had told her that he loved her and had sent her flowers for Valentine’s Day, what had he done in the end?  He’d left her completely shattered and feeling so wretchedly betrayed.  Even I wanted to kick his scrawny little ass.  I couldn’t imagine what Daddy wanted to do to him.  Though the rounds of ammo he’d unloaded in the backyard over the course of the next few weeks gave me a pretty good idea.

So yes, from that moment on, after I’d seen first-hand what kind of emotional wreckage I could possibly face from an act that could never be taken back, I wanted to be confident in every respect when it came to my first time and to whom I said yes.  And no matter how much I wanted it to be with the guy sitting in the next room, the only way I could fulfill the promise I’d made to myself was to know everything about him.  This was one time I fully intended to read all the fine-print, instead of rushing to click the blue button marked, “I Agree” just so I could move on to the good stuff.  After all, wasn’t that a part of being mature?  Gaining empowerment by way of self-control?

With that reaffirmed and settling into my soul, I turned to the ironic part of my realization.  Now I could say without a doubt that I knew the underlying reason why I sucked so bad at archery; I’d been psychologically traumatized by bows, arrows, and targets—no thanks to the subconscious life-lesson that had been unknowingly ingrained into my head.

I shrugged out of the robe, threw on the nightshirt, and shortened its sleeves with a few cross rolls towards my elbows.  With a sigh, I tilted my head to the ceiling.  Thanks, Daddy

In the end, a choice as meaningful as this was something best left to time.  Time and patience, I affirmed.  Time, patience, and restraint.  I plopped onto the upholstered bench at the foot of my bed.  And well after my witch-confession, I added, knowing I wanted my conscience one-hundred-percent clean.

Three abrupt knocks to my bedroom door sent me springing back onto my feet.  Shit…  I looked at the clock on the nightstand.  I’d been in here for over an hour with my virginal musings.  I could only hope my erratic emotions hadn’t been strong enough to leak past the crack under the door and drift down the hall.

With the help of a composing breath, I steeled myself before turning the knob—and that was when I realized I’d forgotten to put on any panties.  Talk about a monkey wrench to my plans.  Most likely tossed by the hands of my red-suited devil, who was still poutin’ and stompin’ around inside my head.  But it wasn’t anything a reach into my backpack couldn’t fix.  Or a hard enough smack from a feathery white wing.

Tanner was leaning against the opposite wall when I opened the door—his arms in a cross at his chest that accentuated his feast-worthy pects and biceps all the more.  Every fleshy and muscular inch of him deliciously dew-kissed.

Yep, I mused silently.  A whole helluva lot of restraint.

“I just got out of the tub.”  A nervous burst of energy had me rocking onto my toes—a side effect of how damn disarming he could be at times.  “Clean and sober,” I added.  I could tell by the amusement dancing in his eyes that he knew I’d been hiding out in here.  “How was your shower?” I asked, my hand still clutching the doorknob like a safety rail.

He took a pensive pause.  “Cold,” he finally replied, his tone as assertive as the silent hint of his grin.

My smile was a thin line as I stood there, silently scolding myself; I couldn’t even blame that last one on being too drunk to filter what came out of my mouth.  Not anymore, unfortunately.  I’d just taken a step backward to close the door and was about to issue him a, Goodnight when he leaned in and reached for my other hand.

“Oh no — I’m not done with you yet.”  His stare fell to my nightshirt and then to his pants.  “Besides, it’s bad luck to break up a set.”

With a gentle hand, he led me out of the safe confines of my room.  My heartbeat quickened when we stepped into the sitting room.  It was elegantly dim, lit only by the sensual glow of the fireplace.  My eyes drank in the harmony of the light and shadows dancing throughout the room, their sway as inseparable and hypnotic as a tango.

Though my back was to Tanner, I sensed the slide of his gaze all over me, and the invisible touch it left felt as scintillating as the sparkles being cast from all the crystal and mirrored accents throughout the room.  Needless to say, that added rush of glittery arousal drove me straight to the sofa in search of a hormonal reprieve.  I’d no sooner sunk into its velvety cushions when he joined me.  And for the second time this evening, I found myself hesitant to meet his gaze.  Then, when he scooted closer, my heart shot into my throat, which sent my mind scrambling for anything that would get me to stop thinking about him and the approach of all that bare-chested maleness coming at me.  Sadly, all I could conjure were the sounds of a dinner bell.  Though in my defense, it was hard with him looking so sinfully hot—as hot and half-naked as he had sitting on Bea’s sofa last New Year’s Eve.  Possibly hotter when I factored in his shorter hair, and the way it honed the gaze-pinning power of his widow’s peak.

“Shiloh,” Tanner rustled.

I turned to him where I was met by those two heavenly pools of violet staring back at me.  Every moment we’d shared over the past two days hit me like a cannonball, the air rippling like an invisible force-field lay between us.  And I didn’t dare cross it—didn’t want to lean into it any further than I was.  Not after I’d come to a sensible ruling.

Tanner reached a hand to a tendril dangling from my loose up-do.  I could already feel the knock of my hands and feet when he said, “There’s no need to be nervous.”

I stopped fidgeting and rallied a firm tone.  “I’m not nervous.”

His gaze fell to my bare forearms, where I’d pushed up my sleeves.  “You’ve got goose bumps.”

Chill bumps,” I corrected and went to rubbing my arms like I was cold.  “Big difference.”  One of his brows bounced into an arch before my eyes.  Nope.  There was no fooling the Emotion Whisperer.

I roused a meek smile.  “They’re coming through that loud, are they?”

With a grin honed to soothe, Tanner nodded to the window.  “I’m surprised the hunting dogs down at the kennels aren’t howling.”

Embarrassment washed through me, knowing how right he was.  Then, when I thought the choke of awkwardness between us couldn’t get any worse, he rose from the sofa and turned to face me.  I immediately took to silently pleading a stream of No, No, Nos, praying that he wouldn’t assume a lecture-like position.  Which was precisely what he did, when he kneeled directly in front of me.  And it was all I could do not to turn invisible.

 Tanner took hold of my hands with a passionate clasp.  “Shiloh, I brought you here because I wanted us to spend some time together, without the stress of you thinking about your wand — That’s all,” he assured.   “And as far as our dance and using my larimar, I didn’t—”

I shook my head in a silent order for him to stop himself right there, already aware of what was about to come out of his mouth.  “I know you didn’t,” I said, my tone sincere and heavy with my own fault.  “But I really don’t want to talk about it.  Not right now.”  Not ever.

His lips captured my knuckles with a solemn kiss, and then his eyes hit mine with the sparkle and drive of a comet as he said, “As you wish.”

Heart stuttering, my mouth quivered into an evocative press as the smoldering trails of a memory tugged at my mind, its pull triggered by those three words that had breathed across his lips.  And then I looked at him.  Really looked at him—looked into him.  His eyes held so much truth as they gazed back at me.  I could clearly remember one other time I’d seen a look as soulful and stirring.  The kind of look that left you achingly breathless merely seconds before it sent your heart melting onto the floor.  Katie and I were eleven the first time we’d watched The Princess Bride.  And I remembered the way Westley had looked at Buttercup…  The intensity of his gaze and how it beamed every ounce of his undying love for her…  And I remembered wanting someone, someday to look at me in the exact same way, a look that bared his heart completely.  It was one of the most entrancing moments my eleven-year-old eyes had ever seen, and here it was—only this time, for real.  A look tailored for two specific souls, custom-crafted by the cosmos.  A look that had no twin.  A look that was meant to be worn by one person and intended to be given to one person, and one person alone.  The very look a little girl had wished for with her whole heart, both the day she’d first seen it and then a month later when she’d blown out the candles of her birthday cake.

Score one for my faeries…  At least I knew one of them liked me.

Tanner remained on his knees, his face wreathed in the glow of firelight as I immersed myself in his gaze.  No.  Those weren’t random words he’d chosen.  They were the words I needed to hear right now, just as much as I needed to see that look.  And as much as I tended to fuss at the cosmos, it was at times like this, when wishes and prayers were magically answered so out of the blue, that I could feel the weight of its sparkly presence in my life all the more.

 Those talented hands of his sought out my face, cupping it sweetly.  “Shiloh, all I need to lose myself is just being with you.  Breathing the same air and holding you in my arms.”  His fingers traced the edges of my collar, dipping down to the first closed button, his eyes flickering into a sinful shade of red-violet that called to mind lipstick left on collars and the dreamy drip of orchid blossoms.  “For now.”

The smile I yielded cast a glow straight from my soul, knowing ‘for now’ was his way of saying ‘when you’re ready’ without its glaring overtones of inexperience.  With that put to rest, he resumed his spot on the sofa and pulled me towards his lips.  Then he sealed his words with a lush and savoring kiss that sent me rising into him like a flock of white doves had been released from my chest.

Feeling much more at ease, I slid an arm across his waist and hunkered down into a cozy spot against his pects.  “Then I guess we’re watching TV,” I said.

As I lay there, feeling completely unfolded and burrowed in his warmth, I knew that despite how charmed this getaway had proven, this wasn’t the right time.  Even if my wand happened to fall magically into my lap this very second, it still wouldn’t be the right time.  And no matter how many lustful thoughts I held, I couldn’t ignore what lay side-by-side with the ache of my longing—that one thing I feared the most, that in the end, kept me from coming irreversibly undone: the thought of fighting off a heartache.  That’s what kept me grounded, even if more times than not I felt like my desires could fill a balloon the size of a house and I was trying desperately to keep hold of it, arms stretched and standing on my tippy-toes.  And that was where my need to know more about Tanner’s past came from, particularly when it came to ex-lovers.  Surely they hadn’t all died of old age.  There had to be some bad breakups in there somewhere, aside from the random booty-calls.  Considering how wildly my heart beat for him, I knew from the depths of my soul that a heartache from him ran the risk of putting me in a coffin.

I looked up at him, past the strong column of his neck to find a pair of eyes glistening with intrigue.  From the way his gaze fell nowhere near the TV screen, the fact that he wasn’t whizzing through the channels at light speed, and that ghost of a smile curving his lips, it looked as if a question was stirring his thoughts.

“What are you thinking?” I inquired, quirking a brow.  His eyes slid to mine without faltering, his hands still tapping the remote on the arm of the sofa.  The hesitation I sensed had me raising my head, eager to pull whatever it was out of him.  “What?” I repeated.

With my consent granted, Tanner cleared his throat.  “Actually, I was sitting here, pondering something,” he confessed and then tightened his one-arm embrace.  “What you would have done if the clothes I’d requested had come in separate garment bags, and yours had been hanging in the same room the porter had placed your backpack.”

So he’d secured his hold to keep me from running for cover, which I ended up doing in a roundabout way when a blush severed my gaze, and I pointed to the TV.  “Look — Doctor Who is on,” I blurted and then nuzzled my head deeper into the muscular wall of his chest.

He stroked an adoring hand through my tresses as I shied away from giving him an answer.  To be honest, I hadn’t given any thought to that scenario.  None whatsoever.  But now that it was out there…  What if I had thought he’d bought it for me intentionally?  That he’d expected me to wear it tonight—and then strutted out here with it on?  My stomach turned with the wobble of a child’s first attempt at a summersault.  He would have thought I’d packed it—brought it along on purpose.  At least initially he would have.

I groaned silently, feeling the phantom suck of an earthy grave swallowing me whole.  I couldn’t have stomached the embarrassment of that—not on top of my accidental orgasm.