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Paper Gold Publishing
The Gold Standard in books.

ETERNAL ILLUSION

(excerpt)

Chapter 1


Lost in thought, Abe ran a loving hand over Ariana's swelling belly, then grinned when she stirred from sleep and blinked lazily up at him. Wrapping his mind around that – not only had she been his wife for over three months, but was also carrying his child – was too much of a dream come true, one he never wanted to wake up from.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Cambridge. It's fifteen after one."

Nuzzling closer to him, Ariana yawned and let her eyes drift shut. "Five more minutes."

He snickered against her hair and then kissed her forehead. "Take all the time you need, baby, but I have a feeling Becky and Janie will—"

Quick and persistent tapping on the chamber door cut off his words and had him rolling his eyes in irritation.

"—knock on the door soon," he finished through a clenched jaw, his mood swiftly turning sour at the lack of private time the island's residents allowed him to have with his wife. "I can kill them, you know. Nobody will find their bodies. I swear it. Did I ever tell you that I'm a shark whisperer?"

Ariana giggled as she pushed against his body, and when he tried to grab her, she threw a pillow in his face and scrambled out of bed.

He fell back to his own pillow, defeated. "We are going on vacation. No cell phones. No knocks on the door—unless it's room service—and, best of all, no distractions."

Laughing as she opened the door, Ariana greeted her friends with a hug and took the coffee Janie held out with a sigh and a gracious smile. "I love both of you so much."

Abe huffed as he glared at them. "You just saw them yesterday. And you don't need that caffeine; it's bad for the baby."

Ariana took a long sip and winced as the heat bit her tongue. "The only thing that's bad for the baby is my blood pressure going up when his or her father fusses over me too much."

Abe blanched, and started to throw back the comforter to go to her, but thought better of it once he caught sight of Becky and Janie looking at him. Unlike Ariana, he hadn't dressed after making love the night before.

He exhaled in relief as he studied the growing smirk on his wife's face. She was the only one who could, quite literally, drop him to his knees with only a few words. He kept waiting for the spell she had him under to wear off, but with each day that passed, he had only grown more mesmerized by her charm.

Abe raised an eyebrow. "Come here, devil woman."

"Abe," Becky said, laughing. "There's no time—er… take all the time you need, Your Highness," she said quickly, when his mouth flattened into a thin line and his teal eyes locked on her, daring her to say one… more… word.

He would burn that damn clinic to the ground before he would allow anyone to take even one more minute with her away from him. She already worked too many hours as it was. It had started out being only five, but then had swiftly moved up to six, then seven. He had drawn a line at eight, but, more times than not, Ariana stayed at the clinic up to ten hours, even against his wishes and constant phone calls.

He tore his piercing eyes away from Becky and they softened as he met Ariana's smile.

She set the cup down and crawled up on the mattress and into his awaiting arms. She stared into his eyes as her fingers brushed back the hair hanging over his ears, reminding him it was time for a trim. That would take all of fifteen minutes, so what would he do with the other four-hundred-sixty-five minutes she would be out of his sight?

He had some ass-chewing to do, that's what, and he was going to do that first.

"I'll be back before you know it, Abe," she said sweetly, almost convincingly, but he knew better; she'd been telling him that every day since she’d started working, and it had never, ever been true.

Even though he knew arguing would get him absolutely nowhere, he still pleaded his case. "Stay here," he whispered. "Take the day off. I could use a little healing myself." He grinned devilishly.

The only answer he got was a small smile and a long kiss. Abe wrapped his arms around her and pulled her across his body, rolling with her until she was lying on her back and he was looking down at her beautiful face.

He knew she wouldn't concede to his wishes today, but that wouldn't stop him from trying. He had faith that one day she would.

"Sunset, Ariana. Please. I have something I want to show you."

She laughed. "I just bet you do."

He tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear and softly kissed her lips. Lingering a breath away, he spoke so only she could hear. "It's sort of important and special. It's been in the works for several years, but it's almost complete now. I didn't want to mention it until Roger said you could see it. He sent me a text last night, but you were too exhausted after work, so I didn't say anything. I don't think I can keep from telling you what it is until your next day off, so please don't overwork yourself today, and try to get out of there by eight." He paused for a moment. "And eat light for supper; I'm taking you out afterward."

Ariana's eyes narrowed to thin slits, but there was amusement in them that she couldn't hide behind her fake anger. "You know how much I hate surprises."

Abe knew she could have searched his thoughts in one instant, so he quickly rifled through his memory for the lyrics of Mary Had A Little Lamb, just in case. Mindreading was one witchy trait that could be both a blessing and a curse, but thankfully Ariana tried not to use it too often. For that, he was grateful. It was bad enough that he couldn’t keep his hands off his wife for more than five minutes. Keeping his thoughts off her would be downright impossible.

He kissed her quick and moved away, so she could get up and ready for work. The quicker she left, the quicker he could let out his aggression on someone who couldn't paralyze his vocal chords. "You'll like this one. I promise it won't embarrass you."

"Can we come?" Janie asked, the petite girl nearly jumping up and down at hearing about something new and exciting on the island.

Abe chuckled. "Yeah, you can come. Bring someone, if you like," he said, knowing that Janie had been spending quite a bit of time lately with Ryan from maintenance, and would more than likely want to bring him along. It was killing Lance to see her with the guy, but since he had been the one who let her go, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot he could do about it but mope.

"Who else is going?" Becky asked with a sneer.

Abe shrugged nonchalantly, but he knew she was inquiring whether Will, his brother, was going to be there, and possibly be with Katrista, the girl who had flown to the island on the back of a minion from Hell under the orders of Apollyon, the demon who damn near took Ariana away from him in more than one way.

Just thinking about that night made him want to wrap Ariana in the tight cocoon of his arms and never let her out of his sight, but that had been almost three months ago, and they hadn't seen or heard from the guy since his descent back into Hell. Gloria, their personal guardian angel, was checking in on a regular basis, but she hadn't sensed any evil hanging around the island, either. It was still a struggle to relax, but Abe knew how Ariana hated to be smothered, so he forced his worry from his features, for her.

"I'm not sure, Becky, but if you think I'm going to tell my brother he can't go just because you'll be there, then you don't know me very well." He ignored the hurt look in her eyes and slapped Ariana's butt when she crawled over him to get out of bed. He chuckled when she yelped.

After hearing the shower come on, he looked back to the two girls standing in the middle of his bedroom. "Would the two of you mind leaving? I'm about to go shower with my wife, and Ariana threw my boxers across the room last night."

He smiled as the two girls immediately avoided eye contact, their faces turning a bright shade of pink in embarrassment at being in the same room with their naked king.

"Go on. Ariana will call you when she's ready to leave. I can't promise you'll be on time for work, so you may want to leave without her." He stopped and huffed when they only stood there with sullen expressions. "What? She isn't yours; she's mine. Go!"

Tripping over their feet, both girls turned and ran for the door.

With a smile on his face, Abe threw back the cover and jogged to the bathroom. He could only see the top of Ariana's wet head, leaned back into the steamy shower spray, eyes closed as she basked in the warmth of the water. He tiptoed around the tiled wall that separated the shower from the rest of the bathroom, and had her in his arms before she even opened her eyes.

Ariana smiled as he touched his lips to hers, and Abe noticed that he couldn't fit his body flush to hers any longer, not with his young growing so rapidly within her womb.

He ran one hand over the soft skin of her belly and pulled her mouth to his with his other by the nape of her neck. A low moan escaped her mouth and he drank in the ecstasy like a wino who had just found a forgotten bottle of eighty-year-old wine in the cellar.

She gasped for air when he released her mouth to devour her neck and that little spot below her ear she loved for him to kiss.

"Abe," she panted. "I'm going to be late for work."

An approving growl rumbled from his chest as her hands slid down to his hips. "Damn right, you are. I told Becky and Janie to go on without you, that you would be there when you damn well got there."

She laughed against his mouth when he claimed ownership once again. "You are such a king."

Lowering his head to explore more of what she had to offer him, he looked from one tempting mound to the other, and finally decided to take the left rosy nub between his lips and softly massage the other with his hand. Decisions, decisions. It was a tough job being a man in love. He often thought he needed at least one extra mouth. Wondering vaguely whether Ariana might be able to witch it on his body, somewhere, he focused on the task in hand.

Ariana's lips parted, and he smiled when a rush of pleasurable sounds echoed off the walls of the bathroom.

With his other hand free, he ran his long fingers over the cheek of her ass, down the back of her thigh and pulled her right knee up to his hip. He wasn't worried about her getting off balance and falling. He had her. He had all of her.

His head jerked up and he crushed his mouth on hers just as he slid through the soft folds of her sex and into his most favorite place to be.

His jaw clamped shut and his hand shot out to brace them against the shower wall when her muscles tightened around his erection.

"Yeeees!" The cry escaped her throat and her nails clawed the skin on his back, but he pumped into her, keeping a steady rhythm and watching her expression as the orgasm threatened to rip through her body. "Abe…" she said, winded, and grabbed his biceps, squeezing the thick muscles and making him grin, "I—I need…"

"I know, baby. Just let it go." He jerked his hand from the wall, pulling her other leg up, and just like a pro, she hooked her ankles at the small of his back and took all of him. His knees damn near buckled.

Aiming to get his own release by the time Ariana's climax was over, Abe growled and quickened his strides. Her body quaked all around him. He was almost there. He was there.

"Take my vein," Ariana whispered.

Pulling a bit back from the rush, he blinked the water out of his eyes and looked down at her in confusion. Sure enough, her head was tilted to the side and her wet hair was moved away, baring her neck and that throbbing vein to him. He jerked his head away, trying to ignore the instant bloodlust and the anger that was quickly boiling up inside him.

"No," he said shortly.

"Abe, please. You need it. I want you to."

He stopped moving inside her and set her feet on the wet tile. Grabbing a towel from the hook on the wall, he threw it around his waist, tying it extra tight, so just maybe it would cut off the circulation in his erection and deflate the damn thing.

"Abe! Where are you going?"

"Not now, Ariana." He threw open the bathroom door and walked into the bedroom, and wasn't a bit surprised to hear she had followed.

"What did I do? I don't understand why you're acting this way. Talk to me, damn you!" she shouted when he only stood at his closet and shoved hanger after hanger to the right. Hell, he wasn't even sure what he was looking for.

He stopped and let his arm fall, but didn't turn around. "You know how I feel about using you as a meeker while you're pregnant. We've had this discussion before, Ariana. Hell, we've even fought about it a few times, but you don't seem to understand or maybe you just don't care; I don't know—"

"You think that I don't care about my child?" she said, and Abe turned around, the muscles in his jaw doing the same workout they did every time their conversation led to him feeding from her. "How can you even say that?" she snapped. "If I felt, in any way, that you taking the amount of blood from me that you need would hurt the baby, I wouldn't ask you to do it." She pointed to her chest, and fury burned throughout Abe's bones. "I know it won't hurt the baby—"

"But I don't!" he roared, causing her to flinch. He shook his head and reached into the closet, grabbing a random shirt and a pair of jeans. When he looked back at her, he was a little calmer, but not much. "I don't know what is good or what is bad for the baby, Ariana, but I can't imagine taking anything from you that the baby needs could ever be a good thing. I won't do it."

He ripped the towel away, and to his delight, either the terrycloth or his pissy mood had done the job, because Mr. Happy wasn't so happy anymore. Without wasting time going to the dresser for boxers, he just shoved one leg at a time in the jeans then buttoned and zipped the fly. After throwing the shirt over his head and pushing his arms through the armholes, Abe finally made his way to the dresser to grab socks.

"Abe," Ariana whispered, but he didn't look at her. He couldn't look at her when he was this mad, especially when it was her that he was mad at. "Abe, look at me. I have to go to work, and I don't want to leave you upset." He still didn't say anything.

Abe put his socks on and located his boots by the bar. Tying the sons of bitches wasn't going to happen with his hands shaking so badly, so he just shoved his feet in, grabbed his keys from the bar and headed for the door.

"Abe! Where are you going? The sun is out!"

"Go to work, Ariana. I'll see you later."

He jerked open the door, then slammed it shut behind him.


Chapter 2


The elevator door opened on the fourth floor of the palace, revealing Jonah to Abe.

Jonah smiled and then opened his mouth to speak, but Abe immediately put a stop to that shit.

Holding up his hand, Abe glared at him from under his brow. "Not now, Jonah. I don't think I can tolerate your chipper wittiness and smart-ass comebacks right now." Abe shrugged. "Not unless you want to be a punching bag for a few hours."

Jonah frowned, but Abe looked to the buttons on the elevator wall and hit the G with his fist. Jonah's head jerked around to stare at Abe in disbelief.

"You do realize what time it is, right?"

Abe nodded once, and one of Jonah's eyebrows cocked.

"So, where're we going?"

"I don't remember inviting you to tag along."

"Do you ever?"

Abe groaned as his eyes slammed shut, and he prayed Jonah would just disappear. He didn't want to take his bad mood out on him, but the guy never would shut up. His cheeks inflated, then he expelled the air all at once. "I'm on my way to the new clinic."

"Is it finished?" Jonah said, enthusiastically.

"Wouldn't I be smiling if it was?"

Jonah's mouth formed an 'O', and he looked away as the elevator dinged on the ground floor. Abe stepped out and he followed. "You're not going to kill Beau, are you?"

"Thinking about it." The side of Abe's fist met the steel door of garage number one, breaking the lock and sending the three foot by seven foot piece of metal flying into the concrete wall on the other side.

Beau was standing by a scaffold and talking with one of his employees, but his head jerked around at the sound of Abe's grand entrance. Scared couldn't even come close to defining the expression on the foreman's face as Abe marched toward him, fury in his glare and clenched fists.

The foreman began pointing and shouting at the workers, and the guy beside him took off running toward a small group just standing around talking, and yelled, "The king is here! Get your asses to work!"

Everyone scattered.

Abe glanced over his shoulder at Jonah. "Call Lance. Tell him he has forty-five seconds to get here. If Michael's with him, have him come, too."

"But, Abe—"

"Do it!" he snapped.

Beau took two steps back as Abe approached.

Wrong thing to do, asshole.

Abe's hand shot out, his fingers closing around Beau's thick neck before lifting his work boots from the smooth cement floor of the garage.

"Don't kill him, Abe," Jonah pleaded. "He's Lidia's nephew, man."

It was true. Beau was Max's sister's son, and even though Abe had hated Max in the end, he had a soft spot in his heart for Dottie. It would kill both Dottie and Lidia if he ripped the guy's limbs off his body.

Briefly registering Lance and Michael's arrival through the vampire blood pounding in his ears, Abe took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly before tossing Beau like a rag doll. He twisted at the waist and looked at Lance and Michael. "Both of you know construction work, right?"

They nodded.

Abe pointed toward the cinder blocks, wood, nails, plaster, paint and power tools. "Can you get me a damn clinic built in a week?"

Michael and Lance exchanged looks, and then they studied the area and equipment.

After what felt like an eternity to Abe, Lance finally nodded. "I can do it in five days."

Michael laughed. "Well, I can do it in three."

Abe frowned. "How about you two knuckle-heads work together and get it done in two. Lance, you're the new foreman. Pick out of those losers which ones you want to keep and get rid of the rest. Hire more if you need to." Abe looked down at Beau and fought hard not to hit the guy. "Get out of here. You're fired. Tell Dottie she better be glad I didn't kill you or kick you off the island, though I'd imagine you'll have a hard time finding work after today, since I'm your only reference. I hear Mackey's needs a bus boy."

Abe turned on his heel and left the way he came. Jonah followed.

"Yo, Abe. You all right, man?"

"I'm fine. Why?"

Jonah shrugged as Abe slapped the elevator button. "No reason. You just seem a little uptight, is all. Something else going on besides the clinic not being completed on schedule?"

"Walk away, Jonah."

Jonah opened his mouth to say something else, but the elevator doors opened and Ariana stood just inside with red-rimmed eyes. "Oh, shit!"

Abe took one look at her and turned to use the stairwell.

"Abe," she said on a sob, but he was already gone and wasn't turning back around.

He needed time to cool off. He needed space. He needed a meeker and possibly a fifth of Jack Daniels.

Jonah was right on his heels after he pushed open the door to the fourth floor. "Whoa, hold up, Abe. What the hell was that about? Ariana just broke down and ran to her car."

"Save your breath, Jonah. I'm not in the mood to have a heart-to-heart about my marital problems with you."

Passing the king and queen's royal chambers, Abe continued on down the hall and hung a left on Meeker Avenue. He gave a curt nod in Andy's direction when the guy emerged from the maintenance room, and then he took a right, straight into the Meeker's Lounge.

Jonah followed… again. "You know I'm not going to leave you alone until you tell me what's doing. I've never seen you or Ariana so upset with one another before. What did you do, Abe?"

Abe signed the clipboard, managing a small smile for the receptionist as he opened the door.

Jonah scribbled his name and ran to the seat opposite the one Abe took. "You didn't hurt her, did you?"

Abe smiled at the woman as he sat beside her on a stool. "Good afternoon, Donna. How are your children? Danny still into martial arts?"

A grin spread wide across the woman's face at Abe's mention of her children, and she commenced to fill him in on all their achievements. She didn't even flinch when Abe elongated his fangs and pierced her wrist.

"Abe!" Jonah shouted. "What did you do to Ariana?"

As soon as the sweet blood hit Abe's tongue, his raw mood did a one-eighty. Glancing up at Jonah's frenzy, he pointed to his mouth and the wrist he was latched onto, mumbling incoherently.

Jonah huffed and fell onto the stool beside his meeker. "You are such a douchecanoe. You know that, right?"

Abe snickered through his nose, but didn't comment.


Chapter 3


The waiting room was full, as were all three patient rooms, but Ariana couldn't stop crying long enough to see to any of them. She just wanted to go back home, but that wouldn't fix anything; Abe wouldn't even look at her.

Clutching her arms to her stomach, Ariana rocked as Janie and Becky tried to comfort her.

Of course, they had jumped to the worst possible conclusion first and thought she was losing the baby, but she had set their minds at ease and assured them that the baby was in perfect health. She didn't want to talk about it, not even with them. She wasn't even sure she could make the words come out of her mouth… again.

Stupid! You are so freaking stupid, Ariana!

"Here, honey," Becky said as she tucked a tissue in Ariana's hand.

Janie sighed. "If you don't tell us what's wrong, I'm going to call Abe—"

Ariana's head shot up as panic consumed her. "No! Please don't call him, Janie! I'm fine. I'll be fine. Really." She forced a smile and wiped the moisture from her cheeks. "See?"

Becky's mouth quirked to the side. "You aren't fooling anyone with that face. What did he do to you?" One hand came up to rest on her hip as the other pointed a finger at Ariana's nose. It was so close Ariana had to cross her eyes to see the hot pink, perfectly manicured fingernail. "And don't you say that he didn't do anything. You've been here thirty minutes and he hasn't called or texted you once. That has got to be a new record for him. Is his phone broken? Is he dead?" Becky slapped a hand over her mouth as she gasped. "Oh, God! You killed him, didn't you? Did your powers get away from you when you were having sex in the shower?" She flinched back. "It would be a pretty awesome way to die—"

Ariana snorted unattractively. "No. He's, uh…" she frowned, her face twisting in anguish as the memory of the morning played through her mind for the hundredth time, "…it's my fault," she said, sighing. "He's mad at me for something I asked him to do. I can see why he's upset, and I don't blame him, but I don't know how to make things right; he won't even look at me."

She broke down again, and Janie was there to catch her with a hug.

"I'm going to reschedule everyone and close the clinic for the day," Becky said. "You can't work like this."

Ariana pulled away from Janie and stood up. "No, I'm fine. I just need a few minutes to collect myself." She looked at Becky. "I know you usually screen my calls, but I want to keep my phone with me today. I doubt he'll call, but I want to be the one who answers if he does."

"Damn, you must have screwed up royally," Becky said.

Ariana's head fell as she nodded. "Yeah, it was—it was pretty bad."

Becky threw her hands up. "It's not any of my business, but I'm here if and when you get ready to talk. We both are, right, Janie?"

Janie nodded sadly. "You know I'm always here for you, Ariana."

Ariana huffed and hugged them. "I know, and I love you both for it, but I think I'll just give him some time to cool off and call him on break."

"Do you think we're still going to see the new thing tonight?" Janie asked. "I'd like to ask Ryan to go, but I don't want to tell him last minute in case he wants to make other plans."

Ariana nodded as she thought about it. "I'd say go ahead and invite him. Abe said you could. If he's still upset with me after I get off work, then I won't go. There's no reason the rest of you shouldn't get to see it just because I'm an idiot."

Becky's eyes nearly popped out of her head. "Wow! Yeah—no, the Queen of Eternal Island is not a flippin' idiot! I'm not even hearing this right now!" She turned Ariana toward the bathroom and gave her a shove. "Get your butt in the loo and fix your face, and then get out there and heal those hangnails so we can go home. Did you think you were going to spend an eternity with a perfect marriage? I doubt even Mary and Joseph had a fight-free relationship. Can you imagine the things running through his head when she told him she was going to have a baby? She was a virgin, for Pete's sake!"

Ariana laughed and did as she was told. No matter what life threw at her, she knew she could always count on Janie's shoulder to cry on and Becky to make her laugh, even when there was absolutely nothing to smile about.

In the bathroom, Ariana powdered her nose, applied Chapstick and looked at her phone. No missed calls. No new voicemails. And no missed texts.

Had what she had asked him to do been so awful? Yeah, okay, it was bad, but she knew if he'd only taken a little blood from her, it wouldn't have hurt the baby.

Swallowing hard, she put the makeup away and left the bathroom before she began to cry again.

This was going to be the longest day of her life.

v''v

Katrista knew the dream well.

The sun shone brightly in the cloudless, spring sky, and the scent of honeysuckle was nearly thick enough to taste.

She glanced down admiringly at the brand new dress her father had bought her. Money was hard to come by, and with only him and Katrista working the farm, it was hard to put food on the table, much less waste it on things like fancy dresses. Regardless of her refusal, he'd insisted she have something new and purchased it anyway.

He had caught wind—as had she—of Martin McCready returning to town the following weekend. She didn't particularly like Martin. Oh, he was handsome—downright knew it, too—but her father had dreams for his only daughter. Martin came from a wealthy family, unlike her own, and with the death of her mother the previous fall, Katrista's father didn't have a clue what to do with her. Sure, she was twenty-two and could take care of herself—hell, she was taking care of him for that matter—but, at that age, she could be considered an old maid.

In his mind, her kids should have already been half grown. She didn't have the heart to tell him she didn't long for any children, or husband for that matter, especially Martin McCready. Blah!

After walking into the barn to fetch the chickens' food, she heard a low groan. Her body jerked taut as her hand flew to her mouth, stopping the scream that was just behind her lips. Someone was hidden in the shadows of the stables, and her father wasn't due back until after dusk, which was a good three hours away.

Her instincts told her to run to the house and bolt the door shut, but just like all the other times she had tried to change the dream, she couldn't move. The man moaned again, as if he were in a lot of pain. She couldn't just leave him here. What if he was dying? She had no choice but to move forward.

Katrista's neck beaded with sweat, despite the cool air outside, and putting one foot in front of the other, she moved forward in the direction of the injured person.

Not paying attention to where she was stepping, her foot caught the edge of a pitchfork and she nearly fell on her face. Whoever was in the barn with her shuffled a bit and then went completely still. He had heard her.

She grabbed the pitchfork to use as a weapon and took another step.

Three feet before she got to the stall, she heard a voice that all but stopped her heart. "You actually think you can defend yourself with a pitchfork, little girl?"

She couldn't see him; away from the comfort of the barn entrance and daylight, it was too dark for her to focus.

"Who are you and why are you in my stables?" Katrista shouted, her voice sounding steady, while she was anything but.

The man laughed, but said nothing else.

"Are you injured? I can get you help if you're hurt."

The man's deep voice finally rasped again. "I am, Katrista." His voice was alluring and hypnotic, almost seducing as he said her name. "…Can you help me?"

She was shocked. She didn't recognize the gruff voice, but it was obvious he knew of her. "How do you know my name?" she asked nervously.

He laughed again, and this time she saw something move in the shadows. He was coming toward her. Her eyes adjusted. He was tall and well-built, but that was all she could make out of the stranger in front of her. She took an uneasy step backward.

"I am not injured, but I am in pain, my dear, and I would like your help; that is… if you're offering." He was only ten feet from her now and she had frozen. She was too frightened to scream, not that anyone would hear her anyway. Their closest neighbor was a mile away. "I've been watching you, Katrista, you and your father. He will be fine, you know?"

Her brow furrowed. "Who will? What are you talking about? Who are you?" She meant for the words to come out in anger, but they came out merely above a whisper.

"Your father. He will miss you when you are gone, but he will carry on. And to answer your other question… I'm who you have been waiting for. You want something more, don't you? You want to live and not be imprisoned in a house all day with screaming children. Isn't that right?" He laid his hand gently on her neck, tenderly rubbing his thumb along her jaw line. "And you want a mate who will honestly love you, instead of parading you around like a trophy he has won in the public eye, and then simply discard you in the bedroom. Am I right?"

She didn't answer. She couldn't even breathe, much less speak. How did he know her deepest, darkest secrets so well? She still couldn't see him in the dim shadows of the barn, but he was there, standing right in front of her. His presence spoke to her louder than any words could. He had his hand on her face, and in that day and time, that sort of thing wasn't allowed until after you had been courting for months. What he did next shocked her even more.

His lips brushed hers softly and she couldn't help but respond. He traced her top lip with his tongue, and then kissed her more firmly, parting her pouty lips for him to slide his tongue in to play with hers. Then he softened the kiss and pulled back. "Tell me you don't want any of the things I've said, Katrista, and I will leave this place and never look back. You will be free to marry your Martin McCready, have ten children and live unhappily ever after."

The mention of Martin's name and all those children coming from the man's mouth made her want to cringe. She didn't want Martin or children. She did want to live and be free to do as she pleased. She had never been this close to a man before, and the kiss he had given her still had her head spinning. It was her first kiss, and it had been everything she had dreamed of. As if hypnotized by his charm or something magical, she wanted him to do it again.

Wait, she couldn't leave her father. What would he and the town think if she just up and ran off with a strange man who liked going around kissing innocent girls the first time he met them? Aside from that, she really, really wanted to go with him. He seemed like a fairy tale. He seemed like her happy ending. A knight in armor.

"Say it, Katrista," he whispered in her ear. "I can give you anything you've ever dreamed of."

At that moment she knew it to be true, whether it was or not. She refused to believe those beautiful words coming out of his mouth to be a lie. "What is your name?" she managed to get out through a thickened throat.

She could tell he was smiling as he inhaled the scent of the fragranced soap on her skin. Well, she thought he was smelling of the fragrance, but as he inhaled deeply, a growl came from deep in his chest, and she couldn't tell if he was angry or if he wanted her the way a man wants his wife in the bedroom. The sound didn't frighten her; it sent tiny goose bumps all over her body and made her burn from the inside out. She had never felt this way, never knew she could feel this way, even in her dreams.

"My name is Ansel."

The sound of his deep, low voice brought her to the edge of reality. She had to be going crazy. Why else would there be a beautiful man waiting in the barn for her, telling her that he is what she had been waiting for?

Maybe she was dreaming now, and if she was, then she didn't want to ever wake up. She decided to take her chances with the stranger. After all, how bad could it be?

"Tell me, Katrista. I can't hold out much longer. I need you, my love."

His words had her confused, but he was still nuzzling her neck and making parts of her body that she wasn't aware even existed wake up. It felt so good. She wanted to put her hands on him, but she didn't know if he would want that. She knew it wasn't appropriate, but what he was doing to her now wasn't appropriate, either. What did he mean by he couldn't hold out much longer? Just his presence was intoxicating, making her dizzy.

He kissed along her neck, down to the bend where her shoulder started, then began a slow trail back up. "Tell me you want me, Katrista. You will never be satisfied with this normal life. Let me show you how to live."

Her heart was screaming yes, but something in her mind kept cautioning her, telling her to wait, slow down, back away from him, to run! She ignored her mind completely. "I want to go with you," she whispered.

He stopped kissing her neck, and only a brief moment passed before she felt a piercing pain above her collarbone. Gasping, Katrista tried to pull away, but then he took his first pull of blood from her vein and desire swarmed her, growing bigger than the frightened state she was in.

He pulled her body to him, then he laid her on the hay and pierced his own wrist for her to take. She shook her head lazily. "Take it, Katrista. It will make you better, stronger. We can be together."

In her weakened state she couldn't even think. She was sure she wanted to be with him. Wasn't she sure? Sleep tried to pull her under, but she was so cold. What had he done to her? What was he? And what would she be if she did as she was told?

He forced his wrist into her mouth. She tried to resist at first, but the instant his blood hit her tongue she latched on, sucking and swallowing as quickly as she could. His blood didn't taste like hers. His blood was sweet and a maybe a little tangy, nothing like the copper taste of her own. All too quickly, he took his wrist away and was back at her neck again. Katrista didn't fight him this time, and vaguely remembered him pulling her petticoats up to her hips before she blacked out.

Katrista awoke screaming and hearing the sound of hammering. One last bang sounded, and then someone was touching her. She fought against Ansel with every muscle in her body, but he held her tight. He held her close. And he… just held her.

"Shh… it's okay, Katrista. It's okay. It's Will. I'm here. I'm Will," he repeated, softly, and she relaxed in his arms, but the sobs wouldn't stop.

"Will?"

He nodded against her shoulder. "I'm here. You're okay. It was just a dream."

She knew it wasn't just a dream. It was a nightmare, one that had actually come true and ruined her life, but she clung to the man in her arms and imagined he was Chantry.

Oh, God, how she missed her mate.