The rules are simple:
Never speak to outsiders.
Never yearn for something more.
And never, ever seek the pleasure of a stolen kiss…or a whispered promise that with him, she can finally be free.
Abby Merkley has been a member of the Church of the Apocalyptic Faith since she was a child, and there’s no way out…until her darkly handsome, brooding neighbor defies the rules and takes her into the safety of his arms.
He should frighten her, but everything inside Abby thrills at Luc Stanek’s rough manners and shockingly gentle touch. He excites her, ignites her, leaves her shaken and wanting more. But evil men follow in her footsteps, and it may take more than one fierce beauty to defend her loving beast.
“You don’t smile,” she said.
He stopped pruning so abruptly that Abby almost ran right into him.
Shaking her head, she looked at his face and mirrored his frown before saying a purse-lipped, “Non,” in imitation of his accent.
And there, miracle of miracles, the man did it. His lips curved up. Or almost. One side of his mouth lifted—the side with the scar—and, oh goodness, it was a dimple. What kind of trick was it that this big, burly man had to suffer through the indignity of a dimple?
And much, much worse was her having to suffer through that smile.
She wanted to touch it, the divot in his cheek. Or those lips, or that thick, rough-looking neck, which was more cleanly shaven than the first time she’d come here.
Did he do that for me? she wondered as she turned away, reaching for…anything to stop herself. Branches.
Those would do. Pull, throw, wait—red face averted—and move on.
They’d finished the row without speaking and moved on to the next by the time Abby could breathe normally again. Surprise, surprise, he was the one to finally break the silence.
“Besides no cap, what else do you wish for?”
She didn’t hesitate before saying, “A place of my own.”
“Nothing big, just a…a room. Where I could listen to music, maybe?”
“You can’t do that there?”
“Oh, we sing all right. Best part of the Church is the singing.”
“What do you sing?”
“I don’t know any.”
Without thinking it through, she sang a verse from one of her favorites. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful: the Lord God made them all.”
When she met his eye, Luc was…not quite smiling, but close. His eyes were warm, his expression…admiring, maybe? Abby blushed with the realization of what she’d just done.
He said one word: “Pretty.” But something about the way he said it, his eyes eating up her face, made her cheeks burn hotter and breath come faster. To hide it, she turned quickly back to work.
Changing the topic, she cleared her throat and asked, “So, how much is a place to rent?”
“A room to live in. How much money do I need for that?”
He shrugged. “Depends. Big cities, it’s a lot, I think. Around here? I don’t know. Maybe a few hundred a month?”
“Good Lord, that is a lot.”
“Life is expensive.” He shrugged and cut, the movement lifting shoulders massive enough to carry the weight of the world.
“Right. So…you have to pay for food, right? And what else you gotta pay for?”
“Electricity. Um, water and gas, things like that.”
“Gas for the car?”
“For your car and for your stove or heat.”
“Oh. So…I’d need a lot. To start a life.”
“A good amount, yes. You need to pay a guarantee as well, I think, if it’s like France. And references for the landlord.” He glanced at her. “This makes you unhappy?”
“Guess I thought… I thought I could work for you for a couple weeks and have enough to start a life.”
“It’s hard, Abby.” His eyes on her were steady and full of a new softness that she wasn’t entirely comfortable with, like he’d taken off a layer of her skin to speak to her insides.
“Blue jeans, too,” she said, forcing a touch of flippancy to her tone.
“Jeans. I’d like to wear jeans with snaps and a zipper, like a normal person.”
“Like a slim?” The word came out with two Es in the middle: sleem. She shook her head, not understanding.
“Um, skinny jeans?” he clarified.
“Goodness, no!” She laughed. “I’d need time to adjust to just trousers first, but…” Letting her gaze rest on the valley before them, she thought of the hundreds—no, thousands—of women who walked around every day wearing practical clothing instead of these stiff cotton skirts and modest drawers she had to fight her way out of. “I’d like to look normal when I go into town, to feel free. Just a T-shirt and jeans. Those sneaker shoes to
walk in. Maybe some—”
She stopped, hating how her current thought embarrassed her. It wasn’t the wish so much as the fantasy surrounding it.
“Boots. Cowboy boots, you know? The kind you stomp around in.” Except stomping wasn’t what she envisioned when she said it. In her mind’s eye, she pictured herself in jeans by all rights tighter than she should want to wear them; a cute shirt—maybe something sparkly, but not too fancy, since part of her just wanted a plain T-shirt; and those boots with their small heel and slightly pointed toe. And all of this dancing on the arm of a man. This man, truth be told. It was this man in her fantasy, which sent a new wash of heat prickling against
the cold air, from her chest to her forehead and well into her hairline.
“I can’t imagine you stomping.”
“No? I’d be good at it.”
Their eyes met as he said, “I don’t doubt it.” The words, silly and inconsequential as they were, sent blood rushing right down her body to where it didn’t belong. Somehow that blood weighed her down, made her lids heavy, and sent her mouth to drooping in a way she was sure he could see.
And then she knew he could, because his eyes strayed there, lingering before one thick, rough-hewn hand followed.
A single knuckle swiped her bottom lip in a gesture not so much affectionate as…curious? Compulsive?
Like a baby who couldn’t help but touch a ball or stuff it in his mouth. To taste. To feel. To know.
It was over too soon, that swipe. And yet, somehow, it lasted forever. Suspended here on the mountain, in their thick cloud of burning vine and sparks, the cold melted away by more than just the fire.
After that long hitch in time, Abby inhaled and let the air out in hiccups—the shaky kind you couldn’t help making after a good, hard sob. But rather than the release of a big cry, his knuckle to her lip screwed everything up tight, made her insides overflow with whatever this was.
She was sure she’d pop. She had to.
Because Lord only knew what she’d do if this pressure didn’t release sometime soon.
About the Author
Adriana Anders has acted and sung, slung cocktails and corrected copy. She’s worked for start-ups, multinationals and small nonprofits, but it wasn’t until she returned to her first love—writing romance—that she finally felt like she’d come home. Today, she resides with her tall French husband, two small children and fat French cat in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she writes the dark, gritty, steamy love stories of her heart.