© 2023 by Jordan Summers

A WOLF'S TALE CHAPTERS 1-3

CHAPTER ONE

 

Damon Phelan Laroche scented his prey as she walked alone down the frost-covered cobblestone street. She smelled of fresh dandelions on a dewy spring morning. Brightness and light. Feminine heat.

Too bad she had to die.

The Lycanian Elders had spoken. The only way to end centuries of violence was to kill the woman, Madeleine Lucine Valois, known to all Lycans as The Hunter.

Damon crumpled the photo he carried. He no longer needed it. Now that he had Madeleine’s scent, he could find her anywhere, anytime.

The cool New England breeze brought him more tantalizing information about the doomed woman. Damon shook his head and his brow furrowed. No, that couldn’t be right. He inhaled deeply, convinced that his acute senses had somehow made a mistake.

They hadn’t.

Damon’s heart began to pound, raging in his ears as he struggled with the astonishing truth.

Blood did not taint her delicate hands.

How could this be?

The answer was it could not.

Werewolf blood may visibly wash off after a kill, but the scent took several monthsto wear off. Even the slightest drop would be evident to a Lycan. Yet there was no denying what his senses relayed.

Damon froze.

He knew Madeleine was the latest werewolf hunter. As the only child in her family, it was her duty to hunt and bear the next generation. She’d inherited the dubious title of Hunter from her aged father, the despised Gaston Valois, who’d inherited it from his father before him and his father before him.

So how had she remained unaffected?

Once again, Damon’s nose sifted the cool night air, sharing intimate details with the natural predator within. Details he wished he wouldn’t have learned.

Madeleine Valois, The Hunter, was untouched.

Damon’s mind reeled at the news, while the visceral impact tightened his groin. As Alpha, the pack depended on him to defend and protect them. His seed would bring the next generation into being. As a man, he could not ignore the urge to taste—to conquer, the forbidden.

How could she have reached this age and remain untried? Unclaimed? He had to be mistaken.

Damon took a step back into the darkened alley. Humans made no sense at all. Werewolves never left females unprotected. If the women were attacked, injured or worse, there would be no way of ensuring pure bloodlines and the continuation of the species.

He shook his head. Stupid humans, he thought with a mixture of pity and sorrow. When will they ever learn?

Turning, Damon allowed the comfort of night to embrace him. His eyes were as accustomed to the dark as they were to daylight. He made his way down the narrow alley, past the putrid garbage cans, until he reached the back wall of the New Salford post office.

His muscles bunched beneath his skin as he crouched and then leapt to the roof effortlessly, landing silently on the shingles. His human form was no hindrance to his wolf-enhanced athletic abilities.

Bones popped in his neck, as Damon rolled his head to relieve the tension. It had been a long time since he’d hunted a human. And he’d neverhunted a woman. Like hogs, sheep, or cattle, he found no sport in the kill.

This was no ordinary woman, he reminded himself.

She was the Hunter and her family was the keeper of the Book of Lycan. The thought of the information that book held diminished any temptation he might’ve felt, along with any mercy. Somewhere in that weathered tome was a record of his brother Jacque’s death and Damon intended to find it, even if it meant using the woman to do so. Once he had the book in his hands, then he’d carry out Madeleine’s death sentence.

Waves from the cold Atlantic crashed with ferocious fervor against the rocky shore in the distance, echoing off the brick walls of the historic New England buildings. Madeleine’s journey home would take her right past him.

Low clouds hung ghost-like from the night sky, their figures haunting, menacing, and changing with each blast of cool spring air. A foghorn up the coast moaned deep, its lonesome bellow calling out to tiny boats unfortunate enough to be upon the turbulent sea. 

Damon’s emotions mirrored the water, swirling dangerously close to the surface like an eddy.

Madeleine paused at the entrance to the alley, tilting her head from side to side, listening. He knew she couldn’t see him from his rooftop vantage point, but Damon had a clear view of her.

Untamed hair cascaded past her shoulders in a silken blanket of gold so pale that it appeared white under the half-moon. Her delicate oval face glowed, illuminating the darkness. Full red lips, the color of ripe apples in fall, practically begged him to kiss them. Her vibrant blue eyes sparkled with intelligence…and uncertainty.

Damon swallowed hard, fighting the unexpected lust that racked his body. He’d been too long without a woman. That was all. It wasn’t her nearness that affected him. The signals of anger and arousal were similar enough to be easily confused. The wires in his body had simply gotten crossed. Damon continued to watch from the safety of the roof.

Madeleine wore oversized clothing, which seemed to swallow her in the darkness. An ill-fitting shawl with bits of scraggly yarn poking out like fuzzy barbed wire cloaked her slender shoulders.

He continued to stare. Trying to see past the image she projected. To Damon’s unfettered eyes, Madeleine’s attempt to hide her form failed miserably. Without thought, he inhaled, breathing in her musky richness. In another week, she’d be in heat.

Need assailed him. Restless and angry, it reached inside and pulled at the very core of his existence. Unaccustomed to the loss of control, Damon growled, annoyed that he had to rein in his baser instincts.

If it weren’t for the book, he’d kill her now and be done with it. But his people were counting on him to get to the truth. The Elders might not care about the Book of Lycan, but the local pack did. They’d lost too many members to just let it go.

Madeleine shuddered at the sound of his warning growl, her eyes growing wide as she stared into the darkness, searching for its source.

Come to me, Damon willed in an attempt to enthrall her.

The wind gusted, sifting through his hair, before taking tiny bites out of his exposed flesh. Yet Damon barely felt the cold as he basked in the glow of her ethereal beauty.

Madeleine’s eyes glazed and she stepped into the alley. Her footfalls tolled heavy on the cobblestones as she dragged her feet forward. Damon could see the struggle from within taking place as he forced her to move toward him. Her will was strong, but his was stronger. A second later Madeleine’s face pinched with pain and a small cry escaped her throat.

The mournful sound shattered Damon’s concentration. His chest seized as her pain lashed out at him.

She blinked twice and shook her head to clear it. Free from his thrall, Madeleine whirled around and hurried down the street, without so much as a backwards glance.

Shocked, surprised, and more than a little intrigued, Damon stared at her retreating form. No one had ever broken from his hypnotic thrall. It was strong and especially effective on women.

But not on Madeleine.

Was it her Hunter instincts that made her so strong or something else?

Damon threw his head back, releasing a wailing howl, which pierced the relative tranquility of the spring night. He heard doors slamming, windows clattering shut, and locks fastening, along with the rapid beat of a fluttering heart.

Madeleine.Her name was a curse and a dream that remained mired in his churning emotions.

He howled once more, for all to hear, claiming his pack, his territory—the woman...to do with as he willed. A smile curved Damon’s mouth before he melted into the shadows.

Soon, he thought.

Madie pulled the corners of her gray woolen shawl together, her fingers numb from the cold. Shivers racked her body as the bone-shattering howl shook her to the core. Her boots clip-clopped on the cobblestone as she picked up her pace.

The fog closed in, swirling around her, so dense that the air seemed to squeeze from her lungs. She didn’t know why she’d had the overwhelming urge to enter the darkened alley. Commonsense told her it was foolish, yet she’d gone anyway, compelled by an unknown force. Her heart skittered in her chest while her stomach coiled in fear. 

Madie hurried along the uneven bricks, stumbling when her boot heels caught in the cobble cracks. She righted herself quickly and continued. The muscles in her legs burned and her lungs ached.

Standing sentry, like gravestones in a cemetery, a few parked cars dotted the sides of the street. Their daytime occupants now tucked safely into bed. Where she should’ve been hours ago. Long threatening shadows spread out from every storefront. Welcoming in the daylight, the historic Massachusetts’s buildings appeared menacing in the darkness. She rushed on.

The howl pierced the cloudy sky again, its mournful sound speaking to something deep within her. Madie’s steps faltered as she fought the urge to answer.

Answer?

How was she supposed to do that? Throw her head back and howl? The thought was ridiculous and a nervous giggle escaped before she could stop it.

It’s just a dog. Keep going. It probably wants inside.

The hair on her nape stood on end and her skin prickled. A tingle started at her toes and worked its way up her body. Papa had described that sensation many times when he hunted. Madie glanced over her shoulder, bracing for an attack.

It never came.

Nothing was there.

“Told you it was a dog,” she mumbled to herself.

She forced down the anxiety that threatened to lock her muscles and hurried along the frost slick road. The exertion caused puffs of breath to form eerie circles in the cool night air. Her feet and her hands ached from the numbness.  

One more block to go.

Something that sounded suspiciously like claws raking stone came from her left. Fear quickly turned to terror. Why had she gone to the midnight horror show? She wished now that she had sided with the town council when they’d suggested more lights on this end of Milford Street. Why hadn’t she driven to the movies? The cold punched at her lungs, snatching her breath away.

The bright yellow door to her apartment shone like a beacon up ahead. Unconcerned with how it might look to anyone watching, Madie sprinted toward home. She grabbed her purse off her shoulder and plunged her frozen hand inside, ignoring the pain in her fingertips as she searched desperately for her keys. Her hand closed around the familiar heart-shaped keychain. Triumphant, she snatched the keys, then promptly dropped them onto her stoop. 

Her actions mirrored every slasher movie she’d ever seen, including the ones tonight. Desperation clawed at Madie as she bent down to pick her keys up. Whatever was in the alleyway felt closer.

“Open, open, open,” she commanded. Her fingers trembled as she shoved the key into the lock and turned it. With a soft click, the door opened.

“Thank goodness,” she muttered as she rushed inside.

The interior of her apartment was dark. Darker than it had been outside. Madie’s heart thudded in her chest, beating double time against her ribcage. She listened for anything out of place. Silence met her.

Did that mean she was alone?

The scrape of stone came again. Madie slammed and locked the door behind her, then threw her back against the wooden structure for good measure. She’d take her chances.

Despite the deadbolt, Madie knew in her bones that whatever was outside could get in if it truly wanted to. She rubbed her hands along her arms, fighting a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold.

She pushed away from the door and flipped on all the lights. Madie checked all the prime monster-hiding areas, behind her yellow throw-covered couch, in the closet, the shower, and under the bed. Grateful for once that her apartment wasn’t spacious.

Handpicked for its coziness, this dwelling stood for so much—college, future dreams, and true freedom. It might be small, but it was home...at least until she graduated.

Madie walked across her modest parlor into the kitchenette. A cup of green tea would banish the last of the cold and steady her frayed nerves.

Holding the mug with both hands, she blew on the surface of the hot liquid, inhaling the pungent musty odor as she debated whether to phone her father. They’d been close at one time. Well as close as a father, who’d wanted a son, could be to his only child. But those days were long gone. They’d died the same day her mother passed.

The warmth of the mug chased the last of the chill from her hands, but couldn’t penetrate the bone-deep fear. The howl kept forcing its way into her thoughts. She remembered childhood stories passed down by Papa about two-legged wolves that walked upright. Said to look human, the creatures could stand beside you, enthrall with a single thought, and you wouldn’t know the truth until they ripped your heart out.

At the time, Madie had dismissed the stories as nonsense, thinking Papa had obviously read one too many fairytales. Yet, there was no mistaking the howl. It hadbeen a wolf. Hadn’t it? She knew wolves didn’t come near the city. In fact, other than Wolf Hollow in nearby Ipswich, they were extinct to the area.

Something else lurked in the darkness tonight.

A shiver tickled her spine and traveled all the way to her toes. Madie took a sip of tea, praying the warm elixir would ease some of her tension. “You’ve just watched one too many movies. Let it go.”

She shook her head and finished the contents of the cup. She wouldn’t call. There was no sense feeding Papa’s delusions. They were already bad enough and were growing worse by the day.

Madie put the cup in the sink, then headed upstairs to bed. “No more midnight horror movies for you. Next you’ll start believing that werewolves are real and the grotesques on the courthouse come to life.”

Even as she said the words, Madie walked unerringly to the corner of her bedroom and picked up her baseball bat. The weight of the heavy wooden club in her hand calmed her instantly.

Better safe than dead.

CHAPTER TWO

 

Damon arrived home agitated by his response to Madeleine Valois and the information he’d obtained.

Untainted—untouched.

Impossible!

He slammed his fist onto the thick antique table, shattering the wood, and sending splinters flying through the air. Damn, that was a new purchase.His hand stung where the small iron spike bit into his palm. Blood oozed from the cut, but in a matter of hours, the injury would disappear as if no wound ever existed.

Such was the blood of the wolf.

The fire in the hearth blazed as he tossed the remnants of the furniture into the hungry flames. The maple wood gave off a sweet odor as the smoke rose up the chimney. As if sensing his torment, the wind outside his colonial home moaned.

Damon growled, catching his wild reflection in the mirror above the mantle. He looked tired. Dark circles hung like crescent moons beneath his bloodshot eyes. His unruly sable hair stood on end, giving him a maniacal appearance.

He was running out of time. The full moon would arrive in two weeks. Already he could feel its pull by the ache in his bones as they shifted and thickened beneath his skin. Despite the tired redness, his hazel eyes had already begun to lighten. By the time the moon ripened, they’d be amber gold.

Damon decided to abide by the Lycanian Elder’s ruling, but in his own time. Finding the book came first. As far as he was concerned, the Valois’s had violated the peace treaty the second they took his brother, Jacque’s life. The act of killing left them open to Lycan law and werewolves weren’t known for their forgiveness. In the end, someone would pay for the pack’s loss—for his loss.

Turning away from the mirror, Damon retrieved the file on Madeleine Valois from a nearby table. Her pale beauty flashed before his eyes, causing a visceral reaction that made his attraction to her difficult to ignore. He longed to touch what his senses had observed.

She was human, he reminded himself again. He didn’t dohumans...anymore.

Damon fisted his hands in frustration, ignoring the stab of pain as his fingernails dug into his tender palm. He raised the wound to his face and leisurely licked away the blood, groaning as the sticky substance washed down his parched throat like a crimson cocktail. The taste was intoxicatingly arousing and enough to make his cock hard. He smiled.

Vampires weren’t the only creatures aroused by blood. Of course, they didn’t exist. The bad behavior of a few Lycans centuries ago had given rise to the undead myth. Storytellers and fiction writers filled in the rest.

Damon paced back and forth in front of his gray marble fireplace, his footfalls echoing on the hardwood in the still of the house. He picked up the photo on the mantel and studied the smiling faces. He’d been ten at the time the picture was taken. Jacque had been twelve. They’d just gotten new bikes from their dad. It was a big day, a happy day. One he’d remember forever. Damon ran his thumb over the photo. So many great memories cut short thanks to the Hunters. He set the picture back on the mantel and swallowed his grief.

Madeleine wasn’t his brother’s killer. His senses hadn’t lied—at least not about that. He was sure of it. There was no way she could’ve killed Jacque without getting a drop of blood on her. Even if she wore gloves, the blood would’ve hit her somewhere. That didn’t mean she wasn’t somehow involved. She could’ve very well been an accomplice.

Nevertheless, Damon would follow orders. Carry out the decree. Kill her. Innocent or not.

Soul be damned.

Jacque deserved to be avenged. Blood was blood, he reminded himself.

Damon hesitated. Therein lay his conundrum. Werewolf blood wasdifferent. No amount of scouring could remove the scent. His keen canine senses would have detected its sharp tang instantly. Yet, Madeleine had smelled of fragrant flowers, feminine musk, and the onset of her monthly heat.

So if the latest Hunter hadn’t done the job, then who had killed his bother?

His mind searched back to that painful moment in time. The pack had enjoyed years of uneasy peace with the Hunter until that fateful night two months ago when several Lycans found Jacque dead.

Damon remembered the evening Luc, his Beta conveyed the news in vivid detail. Overcome by grief and rage, the beast inside Damon slipped out and nearly destroyed everything in his own living room.

He shook his head as he ran his palm over the smooth arm of the new brown leather furniture that he’d purchased to replace what he’d ruined. Even now the pain of loss sliced deep.

By the time Damon had calmed down enough to go to the scene of the crime, Jacque’s body had vanished, leaving no blood trail to follow.

A cry of anguish ripped from deep inside him as the memory burst forth, shattering his heart again. He couldn’t bear to think about what the Hunter had done with Jacque’s remains.

Damon imagined all sorts of horrific possibilities, including his brother’s wolfen head stuffed and hanging over a mantle at the Valois family estate. Since Jacque’s disappearance, four more pack members had gone missing and were presumed dead.

Blood or no blood, the Valoises that claimed this territory had committed the murders. They’d made sure to let the Lycans know by leaving behind their usual calling card, a silver coin with the east coast family’s crest on one side. For centuries, the coins had been the way of identifying which branch of the family made the kills. Each Valois family had their own crest and their own coin.

There was no mistaking who was behind the murder. They’d practically signed their name to the heinous deed.

Damon reached into his pocket and pulled out the coin. He rubbed the crest with his thumb, then slipped the coin back into his jeans. He carried the reminder of their treachery with him and would continue to do so until his mission ended.

The family of Hunters left behind a bitter pill to swallow. Madeleine maybe innocent—for now—but it was only a matter of time before she followed in her family’s bloody footsteps. The Valois curse would take care of it, whether she chose to or not.

There was no escaping fate for either of them. Beauty or no beauty, the killings would not happen again, as long as Damon was alive and still Alpha.

His muscles rippled beneath his shirt, straining with each inhalation. Frustrated, Damon calmed his breathing. Nothing made sense. Madeleine was the Hunter, yet she did not hunt. Was Gaston back to his old ways? Given his fragile state of health, it seemed unlikely he’d be able to take down a Lycan in his prime much less the four that had followed since his brother’s death.

Blood never lied.

It was obvious Damon needed to do more investigating before he took his suspicions to the Elders. He must be certain. The Elders did not appreciate hunches or innuendos, only facts.

All werewolves knew humans were sniveling creatures, who could not be trusted. Yet in truth, very little was known about the Hunters. Like Lycans, they’d spread out around the world and kept a low profile to avoid discovery. The Elders foolhardily offered a peace treaty with scarce information to go on. The document was intended to prevent any more needless deaths. What it did instead was bind Lycan hands, preventing them from retaliating without permission of the Elders.

Moreover, Gaston Valois complied quickly—too quickly, which should have raised a red flag. Instead, the Elders rushed in, drafting the treaty in haste, before thoroughly investigating Valois’s motives for compliance.

The pack now paid the price for their folly.

Damon opened the file the Elders had put together on Madeleine. Scanning the pages briefly, his eyes settled on her class schedule. Mrs. Raven Montgomery jumped off the page. Next to the name was a phone number. So Raven was her professor. Damon smiled, his next move becoming clear. He dialed the professor, pleased when a woman’s voice answered the phone.

This will be easy.

Within seconds, the professor was agreeing with everything he said, unable to resist the compulsion in Damon’s voice. Soon all would be arranged. The bloodline would be severed and the killer punished.

For the sake of werewolf survival, Madeleine Lucine Valois would die.

CHAPTER THREE

Madie rushed through the door leading into the art department—late again. Despite it being a Saturday, people milled in the hallway. A sure indication that the class was already full. Students buzzed, clamoring to be heard, their voices rising in excited chatter. The heat and nervous energy was palpable.

Today marked the end of their final art project before graduation. The professor had chosen to hire a live model to close out the class. Failure at this stage wouldn’t keep Madie from graduating, but it would lower her overall grade point average.

She paused a moment to catch her breath and tighten her severe ponytail. Sunlight filtered through the windows, causing dust particles to swirl and bob in the bright rays.

Brown wooden stools perched in front of empty easels were arranged in a semi-circular pattern around a center platform. Dr. Montgomery’s oak desk had been positioned against the wall in what would normally be the front of the class. Coats and jackets hung from old-fashioned wooden pegs at the back of the room.

Madie removed her coat in a flurry, almost knocking over one of the nearby easels in the process. She steadied the stand, then hung her coat beside the others. She scanned the room for her friend, while wiping her sweaty palms on her oversized sweater. Madie crossed her fingers, hoping against hope that Sarah arrived early enough to save them a good spot.

A hand waving frantically back and forth caught her attention. Madie released a tense breath as relief flooded her. Sarah had scored places over by the windows, right in front of the model’s platform.

Madie smiled and gave a quick wave back. She ignored her classmates’ curious glances and hushed whispers as she threaded her way through the crowd. She should be used to the gossip about curses and werewolf hunters by now, but the chatter still hurt. When Madie made it to her seat, she opened her case and put her drawing pad onto the easel, then hugged Sarah, who’d jumped up to greet her.

Though close friends, they were as different as Spam was to filet mignon. Sarah was the type of woman who grasped life with both hands, tasting and experiencing whatever her heart fancied.

She had dark luxurious hair, sun-kissed skin, and a bawdy personality, while Madie’s white blonde hair clashed with her dark, guarded demeanor. She was the first to admit that she had trust issues. When you grew up cloistered in the Valois family, it was mandatory.

Sarah may not realize it, but Madie lived vicariously through her, since her own personal experiences didn’t extend beyond the pages of a book—thanks to years of private tutors, personal bodyguards, and homeschooling.

To grasp life by the horns would require interacting with other people, trusting them. Madie had neither the social skills nor the inclination to do so. She was just happy that she’d managed to find one person to call friend. Madie glanced over at a couple of students who snickered at her, then turned away.

There were worse things in life than only having one good friend. Like having no friends at all.

Sarah held a green pouch in her palm. “Look what you forgot.”

Madie took the pouch. “Saved me again. What would I do without you?”

“Forget your head.” Sarah laughed and then plopped down on the stool next to her.

“No doubt. Speaking of losing my head, I nearly lost it last night after the movies. By the time I made it home, I’d managed to scare myself silly. Next time, we’re watching creature features in the afternoon.”

“Wimp.” Sarah chuckled.

Madie clucked like a chicken, which made Sarah laugh harder, then she untied the ends and rolled the pouch open to reveal the various pencils inside. Double-checking their sharpness with the pad of her index finger, Madie laid the pencils out in front of her blank canvas and absently arranged them into a straight row.

“The model should be here any minute,” Sarah blurted with barely restrained excitement in her voice.

“Sarah Ann, you act like you’ve never seen a naked man before.”

“I’ve seen plenty of naked men. You’re the one who hasn’t.” Sarah arched a brow in challenge, daring Madie to deny her claim.

Blood rushed to Madie’s cheeks. Blushing easily was an unfortunate trait she’d inherited from her mother. “I’ve seen a naked man before,” she muttered. 

“Walking in on Jerrod, Tom, Steven, or Michael coming out of the shower doesn’t count. They’re my brothers.” Sarah gave a mock shudder. “Let me just say for the record, ‘Ew’. Just thinking about it might send me to therapy.” 

“Did Steven say that I did it on purpose? It was an accident. I swear.” Madie pulled at the collar of her sweater, trying to cool her heated skin. It wasn’t her fault Sarah’s brothers made a habit out of leaving the bathroom door unlocked while they showered in the morning.

When it came to men, Madie knew she could talk a good game, but in the end that’s all it was—talk—she didn’t have any firsthand experience. And it wasn’t due to lack of trying on her part.

Between homeschooling and her family’s kooky reputation, Madie hadn’t experienced much of anything, which was just the way her father liked it. From as early as she could remember, he’d drilled it into her head that she had to remain pure of heart, mind, and body. Thanks to his overprotectiveness, she’d become a social pariah.

Sarah, on the other hand, was known to her friends as being a big flirt. Strangers preferred harsher terms like slut or whore. Her friend wasn’t a whore, but women can be cruel when it comes to judging other women, especially if those women are prettier than they are and catch the attention of their boyfriends. Sarah loved sex and refused to be ashamed by that fact.

Like Madie, Sarah had started college late and her reputation kept her from making a ton of girlfriends. In each other, they saw a chance to have what they’d desperately needed in their lives. That had been over two years ago and their friendship was still going strong.

Sarah had celebrated her twenty-fourth birthday the week before. Madie’s head still ached at the thought of thatoverindulgence. She refused to think about the fact that her own birthday was closing fast and would be upon her in two weeks. Once she hit twenty-five, her fate was sealed—or so her father claimed. Madie didn’t believe in curses or fate.

Stop being so melodramatic. Try to enjoy the time that you have left.

Curse or no curse, Madie was stuck with going through with Papa’s silly initiation. He was determined to bring her into the fold. The only reason he’d allowed her to go to college was because he’d promised her mother before she’d died that Madie could have two years of freedom.

That freedom had cost Madie her inheritance. Gaston had put a freeze on her account that wouldn’t be lifted until after her birthday, and even then, it wouldn’t happen unless she returned.

“Are you still planning to go home the week after graduation?” Sarah asked.

Madie nodded.

“Are you really going to let your father put you through that silly woo woo stuff?” Sarah voiced Madie’s unspoken concerns.

“I don’t have a choice. I promised,” Madie said. Not that she needed a reminder. It was the only thing on her mind next to graduating. “We need that money to open up the art gallery, remember?”

“I remember,” Sarah said. “But everyone has a choice.”

If she had any other choice, she would’ve already made it. “Not me.”

None of this would have occurred if her mother were still around. Papa hadn’t been the same since her death. Instead of grieving, Gaston had turned his attention on her. Madie couldn’t seem to do anything right.

Gaston had always been gruff, but lately he’d become domineering. He wanted to know where she was and who she was hanging out with at all times. He questioned her appearance, especially her hair color. Like it was her fault that she’d been born with blonde hair, not red.

He’d even gone so far as to hire a man to follow her and keep tabs on her movements. When one brave guy got the courage up to ask her out, Gaston paid him to go away, then suggested an arranged marriage instead. Fatherly devotion was quickly becoming obsession.

For the first time in her life, Madie fearedher father and what he might do.

But she’d vowed to her mother that she’d follow her dreams no matter what. If that meant pacifying Gaston and going through with some ridiculous initiation, then so be it. She’d look after the old musty books and pretend to be the next great white hunter. He’d just have to get over the fact that she wasn’t going to kill anything on her watch.

“What about a loan?” Sarah asked.

“You know I can’t get one without my father co-signing.”

“You’re almost twenty-five years old.”

“I’m aware of that. I am also painfully aware that I have no real credit. Banks frown on that sort of thing.” She grinned. “Besides, Gaston has Mom’s fortune, my inheritance, spread out in all the banks in the area. No banker in his right mind would risk losing the Valois’s business to appease a broke college student.” 

“What about out of the area?” Sarah asked.

“I barely make enough to cover rent and expenses. I wouldn’t even qualify for a cheap car loan,” Madie said.

Sarah’s expression grew serious. “So where does that leave you?”

“Up a creek, paddling with a teaspoon.” She shrugged. “I’ll have to go through the motions. Pretend to become ‘Madie the Mad Slayer’, then the money will be mine.”

Sarah laughed and rolled her eyes. “Sounds easy.” 

“Yeah, easy,” Madie murmured, hoping against hope it would turn out to be.

Her final year of school was almost up and things hadn’t worked out the way that she’d planned. Graduation was next Saturday and she was no closer to realizing her dream of owning an art gallery. Before she could get too depressed about it, the door flew open and banged against the wall.

Everyone jumped. All eyes turned, riveted on the man who’d walked into the room.

Madie’s breath seized in her lungs.

“Whoa! Talk about making an entrance. I’m in lust. I think I just met my future ex-boyfriend.” Sarah kept her voice low, so only Madie could hear her.

She glanced at Sarah. “You’re so bad.”

“You love me and you know it.” She winked. “I better double check my supplies, because I’m not about to miss an inch of him.” Sarah’s gaze scrolled down the length of the man before reversing direction.

Madie’s eyes were drawn to the statuesque man lounging just inside the doorway. He wore a white towel around his trim waist and from the looks of it, nothing more.

Sable-colored hair flowed wildly from his head as if someone had been running their fingers threw it all night. Maybe some lucky woman had. Madie tackled her thoughts before they went any further.

Sinewy muscles rippled beneath tanned skin to form his exquisite chest. Dark hair arrowed south down the hard slab of his abdomen, ending in a perfect ‘V’ at the white towel snugged around his waist.

No stranger to the gym or a hard day’s work, his well-developed arms were lined with veins and flexed with the littlest of movements. The muscles in his long legs rippled with silent power as he shifted his weight. Yet the man wasn’t bulky. He looked built for speed, agility, and most of all, sex.

Lots and lots of sex.

His relaxed stance screamed confidence. It was the kind of confidence that made his nakedness seem as natural to him as breathing. The kind of confidence that Madie would neverhave in this lifetime. Yet her palms itched to touch him.

His hazel eyes assessed the room slowly, before coming to rest upon her. First contactfelt like a visceral punch to the gut. Madie stared unblinking—captured by his gaze as he studied her with a curious intensity.

Voices faded. The room seemed to shrink around her, closing in until only the two of them existed. Madie fell into those deep gold-flecked pools, trapped by the liquid honey promises she saw there.

The heat of attraction crackled in the air, sending shivering sparks over her skin. Her heart thundered. Torn between the need to flee and the urge to jump into his arms, Madie clutched her easel.

His unwavering gaze continued to bore holes through her, probing, searching, and studying. But that wasn’t what freaked Madie out. It was the hunger she saw, lurking just below the surface. She’d never seen anything like it, nor had that kind of hunger ever been directed toward her.

She attempted to steady herself, her mind a mixture of fear and desire. . .yet still he held her, refusing to let go.

Dr. Montgomery cleared her throat.

Blinking, the model broke eye contact. Madie felt her energy drain and she dropped back onto her stool, unaware until that moment that she’d even risen. Her nerves tingled like a thousand tiny needles prickling her skin. She took a shuddering breath and slowly released the easel, pretending to smooth the blank paper.

What in the world just happened, she wondered. Her body ached from the loss of contact.

Yet he hadn’t physicallytouched her.

“Are you okay?” Sarah’s question penetrated her dizzying thoughts.

Madie’s lids shot open. “I-I’m fine, why?” She swallowed hard and squared her shoulders, forcing herself to sit up straight.

“It seemed like you were about to run across the room and jump his bones. Not that I blame you, but that’s more my style, not yours.” Sarah’s green eyes narrowed as she searched Madie’s face. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

She took a deep breath and slowly released it. “Y-Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” Madie gave Sarah a reassuring smile, even though she was shaken from the incident. “I had a head rush, probably from not eating.”

“Head rush?” Sarah laughed. “Is that what they’re calling lust these days?”

“Sarah!” Madie gasped.

“Oh please, you know it’s true. He’s yummy.” Sarah glanced at the man once more. “Do you know him?”

“No!” Madie said with a little too much force, as she gazed at the model. It took effort, but she finally drew her eyes away from his perfect form. “No,” she repeated calmly, sure beyond a doubt that she’d never met him before. Madie ignored the little voice in the back of her mind that said she’d like to. “Why do you ask?”

Sarah snorted. “Because he sure looks like he knows you. Or wants to.”

“Don’t be silly.” Madie’s voice cracked, coming out in a high-pitched squeak. “He was probably looking at something out the window.”

“I doubt he finds the parking lot fascinating.” Sarah grinned. “I’m telling you, Madie, he looked at you like a starving man looks at a turkey sandwich with a side of gravy fries.”

Madie glanced back at the model. “Well, he’s not looking at me now,” she said, unable to hide her disappointment. She’d spent her whole life dreaming of storybook moments and not once had they happened…until now. 

The model spoke softly to their professor in a deep rumbling baritone. His bronzed shoulders blocked much of the conversation from the class. Whatever he was saying must’ve been good because Dr. Montgomery practically purred in response. She’d obviously forgotten she was married.

Madie curled her fingers into fists. The professor’s not so innocent reaction tore at her insides and it only got worse when the woman leaned into the man’s bulk, lightly placing her fingertips on his thick biceps. He flexed under her touch, and then flashed the instructor a devilish smile that showcased his dimples.

Could he get any hotter?

Madie wanted to scream at her professor to get away from him. She wanted that smile for herself. Strike that—she needed it. The possessive feelings frightened her because they were so utterly foreign. The truth hit Madie a second later—she was jealous.

No way!

She couldn’t be jealous. It must be the stress of graduation and Papa coming to get her. That had to be it. What else could it be? She didn’t even know the guy. Disgusted by her uncharacteristic behavior, Madie looked away. It only took a moment for her traitorous gaze to seek him out once more. Pathetic.

The model turned from the class for a moment. His back rippled as he adjusted the towel, then he faced the group again.

Madie’s mouth practically watered in anticipation. Butterflies wreaked havoc in her stomach. She knew that she’d never met him before, but still. . .

There was something familiarabout him.

The professor held up her hands to quiet the room. 

“Everyone, I’d like to introduce our model. This is Damon Laroche. Our scheduled model cancelled at the last minute. Damon was kind enough to volunteer to fill in and pose for us today. Please give him a warm welcome.”

The class exploded in applause, especially the women, many of whom let out inappropriate catcalls.

Once again, those gold-flecked eyes captured Madie’s gaze. With an arch of his brow, he issued a subtle invitation. Tightly leashed desire burned from within him, along with some other emotion Madie didn’t recognize or understand.

Everything about the man looked feral…and hungry.

Unable to break his pointed gaze, Madie flushed with a sudden rush of heat. Something untamed from deep inside her longed to answer his unspoken invitation.

She imagined their sweat-covered bodies writhing on soft sheets as they came together in a fierce coupling. Her body shuddered and perspiration dotted her brow. His eyes shifted subtly and her nipples tightened painfully beneath the lace cups of her bra. 

His knowing gaze roamed from her face to her sensible shoes, taking in her obscured figure. He paused once more on her aching breasts, as if he could see right through her sweater. Need tortured Madie with its invisible hands, plucking at her engorged nipples. Damon’s firm lips twitched ever so slightly as if he knew exactly what he was doing to her.

Madie sat breathless, her body quivering with untapped desire.

Unmistakable hunger clouded Damon’s eyes turning them nearly molten gold. His body practically hummed with leashed power. The energy emanating from him could have illuminated the entire town of New Salford, Massachusetts for a month. He licked his lips, the movement casual, as if remembering the taste of something decadent.

Madie melted inside. She imagined that tongue tasting her skin and almost spontaneously combusted on her stool. Moisture pooled between her thighs. She squeezed her legs together to stave off the growing need.

A confident slash of a smile teased the corners of his sensuous mouth, and then spread across his handsome face. If it were possible, that wicked grin made him even more devastating.

Entranced, Madie waited in anticipation. Like an expert artisan, her gaze caressed his high cheekbones, playing at his lips, then moved down to his firm chin. She lingered there, cataloguing subtle details that would eventually go into her sketch, before admiring the corded muscles of his neck and wide expanse of his shoulders. Methodically, she retraced her path, returning to his face. She refused to look any lower for fear of what she’d find.

Without preamble, Damon winked and dropped his towel. Several students gasped. Those mesmerizing eyes dared Madie to look. She did, and all remaining logical thought slipped from her mind.

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