Owen turned the shower on full blast so he wouldn’t have to hear Lars slam the door on his way out. Owen should’ve been glad to see the last of his most recent lover. The past few months had been like a roller coaster. The kind that went up and down and never seemed to end.
The way the man waffled about his sexuality made Owen crazy. Why couldn’t Lars understand that it didn’t matter if they were both men? They fucked. It was highly enjoyable. Ergo, why stop? It wasn’t as if Owen had a desire to go pick out wedding china or something.
As if that’s ever going to happen for me.
Owen didn’t want to think about the sins he’d committed that would always stand between him and a normal relationship. Steam billowed around the small bathroom, fogging up the mirror and chasing away the specter of past violence that haunted him still. Owen walked into the spray and savored the burn. He closed his eyes and felt the water saturate his thick hair. Bracing his hand against the tile wall, he let the water wash away the sweat and scent of sex. At that moment, he wished it were possible to wash the memory of Lars away as easily.
A loud knocking pulled Owen out of his maudlin thoughts. There was only one person in the world who had the brass to bang on his door like that. He shut the water off and grabbed a towel before stepping out of the shower.
Another round of insistent pounding made him grumble, “I’m coming!” He anchored the towel a little more firmly around his waist. “It’s no wonder Malachi enjoys spanking your ass so much if you make a habit of being this rude!”
He caught the barest hint of a smothered noise of feminine outrage on the other side of his thick door. That made him smile. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but messing with Selena Aasen gave him intense pleasure. It was probably because she was always guaranteed to rise to the bait, and maybe because she’d managed to permanently snag both of his bosses. Of course, he also liked her—not that he’d ever tell her that.
Owen flung the door open and gave the slim blonde his meanest look. “What do you want?”
She didn’t even flinch. “Where’s Lars?”
Owen mentally recoiled. Lars was Selena’s cousin, but the way Lars seemed to hate himself every time he wound up in Owen’s bed hadn’t suggested he’d be free with information about their clandestine relationship.
“Come on, Owen.” Selena folded her arms and gave him the stink eye. It was an expression that turned the massive Malachi into putty, but Owen wasn’t Malachi.
He decided to be blunt. “Lars left about a half hour ago.”
“Dammit!” Her fierce expression dissolved into a look of worry he’d never seen before. “He’s not answering his phone. I figured that meant he was with you.”
Owen opted to let that pass. “Why? Did you need him?”
“No…it’s just”—she seemed to reconsider him—“my friend Mattie is stuck having a meeting with a total douche bag later on, and I was going to send Lars to keep an eye on her.”
“Why Lars?” Owen’s mental radar was a blaring siren in his head. Surely Selena wouldn’t send Lars to babysit a woman he didn’t know. What if this Mattie chick was the person Lars had refused to talk about earlier?
Selena looked uncomfortable. “It’s no big. I’ll just ask Demon to shadow her for a bit.”
Yeah, that’ll go over like a ton of bricks.
The Demon of Triptych didn’t shadow anyone but Selena, Malachi, or their daughter, Alisa. Demon leaving his family to take on a security detail for some random chick wasn’t going to happen.
“I’ll do it,” Owen offered.
“Oh.” She suddenly became very interested in her manicure. “I’d hate to send someone she doesn’t know. That would just creep her out more, don’t you think?”
“And she knows Lars, how?”
He had her now, and they both knew it. Owen sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m not an idiot, Selena. I’m guessing they were fucking each other at one time or another.”
“I think they broke it off this past summer sometime,” she said hastily. “I’m sure it hasn’t happened since the two of you…uh…”
He couldn’t help it. Owen laughed so hard he nearly lost his towel. “Sheesh! You’re acting like I’m some lovesick girl. We’re hardly a couple, Selena. We fuck and we enjoy it. That’s it.”
She wasn’t laughing. Owen felt his own humor die at the speculative expression on her face. He became instantly aware that she and Lars had grown up as close as brother and sister. What had Lars told his cousin, and how weak would Owen look if he asked about it?
“Artists’ Row in Salem,” Selena said abruptly. “Her name is Mattie English. She’s got a stall on the opposite end from the Lobster Shanty. She’s meeting some guy named Daniel Hyde. I’ll e-mail you the dossier Malachi put together.” She dug her keys out of her pocket and stuffed them into his hand. The pink rhinestone princess crown hanging off the ring looked absurd in his grasp. “Take my car. Mattie gave me this keychain. That should give you a little credibility if you need it.”
* * * *
Mattie was jumpy as a cat all afternoon. Even the kids who’d shown up to her class seemed to notice. Each artist who was granted stall space in Artists’ Row for the season was expected to teach art classes to the community. Normally it was a job Mattie loved. In the fall she typically taught at the local elementary after-school program, and she saw many familiar faces on Artists’ Row. Today she could hardly keep her mind on the shading techniques she was demonstrating.
How was she supposed to concentrate on the pattern of light and shadow striking the potted plant outside her work area when she was scheduled to meet up with a man who had been arrested last year for sacrificing goats?
As if the very idea of animal sacrifice wasn’t enough to make her skittish, Mattie was still trying to figure out why Meecham would be aligning himself with Hyde. Wiccans didn’t practice that sort of thing. At least none of the ones Mattie had ever met would have considered it. Life was a precious, sacred thing. The members of the Circle she’d belonged to had valued life too highly to ever think they were worthy of snuffing it out. That was the Goddess’s decision, not theirs.
“Miss English?” Fourteen-year-old Lydia twisted her head sideways to get a better look at Mattie’s sketch pad. “Your tree looks possessed.”
So it does
. “I suppose you could say this is an example of how we use chiaroscuro to make a mood.” Mattie decided backpedaling at this stage would only seem weirder, so she dove right into the demonic theme. In moments she’d shaded her tree into a pit stop on the way to hell. “We can use shadows in our drawings to set a peaceful, lazy mood, or you can make it look like something straight out of Sleepy Hollow. Artist’s choice.”
Mattie flipped to a new sheet in her book and tried to squash her nerves into the background. Her gaze flitted around the sunny walkway between the stalls until it settled on a man sitting nonchalantly at a bistro table twenty yards away.
Now there’s a body made for shading.
Her pencil began to sketch of its own accord. He was a big man dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans with one booted foot crossed over the other. His skin was like burnished copper, a shade she usually found in the local Native American tribes. He was utterly relaxed, but as she outlined his broad shoulders, she realized he was also very alert. Something in the way he held his head told her that his dark gaze could absorb everything at a glance.
She kept waiting for her brain to start comparing him to Lars—something it seemed to do with every man these days. Drawing side-by-side analyses of Lars Aasen and random men who seemed interested in her had basically destroyed any hope of a love life since Lars had run out on her during the summer. It had been totally unexpected. She’d thought things were going well between the two of them, maybe even ready to step to the next level, and then he’d stopped returning her calls.
Mattie sketched in the tree shading the bistro table, paying close attention to how the sunlight filtered through the tree’s branches, before shading her warrior in tones of charcoal and mahogany.
Yep, she was losing it big-time. She was practically salivating as she scoped out the darkened hollow beneath his sloping jaw and noticed the barest hint of blue ink visible along the neckline of his T-shirt.
Her hand stilled, the scratch of her pencil going silent. He was staring at her. She met his gaze. Not because she wanted to, but because she couldn’t stop herself. She was utterly trapped by the heat lurking beneath his calm exterior. Tendrils of awareness crept through her nervous system, culminating at a point between her legs. Molten desire melted her insides. She clamped her legs together and bit back a moan. It’d been too long. Celibacy didn’t agree with her. Mattie’s innate sensuality was so intense it sometimes left her trembling with needs she couldn’t acknowledge. It was something she kept at bay with very carefully orchestrated relationships while wishing fervently she could find something lasting.
Then she’d made the ill-advised split-second decision to get involved with Lars. Since then she hadn’t managed to put him behind her and find someone else. She’d become fixated on him, unable to focus on another man—until now.
Mattie believed strongly in the vibrant life force underlying all things. Every living plant and animal had its own energy—an aura, a tangible something
that could be felt if she tried. Lars’s internal vibrancy had been like an aphrodisiac from the start. She’d never experienced anything like it. Hadn’t thought to meet anyone else with such a powerful intrinsic vigor. Now the memory of Lars and the reality of this perfect stranger seemed to blend in an unrealistic fashion.
“Miss English?” Lydia touched her shoulder. “What do you think?”
When her attention was ripped away and refocused on the class, Mattie felt drained, shattered, and shaken. Four teenaged girls were staring at her with openly curious expressions on their bright young faces. Exhaling deliberately, Mattie noted Lydia’s careful shading of the flower petals on her sketch pad. “Those are very realistic, Lyddie. You’ve developed a wonderful eye.”
The teen flushed with pleasure and turned to giggle with her friends. Mattie let her gaze wander back toward the stranger, only to discover he was gone. It was as if he’d never been sitting there. Disconcerted, she glanced back down at her sketch to reassure herself he’d been real.
She absently twiddled her pencil. Almost of its own volition, her hand added a few more details. The background materialized into another bistro table, a second chair facing the first. Lars’s body took shape on the page. The familiar lines of his slim-hipped frame, powerful shoulders, narrow waist, and long legs. She smudged in his perpetually tousled dark hair and the familiar dusting of five-o’clock shadow on his jawline.
Fully immersed in her own artistic world, Mattie placed herself at a triangular point between them. Not in a physical sense, but a focal one. It was as if she were staring at them both and soaking up the smoldering heat of their regard. Energy crackled to life on the paper, and she wished she had time to put what she was feeling on canvas in the broad, sure strokes of paint.
The spell ended, and Mattie snapped back to reality. Heat bloomed across her cheekbones, snaking down her neck and making her feel light-headed. There wasn’t a hint of jealousy or competition between the two alpha males on her page. Instead, they seemed oddly content to share…everything.
Talk about wishful thinking. I need to get laid.
Daniel Hyde popped out of thin air behind her left shoulder. Mattie quickly closed her sketch pad and gave her visitor what she hoped was a friendly yet unencouraging smile. A lump of dread settled in her belly when he returned her smile with a leer. This didn’t promise to be a pleasant afternoon.
“Girls?” Mattie glanced at Lydia and her friends. “That’s all we have time for this afternoon, but you’re all welcome to stay and finish up as long as you’d like.” In fact, she was hoping they’d stick around.
Hyde looked at the girls with thinly veiled contempt. He gestured toward the back of Mattie’s booth. “Shall we look over your paintings?”
She was starting to wish her black scoop-necked blouse and loose jeans were a baggy sackcloth. Hyde’s gaze was stuck to her chest as if he’d lost his eyeballs in her cleavage and wanted to retrieve them.
With a resolute sigh, she gestured to one of her largest pieces. “This is a personal favorite.” It had been painted near Marblehead in Lady’s Cove. The brilliant sunset showed the boats coming in with their colorful sails bathed in the fiery red-and-orange glow of the sun.
“It’s very nice.” He nodded toward a painting depicting storm-gray clouds gathering over Gallows Hill. “But this is more to my taste.”
Gee, why doesn’t that surprise me? Should I sketch in a few headless goats too?
The thought made her shiver. If Lars and the stranger outside both possessed brilliant energy, this guy’s aura could only be described as dark. Daniel Hyde gave off a vibe that made every hair on her body quiver with dread. Why had she ever thought him a harmless perv?
“Meecham says you can do a fair historic representation,” Hyde said. She met his gaze for a moment only to realize it was oily black. “I want to capture the terror of the hangings.”
He didn’t have to expand for her to know what hangings he was referring to. It was in his face, in his voice, a desire to revel in the madness that had seized Salem in 1692. Interest in those events brought people to Salem. Whether for simple curiosity or macabre reasons they kept to themselves, people wanted to know what had happened. Still, this felt different.
Hyde’s penetrating stare seemed to strip her skin from her body as it delved into her soul. “I need three paintings, one of the trials, with the spectral presence of the witches tormenting the victims. One of the hangings, and the last one depicting Giles Corey as he was pressed to death in the field.”
Her lungs couldn’t draw breath. Blood coursed wildly through her veins, and she grew light-headed. Finally, she managed to drag in enough air to speak. “I-I can’t paint that. What you’re asking… That’s not even what happened! There were no specters. There probably weren’t any witches. There are tons of theories. Ergot poisoning, political power games, bored teenaged girls—take your pick!”
Hyde edged closer, crowding her into the corner of her stall. She’d draped a sunny length of yellow linen across the rear wall. It tickled her ear as she tried to back away.
His lips curved into the vestige of a cruel smile. “Perhaps it was too much to expect a woman from a long line of cowards to believe the truth.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Mattie gazed wildly around, searching for someone to help. Lydia and her friends had wandered off, probably down to the Shanty to grab a snack. She could scream, but there was no guarantee anyone would hear or even care. What the hell had she been thinking meeting a weirdo like this?
OWEN HAD NEVER felt such an all-consuming urge to rip someone’s spine out. He’d turned away for less than five minutes, just long enough to get himself together after Mattie’s probing gaze had sliced right through all his carefully erected barriers. Next thing he knew, Daniel “Goatkiller” Hyde had pinned Mattie in the back of her stall for who knew what purpose.
Owen thought fast. He pulled out Selena’s keys and let the sparkly pink crown dangle from his fingers. Striding toward the back of the stall, he let them jingle. “Hey, baby, are you almost done here? I’ve got your keys.”
Hyde whipped around, his lip curled into a silent snarl. Owen lifted his chin and let the menace roll off his body in waves. Working as a bouncer at Triptych had taught him all kinds of things about silent presence. If he had to use every ounce of it to get Mattie away from this guy, he would.
Mattie peered at him as if he were offering a life raft in a storm. Her already fair skin was pale as milk, intensifying her dark hair and blue-gray eyes. Owen tried to exude as much goodwill toward her as he could. When her gaze flickered over the keys in his hand, he saw quiet relief enter her expression.
“My name is Owen.” Owen didn’t offer his hand to Hyde. He had no desire to touch a man who could give off the kind of evil this one was. “And you are?”
“Leaving, if you’ll excuse me.” Hyde turned on his heel and exited the booth without another word.
Owen turned, placing himself between Mattie and Hyde until the man was out of sight. He could sense her trying to gather what was left of her composure. When he turned around, she was trembling, one hand gripping a support pole.
“Selena sent me,” Owen said softly. “You’re safe.”
She seemed to waver. A tear streaked down the sleek contour of her elegant cheekbone. Her wobbly legs suggested she might collapse. Before he could think better of it, Owen reached out and drew her into his arms. She nestled there as if nature had made her to fit him perfectly.
I absolutely understand why Lars loves this woman, whether he’ll admit it or not.
“It was you,” she whispered. “Outside, staring at me.”
“Who are you?”
There was nothing but simple curiosity in her tone. He’d expected leftover hostility or fear from Hyde’s near attack, but there was none of that. She rested in his arms in a posture of utter trust. “I work at Triptych.”
“Yes, but who are
you?” Her gaze made his cock quiver with awareness. “Why do I feel like I already know you?”
He wished he knew. It might make her less tempting. Or not. Owen couldn’t even decide if part of her allure was because she’d managed to snag Lars so thoroughly. Did she even know that? What if she was clueless, or worse, what if Owen was completely wrong, and there was something else instigating Lars’s self-castigation?
And why the hell do I care? I shouldn’t care. I can’t care.
“Will you take me home?” she asked. “I don’t want to be alone.”
Her instant faith in his good intentions humbled him in a way nothing else in his life ever had. “Anything you want.”