Jade’s Choice

Book 3 of The Crystal Warriors Series by Maree Anderson

A talented young artist whose dreams have been crushed…

A crystal warrior who’d rather die than be condemned again….

Jade’s so desperate to provide for her chronically ill sister that she decides to sell herself. Her first “client” locks her in a hotel room with Malach, the Crystal Warrior  destined to be her life-mate. Malach is a complex, compelling man, and he soon captures Jade’s heart.

But Malach has a dark secret: He plans to kill himself rather than risk being imprisoned in his cursed crystal a third time. And saving him could be a losing battle… because he’s still in love with the woman who refused to bond with him decades ago.

Other Books in The Crystal Warriors Series:

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Genre: Paranormal Romance
Format: eBook, Trade paperback
Length: Novel; 72,000 words/250 pages
eBook Price: US $4.99 (or US$ equivalent)
Trade Paperback RRP: US $10.99 /GBP6.99 /EUR8.99
Publisher: Maree Anderson
Published: Mar 2012 (eBook), Jul 2014 print)
eBook ISBN:
Print ISBN:
Amazon ASIN:
978-1-4661-2194-2
978-0-9922-4989-2
B007IROAMW

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Reviews of Jade’s Choice:

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“Can’t get enough of the[se] books.” ~ M01gy,iBooks AU

Have just finished the final book in series and sigh can not wait to see if another book follows. I have read many series and this one has earned a place in my “favorite” category. […] The stories capture your attention from the moment you begin and the twist and turns that occur catches you off guard and leaves you on the verge of a teary eyed tyrant. Until LOVE shows you that without it we are lost. And I love a book that I can transport myself into and become part of the characters emotions. Well done. I hope that there are more crystal warriors freed because I would hate to think they are still in halja. Lol hint hint. Write next story……..” ~ Shan F happy face , Amazon

“Each situation different, characters history so involved you are pulled in and transfixed on whats to happen next. I like that every book has it’s own unique style of conflict. […] Soooo loved the series…” ~ Read the full review by Shan on Goodreads

“Another wonderful story. After reading the previous two stories, I was looking forward to this one. Was not disappointed in the least, wonderful story with great characters! So happy for Malach and Jade that I was smiling and chuckling most of the way through. Brilliant read.” ~Amy S, Amazon

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Artwork

Cover design by Rob Anderson
(Click on the image to see the full-size cover.)

Jade’s Choice


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The Crystal Warriors Series

The Crystal Warrior Ruby's Dream Jade's Choice Opal's Wish

Excerpt from Jade’s Choice

By Maree Anderson

 

Chapter One

Jade exhaled a shaky breath, braced herself, and walked into the light, ultra-modern hotel lobby. The doors whooshed shut behind her, cocooning her from the heat and noise outside. She rubbed her arms, desperate to maintain the pretense she was simply reacting to an abrupt transition from summer warmth to air-conditioning. Because to admit the truth was to acknowledge how damn close she was to turning on her heel and making tracks to the nearest bus stop.

Her hand crept to her neck. She rubbed the pendant between her fingers, worrying the deep green stone’s smooth surface like a devout Catholic coaxing absolution from rosary beads.

Absolution. Yeah. Sure could do with a hefty dose of that right about now.

She managed a half dozen steps before she halted, pursing her lips against the instinctive reaction to gape. Wow. Color her impressed. The grand staircase mentioned on the hotel website really was grand. But it wouldn’t do to stand there, gaping like some unsophisticated small-town girl who’d never set foot in a luxurious hotel before. It wouldn’t do at all. She tossed her head, thrusting back her shoulders, and stalked over to the lifts projecting “I’ve seen it all before” for all she was worth.

The lift door opened. Thankfully, it was empty.

Jade’s heart raced until it seemed it would leap from her chest and take off for parts unknown. She ground the heel of her hand into her breastbone, willing her heartbeat to calm. And then, as the lift smoothly ascended, she clutched her pendant and focused—again—on the man she’d arranged to meet.

Given his accent and his formal way of speaking, she reckoned he would be in his fifties. Tall and lanky and debonair. Excruciatingly polite. Reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. Sober, pinstriped suit with a handkerchief peeping from his breast pocket. Highly polished shoes—

The lift halted. Jade checked the floor number and forced her legs into motion. Once the lift doors shut behind her, she glanced around the foyer for lurking hotel guests.

All clear. She smoothed her dress down her thighs, stroked a palm over her hair, and ran a finger across her teeth to remove any lipstick that might have migrated from her lips. Finally, she huffed into her palm and sniffed her breath. Still minty-fresh. Yay. She even managed to summon a shred of pride that her knees didn’t wobble as she headed down the carpeted corridor, searching for the room number he’d given her.

Here it was.

She stared at the shiny numerals. It wasn’t too late to back out…. Before she could change her mind, she rapped smartly on the door.

It opened mid-knock, as though he’d been lurking and watching for her through the peephole.

Jade skittered back a step. Her mouth went dry, skin clammy. She didn’t know whether to be flattered by the thought of him watching for her arrival, or totally squicked. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Jade.”

“I know.” He grasped her hand, and his eyes gleamed with an emotion she was at a loss to name.

Discomfited, her gaze slid from his face. She stared over his left shoulder, where it was safer—a last-ditch attempt to distance herself from what she was about to do.

He squeezed her hand a little tighter. He seemed to be daring her to meet his gaze. She exhaled long and slow, and answered his challenge.

Bad move. Those shrewd, too-knowing blue eyes captured hers, sucking her down into fathomless depths. She couldn’t look away from him. Some still functioning part of her brain reminded her she was rudely staring, prompted her to say something witty instead of standing there gawking like a lump. But glib words—or any words at all for that matter—escaped her, and she continued to gaze at him, transfixed. Only when his attention flicked to a twittering trio of designer shopping bag-laden matrons heading for the foyer, did the strange compulsion ease.

Jade blinked and shook her head to clear the fuzz from her mind. He released her hand, and she had to lock her knees, fighting a wave of dizziness. Wouldn’t do to collapse to the floor and make a spectacle of herself. Doubtless he wouldn’t appreciate the unwanted attention it might provoke. And, while she scrabbled for the shreds of her lost dignity, he ushered her into his suite with a courtly gesture.

The furnishings screamed money-is-no-object exclusivity. Jade inhaled the almost too-clean, slightly too-cold air, and shivered. He wasn’t at all what she’d expected given their one brief, businesslike phone conversation. Blue jeans, black boots, black jacket over a white shirt—pretty trendy for an old man. And he was old—had to be at least seventy if those numerous, deeply seamed wrinkles were any indication.

Jade swallowed to lubricate her vocal chords. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Stone,” she finally managed to say.

Playing for time, she wandered through the sitting room area to stare out the window. The view of the Sydney Opera House, its remarkable roofline evoking a fleet of tall ships with billowing sails, stole her breath. “Wow. That’s just… wow!”

Ack. How completely unsophisticated did that sound? So much for trying to come across as worldly-wise and up for anything. She should leave now—give up this ridiculous idea. She wasn’t cut out to be a… a….

The ugly word echoed in her mind, and she suppressed a flinch, hoping he couldn’t tell she was dying inside, shriveling with shame. But the truth was that she’d run out of choices. She had to see this through to the end.

When she turned to face him, he didn’t bother to hide that he’d been observing her closely—still was, in fact. His head was cocked to one side, brows crinkled. He’d probably figured out she had been on the brink of doing a runner.

Jade pulled herself together and threw him a practiced social smile—the one she used to put café patrons at ease, and encourage them to chatter away so she didn’t have to exert herself and have a real conversation.

It usually worked a treat.

But not this time. The silence lengthened. Her facial muscles started to ache, until maintaining the bright, sunny smile became an exquisite torture.

“You have not eaten,” he said.

A statement, not a question. Jade blinked. And she was wondering how on earth he could know she’d skipped breakfast when her stomach rumbled. Loudly.

“I, too, am hungry,” he said. “And I am reliably informed the hotel’s brasserie provides a pleasant dining experience. Or perhaps you would enjoy a pre-lunch cocktail?”

Tempting, but…. “I’ll pass on the cocktail, thanks.” Despite the allure of floating through the next few hours in an alcoholic haze, Jade wanted—needed—to experience this encounter honestly, with all senses engaged. If she couldn’t handle intercourse with a stranger sober and fully aware, then she sure as heck wouldn’t be able to look in a mirror without heaving when this was all over.

Uh oh. He was staring at her expectantly. Think fast, Jade. Hotel restaurant and a chance to delay the inevitable? Or the privacy of this lovely suite… with what comes next hanging over you like some sword of Damocles. Both options had their pros and cons.

“Would… would you be very offended if we ate in your room, Mr. Stone?” Sitting through a meal in a public setting, minding her Ps and Qs while making small talk, would only give the butterflies fluttering in her stomach the opportunity to morph into fang-filled creatures of the night.

“Not at all. I have discovered that room service prepare the most wonderful toasted sandwiches—”

“Sounds good to me.” Jade sank into the nearest armchair and tried not to fidget as he phoned down for food. He hadn’t bothered to ask her preference before ordering but she didn’t call him on it. This wasn’t a date. She didn’t have to assert herself straight up and make it clear she wasn’t some naïve little girl content to let the guy make all the decisions. If he wanted to order for her, then he could be her guest.

He finished placing the order and hung up.

Jade uncurled her fingers from her pendant. “So, Mr. Stone—”

“Peter.

“Right. Peter. Is there anything in particular you’d like to do while we’re waiting for the food to arrive?”

As soon as the last word left her lips, she regretted speaking up. She widened her eyes and plastered a hopefully engaging expression on her face while she mentally cursed her big mouth. Way to go, Jade. Your job is to sit here looking decorative for as long as he wants. Your job is to pretend you enjoy his company, not act like you want to get this over with. Your job is to keep your mouth shut, and smile no matter what he does—or asks you to do.

One of his eyebrows quirked upward. “I am in no particular hurry,” he said.

A flush scorched her cheeks. The criticism had been subtle but she’d caught it. He’d indicated over the phone he desired her services for three hours, and if he chose to spend the time sitting chatting with her in his hotel suite, who was she to complain? She shifted in her chair, biting her lip and searching for something to say to ease the tension.

He huffed a sigh. “I meant no censure,” he said. “You take what people say too much to heart, Jade.”

Shit. She’d revealed too much. And the ease with which he could tap into her thoughts both frightened and angered her. She couldn’t afford to be frightened so she instinctively embraced the anger, but had enough presence of mind to duck her head to hide her expression while she wrestled with it.

Damn him. Where did this old guy get off thinking he could make such personal comments? He might think he knew her. He might imagine he’d accurately pegged her type given her obviously Asian heritage, her carefully applied make-up, and the flirty sundress she’d paired with matching high-heeled sandals to counter her height disadvantage. Yeah. All he saw was a little china doll, willing to take the easy way out and prostitute herself for money. But he was wrong. He had no idea who she truly was… and why she’d stooped to this.

Nor would she ever allow him to know the real Jade—she couldn’t, because the real Jade hated him for wanting her. Just like she hated that she hadn’t been able to find another way. And despaired, too.

“Calm yourself, child.”

She hadn’t heard him move but he was there, beside her, his hand clasping her wrist. And the warmth of his touch seeped into her skin, dissolving her anger, soothing the panic and despair that threatened to overwhelm her, leaving her calm and relaxed.

“I have a gift for you, Jade.”

He tugged her from the refuge of the armchair. And, as she stood, it hit her like a physical blow that this was it, the defining moment of her life.

Last chance, Jade.

Could she go through with it? Could she screw a stranger—and a practically ancient one at that—for money?

Damn straight she could. She had responsibilities, and those responsibilities would only become more pressing. She needed the advice of the best specialists money could buy. She needed to supplement her meager income—sooner rather than later.

She rested her hand on his forearm and allowed him to escort her to the huge bed that she’d tried to ignore ever since she’d first stepped foot into the suite.

Peter perched on the edge of the mattress by the heap of pillows, and patted the coverlet beside him. “Sit down, Jade.

She joined him on the mattress, resisting a childlike urge to bounce up and down. So far, so good. She could do this.

But Fate had one last slap upside the head to deliver, and when she glanced at Peter, a sneering, hate-filled face superimposed itself overtop his. It was the face that haunted Jade whenever she let down her guard and a let a man get too close.

Nausea and revulsion seared her stomach. Necessity and pride were all that prevented her bolting to the bathroom and locking herself in. She wrapped both arms around her middle. Peter appeared to be a decent guy. She couldn’t imagine him hurting her or degrading her. She could do this. She would do this. For her sister’s sake.

While she took deep breaths and tried to hide that she was freaking out, Peter opened the bedside drawer and retrieved an object wrapped in gold silk.

He placed it in her lap. “This is for you, Jade. Treat him well, for he deserves a second chance at redemption.”

Treat him well?

Jade frowned at Peter’s strange choice of words, mulling them over to gauge hidden nuances and meanings. If she accepted this gift, what else was she unknowingly accepting?

Despite her unease, her gaze fell to the wrapped object in her lap. It was the size of her palm. Its weight surprised her. Whatever-it-was felt solid and smooth beneath its silken wrapping. She unwound the strip of fine cloth—a scarf, at a guess—to reveal an egg-shaped stone of breath-stealing beauty, its polished emerald and jade hues perfectly offset by the deep gold of the scarf.

She stroked the stone’s surface and it responded, warming beneath her fingertips, glowing as though polished by her feather-light caress. And then it whispered to her, and a flood of despair and long-endured horror at its fate crashed into her unprepared mind. She shared its consciousness—she had no choice in the matter. And she, too, suffered.

Jade’s first instinct was to throw the stone across the room but she couldn’t move a muscle, not to brush it from her lap or even to close her eyes. She was held in thrall, powerless. Even her gaze was fixed on the cursed thing.

Shit! All those cautionary tales about young girls arranging clandestine meetings with strange men they’d met online were right. But no one would ever believe this. And Jade hadn’t the faintest idea how to escape this… this… whatever the heck held her captive.

“Do not fight him, Jade.”

Fight what, exactly, goddamn it?

She concentrated, trying to divorce her own senses from the all-consuming sensation of hope now emanating from the stone. Sweat beaded her forehead, the droplets plumping and merging into fine rivulets that snaked slowly down her temples before seeping into her hairline. “What is it?” she managed to grate from between tightly clenched teeth. “What. Is. This. Thing?”

“He is your destiny, Jade,” Peter said. “Do not be afraid. He will not hurt you.”

Yeah, right. Peter Stone was a whack-job. He’d hypnotized her. Or… or… done some weird pressure-point nerve thingy to paralyze her. And he believed this stone had human characteristics, considered the cursed thing to be alive?

God. She was in big trouble now.

Peter reached for the pendant nestling in her cleavage. His touch was cool and impersonal on her skin as he rubbed the ingot-shaped stone briefly between his fingers, before letting it fall. She noted an expression that smacked of extreme satisfaction before he backed away, and disappeared from her narrow line of sight.

Jade’s pendant hummed against her skin, as though the old man’s touch had gifted it with a voice. Its sweet tones resounded in her mind, soothing her fears, quieting her instinct to resist. Its song crescendoed, and then sharpened into a questioning discord that thrummed through her body—

And was answered by the stone nestled in her lap. The full force of its power slammed into her, casting her adrift on a stormy sea of absolute resolve—the stone’s resolve. His resolve, for she could sense him now, an undeniably male presence calling to her, demanding her surrender.

You are my savior, he said. And her world narrowed to his deep voice echoing in her mind, his thoughts probing hers as he sought entrance to her innermost secrets, his hope that she would be the key to what he so desperately sought, his belief she was his safe haven.

I am Malachite. And you…. You are mine.

She struggled, fought him. He would not own her. He would not!

Please, he whispered in the confines of her mind. Do not leave me here. I can endure it no longer. Please!

Via the bizarre mental linkage, Jade experienced the true horror of his prison. Roiling blackness. A pitiless nothingness that absorbed all light and consumed sensation.

Until she had linked with him, he’d been blind and deaf. When he’d howled his despair, no sound issued from his vocal cords, and he didn’t know whether he’d been rendered dumb, or whether sound no longer existed in this never-ending Hell he called Halja.

Until she’d found him, he’d clawed and torn at his flesh but felt no pain. He hadn’t known whether he still possessed a physical body in this space and time. For all he knew he had been reduced to nothing but a disembodied brain floating in the seething darkness.

Until her, there had been nothing but his own thoughts—guilt-ridden demons infected with self-loathing and despair, gnawing away at his sanity… feeding on his soul.

Please!

How could she be so cruel as to resist his plea?

She yielded. His answering roar was triumphant, and it shook her to the marrow.

Somehow, Jade got her limbs to work and struggled to her feet. The stone fell from her lap. It hit the carpet, cracked, and split in two. Abruptly freed from the stone’s influence, she toppled backward, her body stiff and leaden, arms hanging uselessly by her sides.

The fall seemed to last a lifetime.

Finally, an instant before her spine smacked the mattress, a blazing corona of light captured her gaze. She bounced once, twice, still paralyzed, her brain numbed to everything except burgeoning wonder at the gray, ghostlike form materializing.

The specter was human-shaped, with glowing, glacial blue eyes. It solidified into a human man, who collapsed to the floor with a shocking thud that resounded in Jade’s skull.

She couldn’t comprehend the enormity of what she’d witnessed. A man appearing from thin air? It wasn’t possible. He wasn’t possible.

“Malachite!” The scream rent the too-quiet serenity of Peter Stone’s hotel suite.

It was a woman’s scream. Her scream.

“Jade!”

The man’s hoarse shout reverberated throughout the room, careening off walls and surfaces. His pain scoured her skull, and his horror at what he had become, what he was prepared to do to gain his freedom, lanced through her soul.

The room wavered, becoming as fuzzy and indistinct as the thoughts clamoring in her beleaguered brain. And then there was nothing at all.

~*~

Chapter Two 

Bloody hell. What on earth had hit her? The entire freakin’ forward pack of the Wallabies rugby team? Jade’s body throbbed and ached. Her skin prickled, hyper-sensitive to even the light, filmy material of the summery dress she wore. She tried to pry open her eyelids but her body refused to cooperate with her brain. And when her head inadvertently lolled to one side, despite her efforts, her eyelids were still closed.

Cool cotton beneath her cheek—a pillow. Textured material beneath her out-flung hands suggested the coverlet of the bed. She twitched her toes. Someone had removed her sandals. Huh. At least she wouldn’t be poking holes in the hotel’s horrendously expensive umpteen-thread-count bed linen.

A voice yanked her from her musings—a pissed-off-to-the-max-sounding voice. “This cannot be right,” it rumbled.

Mmm. Not Peter Stone’s voice. Too deep, the timbre too rich and chocolaty-smooth to be Peter’s.

Jade finally coaxed her eyelids to open but everything was blurred and indistinct.

“What were you thinking, choosing this… this… fragile child for me?” the voice said. “I fear she will break in two if I so much as lay a finger on her.”

Huh?

“Have the long centuries of your guardianship finally addled your brain, old man?”

Ouch. Now the voice was like a lash, so rife with fury that Jade imagined Peter on his knees and cowering before its wrath. But when Peter responded, he didn’t sound the least bit cowed. His voice was low and calm. “My brain is as sharp as it has ever been. And you know very well that I am but a servant to the will of my goddess.”

This announcement was greeted with a prolonged silence. And then, “You dare lie to my face, Guardian?”

“You know it is no lie.”

“Then tell me this: What is she doing in your bed, old man? Is it the will of your goddess to now bond me to your castoffs?”

Jade didn’t catch Peter’s reply because everything started to go a little fuzzy around the edges again.

She must have drifted off for a short time, for she came to with a gasp. She lifted one incredibly heavy arm and managed to rub her eyes without stabbing her fingers in her eyeballs. One more blink, and a large form swam blurrily into view.

She rubbed her eyes again. And just to be absolutely certain her vision was working properly, blinked a couple of times.

Whoa. It was the phantom man. But he sure wasn’t a phantom now. He was very much here. Not to mention built. And the scarred, battered leather pants and matching sleeveless vest he wore displayed his impressive physique to full advantage… if you liked that oh-so obvious “Hey, I work out a lot!” look in a man. His thick, unkempt shoulder-length hair and shit-kicker boots further enhanced his “mess with me at your peril” image. He was all taut muscles and carefully leashed strength. A lean, mean, fighting machine of a man.

The impossibility of a human being morphing into existence from thin air was a little too extreme for even Jade’s fertile imagination to cope with. She thrust what she’d witnessed from her mind, refusing to believe it could have been real, firmly telling herself that he must have entered the hotel room while she was out to it.

Peter stood before the stranger, facing him as an equal. The old guy had guts, Jade would give him that.

“She is the one for you, Crystal Warrior,” Peter said. “Or to be precise, she will be.”

“Admit it, Guardian. She is a mistake. Again.”

“Jade is no mistake.”

Jade stifled a snort. I should bloody well think not!

“Jade,” the stranger murmured. “A beautiful name for a beautiful girl.”

Mmm. His voice coated her skin like a balm, seeping into her sore muscles and easing her hurts. And she would accept the compliment, too, she decided. She’d never been called beautiful before.

“And I require a woman,” Mr. I’m Too Sexy For My Leather Pants declared. “Not some mere slip of a girl.”

Nice one. Way to get struck off her Christmas card list.

“You are recalling Francesca,” Peter said.

“Yes, I am recalling Francesca. ’Tis impossible for me to forget her. You and your demon-spawned goddess made sure of that.”

“I truly believed Francesca was the one—”

“She was the one for me. The only one. Omnipotent sorcerer that you are, I find myself astonished that you cannot grasp that simple fact.”

“I comprehend far more than you could ever know.”

“Spare me your meaningless prattle, old man. When you forced Francesca to choose between us, her suffering rent my soul in two. Granted, she already had much hurt and sorrow to bear, but your gross miscalculation, your arrogance, increased her suffering twofold. What say you to that, Guardian?”

Peter’s chin swiveled toward Jade, and she shuttered her eyes, faking unconsciousness. The conversation was getting really interesting. Sure, it was a bit “out there”. And sure, she probably should bolt for the door, but a little voice inside her head insisted that she wait to hear this play out.

I say, your suffering far exceeded hers, Malach. And I say the intentions of my goddess can be unfathomable—even to one who has served her for centuries. I do not profess to understand why Francesca was chosen for you at such a difficult time in her life. All I know is that she was. Just as I know that, by the grace of the goddess you so revile, you have been given a second chance.”

“Perhaps.”

Man, this guy was a hard sell. He wasn’t giving Peter an inch.

“Or perhaps your goddess is in truth a sadistic bitch. Perhaps she is merely enjoying a second opportunity to torture me for my sins.”

“Believe what you will,” Peter said, with a finality in his tone that made Jade break out in goose-bumps. “Though it might please you to know both Kyan and Wulf have found joy in those chosen for them.”

Jade’s curiosity got the better of her again and she cracked open her eyelids.

The big man’s fierce expression had softened. “I rejoice to hear my Lord Keeper Wulf has found happiness. And despite my personal feelings toward Kyan, I wish both him and his Chosen well. No human should be made to suffer as we have.”

He squeezed his eyelids shut, holding his body rigid, hands fisted at his sides. And when he opened his eyes again, the purity of the anguish lurking in their pale blue depths sent icy shivers coursing down Jade’s spine. “Why, Guardian?” he asked. “Why inflict me upon this girl? ’Tis foolhardy. I see not the slightest hope of redemption in such a choice.”

“The choice has been made. For your own good, Malach, you must put your feelings for Francesca aside.”

“I cannot.”

Boy, this Francesca chick had really done a number on him.

Peter heaved a defeated sigh. “Then there is little else I can do but leave you to your fate.”

Hang on, Peter was talking departure?

“No!” Jade blurted, struggling to sit. Pain bloomed in her skull, and tiny flecks of silver danced across her vision. She absently tried to brush them away. No way was Peter leaving her at the mercy of this stranger. That had so not been a part of their discussion.

She swung her legs off the mattress and stood, her knees wobbling, hoping she wouldn’t embarrass herself by doing a face-plant onto the carpet.

Peter hastened to her side and she clutched his arm, grateful for the support. “Peter, what’s going on? Who is this man? And why does he keep calling you ‘Guardian’?”

Peter placed a hand on her forehead and, strangely, before she could push his hand away, the pounding headache she’d been determined to ignore eased.

“His name is—”

“Malach. Yeah, I got that.” She summoned a high-wattage smile for the stranger. “I hope you won’t consider it rude if I asked you to leave, Malach. Like, now? Peter and I have some, uh, unfinished business.”

He crossed his arms and glowered at her. “As do I.”

Uh oh. Her smile didn’t seem to be working.

She shrank from that fierce, judgmental gaze, but Peter planted a hand on the small of her back and propelled her forward until she stood directly before the big man—Malach. And Peter’s hand ensured there was no place to hide. The old man was a heap stronger than he appeared.

“Jade is the one for you, Malach,” Peter said—insisted, really. “She may be diminutive in stature but her spirit towers with potential. If you can find the key to her heart, she will truly be your savior. As will you be hers.”

Jade cringed, and ducked her head as heat crawled up her neck and painted her cheeks. God. How humiliating. Peter was offering her up to Malach as though she was the solution to all his problems—like she was some precious artifact with magical powers or something. As if. And even if she had been inclined to help the guy, the sad truth was that she could barely cope with her own problems let alone a stranger’s.

Malach lifted her chin with gentle but insistent fingers. And, as he examined her face, she took the opportunity to do some examining of her own.

His silver-smattered raven hair suggested he was older than she’d first estimated. His skin was darkly tanned, and only highlighted those eerily pale blue eyes—eyes shadowed with painful memories that Jade suspected were best buried deep and never unearthed. Harsh lines etched his mouth, and she guessed it had been years since he’d last smiled.

His was the face of a soldier returning from war, his soul crushed by the atrocities he’d witnessed. Even his broad shoulders were slightly hunched, as though he carried a heavy, ever-present burden. Jade hadn’t a clue how she could have gleaned all that merely from looking at him, but she knew beyond a doubt it was the truth. He’d suffered horribly.

She didn’t realize that she’d reached out to him until his callused hand engulfed hers, preventing her from touching his face. His brows knit as he gazed into her eyes, seeking answers to questions Jade didn’t know that she’d asked.

She always found it incredibly discomfiting to gaze into the eyes of a stranger. That sort of intimacy was for star-struck lovers, or longtime partners who were comfortable in their own skins—like Jade’s parents had been. But now she felt no compulsion to look away, or even to yank her hand from Malach’s grip. It was as though they both were frozen, and waiting for… for… something.

Peter’s satisfied chuckle broke the spell. “And you dare question my choice, Malach? Remember, you have one month to initiate the bond. If you and Jade pass the Testing, you will be forever free of the crystal. Forever free of me, too. Is that not reason enough to embrace my choice, Crystal Warrior?”

“And if we fail?” Malach asked, his gaze never leaving Jade’s face.

Peter didn’t answer.

“Of course. Your goddess-damned crystal will take me again.” Malach’s tense body radiated frustration and anger. His hand squeezed Jade’s, grinding the bones of her fingers together. She tried to wrench her hand from his grasp but he held her too tightly.

“So much for your benevolent goddess,” he said, obviously trying to goad Peter. “The conniving bitch has contrived to punish you as effectively as she does me. Remember that, old man. Remember, while you endure countless centuries as Guardian of our crystals until this travesty ends. Would it not be easier to strike me down and have an end to me rather than risk another failure?”

God! Jade’s skin went clammy. Her heart stuttered, and then hammered in her chest. This whole situation was getting way the heck out of control. “Now hang on a minute. No one’s gonna be killing anyone, okay?”

Both men ignored her, too intent upon imposing their wills upon each other.

“Your death would not finish this, Malach, however much you might wish it,” Peter said. “You are not the only victim of my curse, as you well know.”

Jade blinked. “Curse? What curse?” Her Aunt Lìli was a bona fide witch. She might be able to counteract—

“How many, old man?” Malach demanded. “How many of us are still condemned to the crystals? How many of us still suffer?”

Peter left the questions unanswered. “You have been given another chance, Malach. I would advise you to welcome it with open arms and an open heart.”

“Then tell me more about this Testing, Guardian. What does it entail? I would gladly venture across the sands during the Storm Season, and invite the winds to strip the flesh from my bones if it meant being free of you and your accursed crystal.”

“To reveal any more is forbidden. I have already stretched the rules decreed by my goddess to breaking point, and I will not willingly risk her wrath. But I can say this: Never forget, Malach, that your fate is now irrevocably intertwined with Jade’s. There is nothing you can do to change that.”

Jade’s hand was still caught in Malach’s tight grip, forcing her to twist awkwardly to keep Peter in view. To her horror, the old man had positioned himself at the door of the suite and was reaching for the door handle. “Hey, where do you think you’re going? We had a deal!”

“Our deal has changed, Jade. Malach is to be my—how do you say? Stand-in.”

“Oh, no. I don’t think so. You can’t leave me with a man I barely know!” Especially not this big, sexy, scary man who made her feel things she didn’t know she could feel.

“You barely know me, either, my dear,” Pieter said. “And yet you were prepared to give yourself to me.”

Jade spluttered a protest. “That’s different, Peter. And you know it.”

“My true name is Pieter, child. Or Pietersite, to be exact.”

“But—”

“I must go, Jade.”

“Why?” If this was all some elaborate plan so he could do a runner and stiff her with his hotel bill—

“The suite has been paid in full for the next seven nights—ample time for you both to get to know each other. However, that period can easily be extended to a full twenty-eight nights if necessary. Although—” his blue eyes twinkled “—given your passionate nature, and Malach’s hunger for a true soul mate, I believe a few days will more than suffice. One more thing: When you are hungry, room service will oblige. Meals have been arranged at no cost to yourselves.”

Jade went hot-cold-hot as dismay socked her a stellar sucker-punch to the gut. “Seven nights? Are you kidding me? No way am I staying here tonight, or any other night. I have a job. I have responsibilities!” She threw herself backward, using all her weight to strain against Malach’s grip. He held her easily—far too easily. Her pulse rate tripped up another notch.

“It has all been dealt with,” Peter said. “Mei will be well taken care of until you return—however long that may prove to be. I give you my word.”

Jade quit struggling at mention of her sister. “How could you possibly know—?”

The old man’s mesmerizing gaze caught and held hers, subduing her with the strength of his will.

Worry about someone dear to her nagged at the edges of Jade’s mind but she couldn’t hold on to the memory. She frowned, kneading the tight ache between her brows with her spare hand, and feeling strangely bereft.

Peter paused, staring at them both as though committing their images to memory. “Have faith, Malach,” he said. And then he stepped into the corridor… and the door began to swing shut behind him.

~*~

Malach’s hand involuntarily clenched. The little female gave a pained gasp and, realizing he was hurting her, he instinctively relaxed his grip. She exploded into motion, wrenching her hand free and rushing for the door….

Too late.

It slammed in her face. She rattled the handle. “Locked. Crap!”

Before he could caution her, she shoved the door with her shoulder. “Owww!” She massaged the shoulder and worked the joint. “Goddamn you to hell, Peter,” he heard her hiss.

“I heartily second that sentiment,” he said.

“Huh. I’m guessing you’re no more thrilled by this situation than me.”

“You would be correct.”

She fixed him with a ball-shriveling glower that was completely at odds with her sweetly innocent face. “Don’t try any funny business, or you’ll be sorry.”

“I assure you that laughing is the last thing I feel like doing at this moment.”

She stared at him through slitted eyes, as though trying to discern the sincerity of his last statement. Finally she said, “You gonna stand there gawking or help me with this bloody door?”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “There is little point wasting our energies when Pieter has be-spelled it.”

“The point is we need to get out of here.” She backed up and tried another shoulder charge, only to rebound off the door with such force that she staggered.

Malach winced in sympathy. That had to have hurt. “Even if the door hadn’t been be-spelled,” he told her, “shoulder-barging it is fruitless given that it opens inward.”

She massaged her shoulder, her lips thinning to a tight white line. “Fine. So brute force isn’t gonna work.”

“Correct.”

She crinkled her nose, obviously racking her brains for a solution to the problem, unwilling to let pain divert her from her task.

He watched her nibbling her lip and muttering to herself, fascinated despite his ire at this appalling situation. He’d never encountered a female quite like her before. On the surface so delicate and doll-like he feared she might shatter, but inwardly stubborn and tenacious, and so forthright he didn’t know whether to grin at her audacity or shake some manners into her.

She slapped her forehead with her palm. “Ooooh! Have you seen my sandals?”

When he didn’t respond, she clicked her fingers at him. “Sandals. Where are they?”

“What are you babbling about, girl?”

She made no effort whatsoever to hide how unimpressed she was by his question. Most females in her situation would be watching their tongues, careful not to provoke him. He was, after all, very much larger and stronger than her. Not to mention it seemed to have escaped her that they were alone. With one very large bed.

“Typical bloody man,” she muttered. “Incapable of thinking outside the square. Sandals. Dark purple strappy things? Heels about yay high?”

When he still didn’t answer, she grimaced, stalked over to the bed, and crouched to peer under the coverlet. Her movements were slow and studied. Malach felt like he’d been dragged behind a horse, and he could only imagine how the severely the bonding spell must be affecting this delicately built girl. And when she straightened from her crouch gingerly, but without so much as a whimper, his estimation of her rose.

She checked inside the wardrobe.

“Bingo,” she said, bending to scoop up a dainty piece of footwear. “Peter must be a neat-freak. Bet he makes the bed every morning and does the dishes before leaving his hotel room.”

Malach hid a smile as her staunch façade cracked just a little and her hip-swaying gait turned into more of a stiff hobble as she headed into the kitchen area.

She fossicked in a drawer and came up with a knife.

He eyed the weapon and scanned her face for clues. He had known only one other woman of this era, and Francesca had shown no interest in weaponry—not even when he had first emerged from the crystal and scared her witless. From what he could discern from this young woman, he was in more danger of being lashed by her sharp tongue than stabbed the instant his back was turned. But then, females were wily creatures and it behooved a man to be on his guard.

Armed with one shoe and the knife, she confronted the door.

“What are you planning?” he asked, curious.

“I’m going to use the heel of this sandal as a makeshift hammer while I try and pry up these hinges with the knife blade. Once I’ve removed the hinges, it should be a simple matter to open the door.” She glared at him. “Why? Got a better idea? Because if you have, now’s the time to speak up. Otherwise, shut up and let me work.”

Malach sauntered over to observe the proceedings as she inserted the blade beneath the lip of the hinge, and tapped the knife handle with the heel of her sandal. It was a solid plan, and Malach had never hesitated to give praise where praise was due. Even hardened warriors responded better to syrup than vinegar. “I commend you for this idea, girl. There is some small chance the old man neglected to be-spell the hinges.”

Tap. Tap. Tap. “Quit breathing over my shoulder, Mal. It’s distracting.” Tap. Tap. Tap. “And you don’t have to sound so astonished that I had a good idea floating round in my tiny female brain.”

He knew better than to stay close to an irate female with a potential weapon in her hand. He backed off and left her to her labors.

She sniffed. “And my name is Jade. Not ‘girl’.”

“Jade.” He rolled the word around on his tongue. “Hmmm. I am thinking your name does not suit you overly well.”

The tapping paused and she stiffened, her small body vibrating with outrage. “Not that I care what you think, but tough. That’s my name: Jade. Set in stone. Like it or lump it.” She blew her bangs out of her eyes and resumed pounding at the hinge.

Malach sighed. He hadn’t meant to be insulting. He debated explaining what he knew of jade and its qualities, but thought better of it. Doubtless she would again take his explanation the wrong way, and bristle like a feral sand-cat protecting its kits.

It soon became obvious the hinges were not prepared to cooperate without considerable time and effort. “Let me try,” he said.

“Be my guest.” She handed over the knife and her makeshift hammer.

He positioned the blade and whacked the knife handle vigorously with her footwear.

“Please try not to damage my sandal. My mother got these for me in Hong Kong. They’re not the real deal, of course. But they are really fine Manolo Bla—”

The heel of the sandal gave way. It dangled from the sole by a thin strip of leather.

He slanted her a glance over his shoulder. She’d pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes.

He tossed the sandal aside and snapped his fingers at her. “Bring me the other one.”

If looks could kill, he’d be corpse-dust dancing on a desert breeze. “Why?” she snarled. “So you can destroy that one, too? Not effing likely. Use your own boot or something.”

He clenched his jaw, praying for patience. “My boots are too big and unwieldy to be effective.”

She glanced down at his feet. Her gaze skittered up his body to fix on his face. And even though he suspected it took every ounce of effort she could summon, she stared him down.

Admiration surged through him. And something else, too. Something that tightened his balls and made him want to snatch her up and kiss her breathless. And then lay her on the bed and make her his. He stalked away from her, needing space to wrestle his emotions into submission. He could ill afford to feel admiration or desire for this girl. He could ill afford to feel anything at all. He needed all his wits about him if he was to survive the magical trap in which the Crystal Guardian had ensnared them both.

“You could try sticking your head under the cold tap.” Her musical voice followed him, and even though the tone was mocking, it stroked his skin and stoked his need. “With any luck it might drown your attitude.”

A cold bath would be far more apt, he thought.

The tapping resumed, and from the ringing of metal on metal, Malach knew she’d resorted to whacking the hinge with the knife handle. Her muttered imprecations suggested this method wasn’t working to her liking.

He retrieved the other sandal from the wardrobe and approached her. Warily.

She must have sensed his approach for she spared him a brief, ire-filled gaze. “Give me that,” she said. “No way are you destroying that one, too.”

He handed it over without a murmur, and kept his peace as she tapped doggedly at the hinge.

The minutes stretched. The hinge deigned to move all of a hair’s breadth. From the tension in her shoulders, he knew her arms had started to ache.

“Allow me to take a turn,” he said.

“No. I can do this.” She tensed, as though waiting for him to elbow her aside and take over.

He sighed. “As you wish.”

She whacked the knife handle with her shoe, and kept whacking until the heel started to come away from the sole. He opened his mouth to warn her but before he could utter a word, she tossed the knife aside and, with both hands, worked at the heel until it detached from the sole. Task complete, she crawled on all fours to retrieve the other sandal and yanked its dangling heel completely away from the sole, too. “Now I have a matching pair,” she said.

To his chagrin, he glimpsed the sheen of tears in her eyes. And, given the way she clutched the footwear to her chest, they had been precious to her in some way. He’d known her only a short time, but she didn’t strike him as the kind of female who wept over trivial things.

He thought back to her comments about the footwear. Ah. “Your mother gave you those sandals.”

She blinked rapidly to prevent the tears from falling. “Yes.” Her lower lip wobbled. “She died not long afterward. Along with my dad. In a car crash.”

“Then I am doubly sorry.”

“They’re fakes—not the real deal.” She shrugged off his apology, refusing to reveal how much she was hurting to a stranger. To him.

“Jade—”

She cut him off with a sharp gesture and crawled to her feet, rubbing her back and neck, as she wandered over to the kitchenette. He knew it hurt her heart and her soul to deposit the now useless sandals in the bin. He wondered when she would give into her tears.

And how he would bear watching her cry.

He should have known better, for she came out fighting. “Peter, or Pieter, or whatever the heck your name is, if you don’t come back and get me out of here right now, I’m gonna kick your bony old arse from here to fucking Perth! Do you hear me?” She heaved three deep breaths as she fought for control.

Malach tore his gaze from her breasts, so ripe and firm and high—breasts that begged a man to touch and to taste. He shrugged off her allure and took refuge in disapproval. “If you believe me impressed by such language,” he said, “I would disabuse you of the notion.”

“Like I give a crap about impressing you. I’d rather impress the bloody door.” She stalked stiffly over to it, rucked her dress up her thighs, and kicked outward, snapping out her bare foot with toes bent back so as not to injure them when her foot connected with the door.

Twice more she smote the door. From her technique, and the resounding thud! each time her foot made contact, she’d obviously familiarized herself with some form of martial combat. “Now that, I am impressed by,” he drawled.

She rounded on him, lips parted to cut him down to size. He deliberately slid his gaze to her bared thighs. And didn’t attempt to hide his appreciation. The undergarments she’d flashed him were mere scraps of white lace. White. Such a virginal color. Such a lie.

She flushed pink as she let her skirt fall and smoothed it down her thighs. “Show’s over. Listen up, Mal—”

“My true name is Malachite, after my crystal. Or Malach if you prefer. Not Mal.”

“Whatever. I’m sure Peter thought he was doing me a really big favor by trading himself for you. But I assure you that despite his advanced years, I far prefer him to an egotistical jerk-off like you.”

“Is that so?” Malach was tired of playing games. Too, he was tired of being manipulated and used—of having his hopes of salvation soar, only to be dashed. Sweet Mother of all gods he was tired. Pieter had hit upon the truth when he had accused Malach of courting death. One way or another, Malach wanted this travesty to end. Extracting the truth from this girl so he knew how best to handle her would be an excellent start.

Hands on hips she looked him up and down, and apparently found him lacking. “It is indeed so,” she said, in a fair imitation of his voice.

By the gods, she tried his patience. He seesawed between wanting to throw her over his knee and paddle her behind, and wanting to throw her on the bed and have his way with her. If she knew how much he wanted her, how he ached to bury himself in her soft feminine flesh and feel her clenching around him, she would not be so eager to provoke him.

Or perhaps she would, given the pretext Pieter had used to bring her to this room—masquerading as a client responding to her advertisement. She was young, yes, but Malach had been propositioned by younger girls angling for the increased status of being Chosen by Lord Keeper Wulfenite’s influential tehun-Leader, his right-hand man. And this girl was no innocent, trying out her feminine wiles for the first time, flirting and coaxing but not truly comprehending the trouble she might incite. This girl knew how to rouse a man’s passions and make him willingly dip into his pockets to shower her with fripperies and coin.

Coin. Something Malach was sorely lacking at present. There was bound to be something of value he could offer her, however. Everyone had their price. “What did the old man have to promise to bring you here?” he asked.

Her beautiful, thickly lashed brown eyes flashed fury. “That, Mal, is none of your business.”

His cock twitched. She was all heat and temper—an opposite to his coolly calm Francesca in every way.

“How many years do you have, girl?”

“What’s it to you, boy?”

Heavy emphasis on boy. Apparently she believed two could play that game. His lips twitched. “Humor me. Or are you perhaps one of those annoying young females who coyly dissemble about their age, while seeking to entrap a man?”

“You insinuating I’m jailbait? Heck, you really know how to flatter a girl, don’t you, Mal? I’m twenty, if you must know.” Almost as an afterthought she murmured, “Twenty-one in a few weeks.”

He cocked his head as he considered her surprising answer. “You appear at most no more than one teh and a half, though your attitude speaks a few extra years, perhaps.”

She blinked at him. “Huh?”

“A teh has this many years.” He held up the fingers of both hands.

“A decade. Why didn’t you just say a decade? Hang on—you think I look fifteen? Sheesh! Just because I’m vertically challenged, doesn’t mean I’m a kid. Don’t they have short women where you come from?” She glared at him, and then muttered something about retracting the comment as it seemed conceivable his ancestors might well be descended from Amazons.

Rallying, she thrust back her shoulders and, for good measure, stuck out her lower lip. “Look, I’m an adult, okay? I might look younger than I truly am, but I’m fully capable of looking after myself. Got that, Mal?”

Malach sized her up. Based on her reaction, he guessed that all her adult life people had treated her as a child, subtracting years from her age and not taking her seriously because of her height and her delicate looks. And that it made her very irritated indeed. But regardless of her age, she’d been chosen for him, and if he was to have any chance at all of escaping his cursed crystal, he must finish the bonding process that Pieter had set in motion.

It would hardly be a chore to bed her. He would be lying if he claimed he didn’t want her. Right now, however, he would wager sex was the last thing on her mind. He could change that, though. Easily.

“Hmmm.” His gaze raked her from head to toe. “Yes. I have ‘got that’. I see you are most definitely not a child.”

He snaked out a hand, grabbing her waist and hauling her flush against him. He bent his head, and the instant he touched his lips to hers, Malach forgot all about holding himself apart, taking what he needed and not allowing himself to be vulnerable.

The heat between them flared. He lost himself in her. And, for a few blissful seconds, she lost herself in him, too.

“Mmmph!” She jerked back her head, but he clamped her nape with a hand and held her immobile. She kicked at him but he easily ignored the drumming of bare toes against his thighs. When she pummeled his chest with her fists, he backed her against the wall, pinning her. She was helpless. But he was helpless, too. Helpless to resist the allure of her.

When her lips softened, he licked the seam of her lips and coaxed them to open, to let him in. He stroked his tongue against hers, and when she responded he groaned, overcome with want and need.

He tore his mouth from hers. She stared at him, dazed. They were forehead to forehead, nose to nose, so close her eyes almost crossed when she tried to focus on him. “Wh-what the h-hell do you think you’re d-doing?”

“Proving you will have more fun with me than with Pieter,” he said, somehow managing to keep his voice steady.

“Let me go… you big… idiot!” Her breath sawed in and out of her chest.

“I intend to release you—once you let go of me.” He allowed smug amusement to infuse his words.

“Wh-what do you mean?”

Smirking, he backed up a few steps, away from the wall, holding his arms out from his sides.

She glanced down. “What the—? Uh, how come I’m—? Oh. Ohhh!” She unlaced her hands from behind his neck. And when she finally became aware that her thighs were still wrapped around his waist, her cheeks flushed the shade of a ripe berry. She unclamped her legs and slid a little way down his body, stifling a squeak and reddening still more when the bulge of his leather-clad erection found a home between her spread thighs.

“Omigod. Omigod. Oh. My. God. I’m clinging to you like a randy monkey. One kiss and you’ve turned me into a raging slut. This is so not good.” She wriggled and slid awkwardly to the floor. Yet again, she yanked down her dress, depriving him of another glimpse of smooth thighs that he would very much like to have wrapped around him again in the near future.

Her blush deepened, crawling down her neck. And the expression in her eyes….

Shame? He frowned. She did not act like a whore.

She speared trembling fingers through her hair and backed away, her gaze hunted. “Sure wish we could ring for—”

The panic rippling across her features receded, replaced by a triumphant grin that confused Malach still more. “Sorry to disappoint you, Mal,” she said. “But I’m about to spring us from our cozy little prison. And once we’re out of here, you can bugger off back to wherever, and maul some other girl.”

He brushed past her, heading for the bed. “I believe I will take a nap until you get it through your pretty head that Pieter will not be so easily thwarted by a mere—” What was the device called again? Ah, yes. “Phone.” He stretched out full-length on the mattress, linking his hands beneath his head and closing his eyes.

“Could have at least taken off your boots,” he heard her mutter. And then, “The old guy’s got some truly superb supernatural woo-woo going on, I’ll give him that. But he can’t keep us locked away in here against our wills. Not when we have a line to the outside world.”

He slit his eyelids to watch the fun as she snatched the phone from the side table and pressed it to her ear.

“Huh. No dial tone.” She replaced the phone in its cradle and picked it up again. She held it to her ear, scowled mightily, and then jabbed a few buttons. “Crap. Wonder if it could be the phone jack?”

She sank to all fours, and fiddled with a small white box fixed to the wall. When she picked up the receiver again and waited expectantly, Malach closed his eyes.

“I’m trying an outside line,” she announced.

There was a tapping sound, doubtless caused by her jabbing fruitlessly at buttons again.

“Double crap. No sound. No connection. No nothing. Okay. Last try. Just to be totally sure, I’m going to ring the national emergency number.”

Three jabs. A pause. And then a prolonged hiss as she hung up. “Okay, okay. You were right. He’s jinxed the phone lines, too. Can’t even call emergency services, so I sure hope we don’t end up actually having one—an emergency, I mean. And so much for phoning room service for food. We’ll have to hope the mini-bar will see us through until we find a way to get out of here.”

“If I know Pieter, he will have arranged for sustenance to be provided whenever we are hungry.”

“Well, I’m hungry now. So where’s the food?”

Malach snorted.

“All right, all right. I guess food is the last thing on my mind right now. All this BS has put a temporary damper on my appetite.”

He cracked an eyelid to observe her prowling up and down the rug beside the bed. She halted, and he guessed another possibility had occurred to her. “Maybe it’s not as bad as we first thought,” she said. “One of us is bound to get hungry soon, right?” She paused expectantly until he muttered an agreement and closed his eyes again.

“So all we have to do is stay alert until we hear room service knocking. And as soon as the hapless room-service attendant opens our door, we make a run for it. Easy-peasy, huh?”

“Perhaps. Although I am certain Pieter will have thought of that possibility, also.”

“You think so?”

“I do indeed.”

“Damn. I suspect you might be right.” The eagerness had fled from her voice, leaving her sounding tired and defeated.

“I know one sure method of escaping this trap Pieter has devised for us,” he said, opening both eyes, curious to observe her reaction to what he was about to propose.

“Oh? And what’s that?”

“To do exactly what he wants.”

“Which is?”

“For me to bed you.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jade’s Choice by Maree Anderson

© Copyright 2012,  Maree Anderson

www.mareeanderson.com/books/jades-choice

www.jadeschoice.com

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