The Crystal Warrior

By Maree Anderson

the crystal warrior 300x450 The Crystal Warrior
A career-focused dancer who’s sworn off men…

A cursed crystal warrior on borrowed time….

Chalcedony (Chalcey) is too busy planning the launch of her dance studio to fret about the absence of men in her life. Besides, she’s hanging out for the man of her dreams — if such a creature exists. Her ordered world is turned on its head when she’s given a piece of wulfenite crystal, and Lord Wulfenite, Keeper of the Shifting Sands fief, emerges… and kisses her like there’s no tomorrow.

Before they realize what’s truly at stake, Chalcey has bonded with Wulf and his life is in her hands. And with the Crystal Guardian’s curse final test looming, Chalcey must confront her feelings for Wulf… and find a way to save him before it’s too late.

Other books in The Crystal Warriors Series:

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Genre: Paranormal Romance
Formats: eBook & Trade Paperback
Length: Novel; 92,000 words /320 pages
eBook Price: US $4.99 FREE at most eBook retailers
Trade Paper RRP: US $12.99/ GBP 7.99/ EUR 9.99
Publisher: Maree Anderson
Published: August 2011 (eBook) April 2014 (print)
eBook ISBN:
Print ISBN:
9781465715142
9780992249854
Amazon ASIN: B005H6Y60M

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Reviews for The Crystal Warrior:

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“Holy Molly… Superb… Till the end Maree had me captive in her world of crystal warriors.” ~ Mmmarvi , iBooks AU

You gotta read this! I really enjoyed this book. I was up until five am in the morning reading it. I had to finish it the next day. I loved the storyline and the humour. It reminds me of the Paladin series by Alexis Morgan, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed that series. I also recommend it to anyone who likes paranormal romance. In fact I enjoyed this book so much that I’m now going to collect the rest of Maree Anderson’s books.” ~ SLACKER888 iBooks AU

“Excellent mix of modern day reluctant heroine meets hunky warrior of millennias past. Fast paced and humorous with enough action and drama to keep you riveted until the last page.” ~ Adele, Amazon US

“I loved this series. i read this book and then had to immediately buy the next two. [...] the woman in this series are strong vocal independent but vulnerable. i love them. i cant wait for more in the series to come out.” ~ Dez, Amazon US

“Alright Maree Anderson…u just made my top five favorite author list. I am so stoked with this book I can’t wait to read the next one. WOW! This was truly an amazing read. I gotta say that I was not disappointed in the least. I am and will be checking out the rest of the books that were written by this author. Excitedly so!!!! If anyone out there hasn’t checked this book out, I strongly recommend u do so. YOU WON’T BE DISAPPOINTED!!!” ~ Barbie Shannon, AmazonUS

“There are plenty of romances featuring cursed heroes trapped for centuries only to be freed by true love, but this is one of the better ones. I enjoyed the ambiguity surrounding Wulf’s history, plus the leading lovers’ questioning of their own feelings; are they truly in love or being manipulated by a spell to feel something that isn’t real? The addition of several other characters, such as Chalcey’s friends Sam and Jai certainly add to the plot, plus Chalcey’s mother’s role adds a nice twist. Her connection to the crystal warriors however didn’t prove the surprise it should have been considering what her name is. Also there are only a few brief descriptions of the other cursed warriors, but I look forward to learning more about them in the other books available in this series ‘Ruby’s Dream’ and ‘Jade’s Choice’.” ~ Book Addict, Amazon UK

“This is a real page turner. I literally could not put it down. Heart wrenching, humorous, and a whole lot of sexy. One of the best books I’ve read in a while.” ~ Hail to Dervish, iBooks

“Just found my new favorite author! Amazing book. Had me on the edge of my seat then sent me flying!” ~ Blondandkooky, iBooks

Fantastic, cannot believe its a freebie! This is a well written, full length paranormal romance (about 650 nook book pages). A few well placed sex scenes but not (thank you!) so much that you feel the story is lost and you are reading written porn. (I so get over that!) Characters were well flushed and the plot was captured perfectly. I didn’t want to put it down! I plan on purchasing the rest of the series and looking into her other series as well. Shades of Lara Adrian, JR Ward and Victoria Danaan can be felt in this novel. I highly recommend. Readers should be over the age of 16 due to brief sexual scenes. Beautifully written. Thank you, Ms. Anderson for this fantastic free book.” ~ Jennifer Keller, Barnes & Noble

Wonderful Surprise. I found a free copy of The Crystal Warrior and wasn’t expecting a lot. I was very surprised when the story hooked me from the first pages. The story is original, charming and the characters are very likeable and I couldn’t wait to read about the other warriors. I already have two more warrior stories in my kindle, waiting to be read. This book was a really nice surprise and I can’t wait to go back in to the warriors world and see what happens next.” ~ Reading Addict, Amazon

“A Cursed Warrior Seeking Redemption and a Disillusioned Dance Instructor Get A New Chance. I picked up this book because I thought the blurb sounded interesting and at the time it was free so I was willing to take a chance. I am so glad I did because I’ve now found a new series to enjoy. The world building of this story was very creative and refreshing when compared to the majority of romances with fantasy romance blended with the contemporary that are available out there. [...]  The characters were great. Chalsey is a blend of lots of things and as I said had a lot of growing to do. Wulf, even though he is the old time warlord with antiquated ideas about women, seems to adjust easier than Chalsey. He accepts the changes of a modern world even while retaining quite a bit of his warrior spirit and alpha male-ness. I loved Jai, Sam and Ezmeralda as the sidekicks they were almost scene stealers every time. Chalsey’s mother garnished little sympathy for me even when she came clean. She was a cold-blooded gal who made a decision that made me cringe when I read it and I hated her for actively trying to force her decision on Chalsey when their situations were very different (not that I don’t still condemn her for her own decision no matter the circumstances). [...] a good story that I recommend to those who enjoy contemporary romances involving a magical or fantasy element to them.” Read the full review from Sophia Rose, guest reviewer for Delighted Reader blog on Amazon.

“Just picked up the 1st book in the Crystal Warrior series via a free thang on All Romance. Tried to stay up and finish it last night and gave up at 3am. Finally finished it this afternoon after deciding that the washing and cleaning could wait. Wow… I really loved the characters in this. When I read the blurb I was not that interested in the sound of Chalcey – as in that I didn’t think I would be able to identify with a dance instructer. Okay, my mistake! I am so impressed with how you wrote a strong and independent woman who stood on her own two feet, took no crap from anyone and ran her own business. That I could identify with 100%. I read a lot of romance and I often feel that the women are not as strong as they could be and that they are simply part of a story that involves snaring some hot guy and getting a HEA- almost like their actual character is unimportant. So 5 stars and have some extra bonus cookies for writing a believable woman who I was rooting for. I wanted her business to be a success just as much as I wanted her to get the guy. And kudos for the plot twist. Usually they’re so obvious, but I didn’t see that one coming at all. I liked Chalcey’s friends and the family dynamics that helped shape her character. Wulf was a nice character too. (What’s not to like about a guy in leather?) He was a complex guy, but what I loved about him most was that you didn’t strip away his masculinity in order for him to ‘settle down’ and get his HEA. Too often books turn a bad boy into this domesticated mushy guy and strip away half of what made the character in the first place. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I really enjoyed the book. I’m off to buy #2. Keep up the great work.” ~ Catriona (via email, reprinted with permission)

“[...] I found this story refreshing. Chalcey wasn’t looking for love, she was intent on her business. She was an accomplished dancer with a dedicated staff and willing clientele. All she was missing was sufficient financing. I’ve read quite a few time travel type romances, and it is always interesting to see how the out-of-time person integrates into the new time. Wulf handled this well. He approached it as a warrior would a battle, just a different type of battle. It was interesting to watch. I am not a dancer, but I did enjoy the descriptions of the studio and the demonstration dances that Chalcey did with her dance partner. Almost made me want to sign up for a dance class.” ~ Read the full review from Heather Pearson on Amazon

“Okay, I picked this up as a freebie but I knew ahead of time that the writing would be good. My daughter is Lemon from the YA review blog [...] and she reviewed and loved Maree’s Freaks of Greenfield High. So I figured Crystal Warrior would be a safe bet -it was so much better than that! The characters are fun and well written, even the minor ones that don’t get a lot of face time (Samantha and Marcus need their own non-crystal story!) The villains are believable which sounds dumb but this is a contemporary story and let’s face it mustache twirling villains just throw everything off but you see them all the time in CR. Chalce is a girl after my own heart, even if I have two left feet. She fun and feisty but not so perky that you want to smack her every time she opens her mouth. When she hurt it felt real and not like -oh, this will last a page and then everything will be fine. Wulf manages to be a total alpha male -He’s from medieval times and an alien to boot! – but is a quick study in the art of seducing his woman. I loved this story and plan to read them all!” ~ Lisette Carrithers, via Amazon

“This book has it all, and leaves you wanting the next book in the series NOW! Chalcey is an independent woman who knows exactly what she wants, and how she plans to get it. She’s worked hard to achieve her dream, and isn’t about to let it go for the sexy stranger who rescues her from the Date from Hell. Even if he does make her pulse race, and her body ache for forbidden pleasures. Wulf is a Crystal Warrior, brought here by a magic neither he nor Chalcey truly understand. This is their story, and the author has crafted it with enough emotion, suspense and twists that I found it hard to put down. It’s easy to see why it won the Clendon Award! I sure hope Ms. Anderson doesn’t make us wait too long for the sequel!” ~ Anne Kane, Smashwords

“The Crystal Warrior is an intelligent, fast, action packed read with a feisty, sassy heroine Chalcedony and a really hunky hero, Wulfenite. This book has it all including laugh out loud humor, danger, twists and turns, and both protagonists have gut wrenching choices to be made that leave you wondering right to the very end as to whether Chalcey and Wulf will make it. I absolutely love the concept of the Crystal Warriors, and Wulf’s and Chalcey’s story is well plotted and a fantastic read that has you wanting more. Ms Anderson is an excellent writer. It’s very clear why this book won the prestigious The Clendon Award and I can’t wait to read more.” ~ rowenamaywrites, Amazon

“I thoroughly enjoyed The Crystal Warrior. No surprises that it won the RWNZ Clendon Award – everything about it was beautifully crafted. Characters felt real – even ancient warrior Wulf – and I loved the interaction between modern day independent heroine, Chalcey, and her hero. There was humour, angst, passion, the works! I am looking forward to the next book in Maree Anderson’s crystal warrior series.” ~ Jennifer Lynne, Goodreads

“The sexy alpha male hero had me hooked from the beginning and I loved the sassy heroine who tamed him (just enough). The plot unfolded at a fast page-turner pace. Finding The Crystal Warrior was like finding a Paranormal Romance Gem. I can’t wait for the next book in the series.” ~ BookLover1960, Amazon

“Do you love strong alpha heroes? If so, you’ll absolutely love The Crystal Warrior. The Crystal Warrior begins with a compelling prologue [...]  I knew immediately I had a great story on my hands. AND the writing was excellent, which is a must for me. [...] The chemistry between these two jumped off the page, and there was no putting The Crystal Warrior aside until I’d made it all the way through. Wulf is positively swoon-worthy, and Chalcedony was never the frail heroine, but fought for the one she loved until the very end. Loved it from the first page to the last!” ~ Read the full review from In The Book on Amazon

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Artwork

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

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The Crystal Warriors Series

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Read an excerpt from The Crystal Warrior

By Maree Anderson

 

Chapter One

Chalcey Laureano glanced at her Mickey Mouse watch. Fifteen minutes early. Fat chance the finance guru might already be here, waiting for her to arrive. He’d made it very clear his time was precious. She straightened her shoulders, plastered what she hoped resembled a confident smile on her face, and strode into the café….

And pivoted on her heel to walk straight back out the exit again. Her breath whooshed out in a ragged little whimper. She couldn’t do it. Couldn’t sit alone in that soulless, too-trendy café, pretending to be professional and calm and totally in control of her emotions. Couldn’t stomach any more angsting over operating statements and income projections. Reducing her dream of owning a successful dance studio, her passion, to mere numbers on a page? It sucked.

Right now, she’d rather be crawling ’round on her hands and knees, plugging holes in her studio’s floorboards. But she couldn’t blow off this meeting. She needed this loan.

For the gazillionth time she rifled through her handbag to reassure herself that she’d brought along all the required forms.

Yep.

Another glance at Mickey. Still thirteen minutes left. More than enough time to work herself into a tizzy. Why, oh why couldn’t she swallow her stupid pride and take Sam’s offer of an interest-free loan? Sam was a trust-fund baby. That girl had more money than she could spend in a lifetime and—

A blaze of sunlight refracting off the neighboring store’s window display washed Chalcey’s face. Wavering and flickering with a rainbow of colors, like some heat-induced mirage it beckoned—

And the next thing she knew, she’d spilled through the store’s open doorway, arms wheeling and heels screeching as she fought for balance on a gleaming polished floor.

Her eyes watered, dazzled by fiery, multi-colored brilliance. WTF? She blotted her face with her sleeve and blinked rapidly until she could focus. Okay, Chalcey. Calm down. Just a store selling rough-hewn gems, rocks, and crystals, and all the usual paraphernalia that went with them.

“And here you are at last,” said the weather-beaten elderly man perched on a chair behind the counter. At least, that’s what she thought he said.

He caught her gaze as he took a sip from a rather elaborate silver mug etched with complex designs. Her crazy heartbeat slowed and steadied as he abandoned the mug on the counter.

“How may I help you?” he asked, shuffling toward her and smiling with his entire face. Poor deluded soul probably figured she had money to spend.

“Thanks. But I’m, uh—” Trying to figure out how the heck I got here. Chalcey pulled her shit together and assumed the businesslike tone she’d been practicing in front of the mirror. “I’m just window shopping.”

His head bobbed on his scrawny neck. “As jackdaws are drawn to a shiny trinket, many curious visitors are drawn to my crystals. Unfortunately, few are willing to loosen their purse-strings enough to make a purchase.”

Uh oh. Busted. A flush burned her cheeks. She managed a tight smile and turned smartly on her heel. Sooo out of here.

His hand snaked out to grab her arm with a speed that belied his age. “Do not be so hasty, child. Please forgive an old man his ill-humor.” His bright blue eyes twinkled and his deeply seamed face cracked another broad grin. “You need not feel obliged to make a purchase. Please, browse and enjoy the fruits of my labors.”

Chalcey glanced first at his arthritic fingers clutching her arm, then at the clock on the wall. She still had a few minutes to kill. Where was the harm? She allowed him to usher her over to the window display.

“These crystals are no mere baubles to delight the eye,” he said. “Each should be approached with respect. They have been formed by the very birth of Earth itself and thus, each crystal is indelibly marked by the power of the force which created it.”

She couldn’t place his accent. It seemed strangely formal, out of place in the modern world. He droned on about his crystals, projecting such reassurance that she didn’t protest when he placed his hand under her wrist to wave her outstretched palm over some hunks of gemstone. “Feel the energy of the crystals, Chalcedony.”

Hang on. He knew her full name. How—?

Choose, Chalcedony.”

The frisson of alarm skittering down her spine was smothered in gentle, soothing waves of benevolence. It seemed completely natural—right—for her to do as he instructed. The last remaining tension drained from her body and as she relaxed, he released her, leaving her hand hovering over the gemstones.

A ripple of energy surged from one of the crystals, agitating the air beneath her palm. A sensation of knowing, of connection, smacked her. Warmth, like the afterglow of an expensive brandy, pooled in her belly. Emotions roiled around her, raw and intense and profoundly disturbing. She sensed despair, remorse, and such immeasurable hopelessness that her mind instinctively reached out. And then she was united with the crystal, empathizing with its pain, soothing it.

The dark emotions ebbed, replaced with curiosity, burgeoning hope and a sense of longing so powerful that she retreated, alarmed. But the crystal refused to relinquish its link to her. Its power licked through her mind and Chalcey couldn’t suppress her response. She wanted more—yearned for more—and the alien energy rejoiced. Its essence caressed her with gentle phantom fingers, the intimacy causing her to gasp. There was a moment’s respite before it exploded through her in an electrifying rush.

“Wulfenite!” A woman’s voice. Her own. Why was she screaming? She didn’t know, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything at all except succumb.

“Chalcedony!” A man’s voice this time, hoarse and raw.

Blackness ate her.

~*~

Chalcey peeled open her gluey eyelids and shook her head to clear hangover-style grogginess from her mind. The polished stainless steel decor of a café needled her cringing gaze. She bit back a squeal, rearing back from the table with enough force that she rocked her chair. Shit! How the hell had she ended up here?

The man she’d arranged to meet observed her antics with a frown and thin, tightly compressed lips.

Sickly dismay roiled in her stomach. Her heart plummeted to her toes. “M-Mr. Chapel! I, uh— I’m sorry, did you say something?”

“You dropped this on the table, Ms Laureano.” His nostrils flared as he brandished a palm-sized chunk of dirty-brown stone.

She took it from him, turning it over in her hands, frowning as she struggled to recall how she’d gotten the darned thing. She sure as heck didn’t remember paying actual money for it. Ohhh crap. Please, please don’t tell me I lifted it from the store next door.

“This? Um, I think it’s a crystal.” The child-caught-in-the-act squeak she heard in her voice made her wince. A missing chunk of memory and the possibility she had a new hobby: Shoplifting. Way to start off this meeting on a positive note. It’d been a hellishly stressful few months but…. Sheesh. Way to appear eminently worthy of a nice, fat, low-interest loan.

She stuffed the offending item in her handbag and when she glanced up, caught Mr. Chapel doing the nostril-flare again as he wiped his fingers thoroughly on a napkin.

Time for damage control. “I arrived a bit early for our appointment, you see, and I—”

“Quite. Well, that concludes our meeting.”

His tone was clipped and sharp and so very disapproving that Chalcey bit her lip. And then the full meaning of his words smacked her. “Huh? I mean, it does?”

He indicated the briefcase sitting on the spare chair at their table. “I have your income projections and all the required documentation. You’ve told me everything I could possibly need to know about your circumstances, Ms Laureano.”

“I have?” Oh, no. That couldn’t be good.

“I’ll call you in a few days regarding the lender’s final decision,” Mr. Chapel said. “Good day.” He cracked a semblance of a smile as he rose from his chair and held out his hand.

She stared at his manicured fingernails.

His eyebrows shot upward, forming little pinnacles of displeasure.

Heat bloomed on her face. She struggled gracelessly from her chair to shake his outstretched hand. “Right. Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you, Mr. Chapel. I look forward to hearing from you.”

He threw her another of those soullessly professional smiles as he adjusted his tie and tweaked the hem of his jacket over his bony ass. He snatched his briefcase, and with a glance at his fancy wristwatch, hurried out the door.

Obviously a very busy man was Mr. Chapel.

What were the chances that she’d made a really fantastic impression on him?

Probably nonexistent, considering she couldn’t recall a single thing she’d said to the man. Who, despite sounding very encouraging over the phone, in person made even Chalcey’s asshole of a bank manager seem sympathetic. She could only hope she was reading far too much into the abrupt way he’d ended the meeting. Perhaps he used that tone with all his potential clients. After all, she was in effect begging him for money.

She flopped back into her chair, grimacing as the stylishly uncomfortable metal frame grated her spine. As she toyed with her water glass, her gaze skittered across the tabletop and lit on the crisp bills placed so very precisely across the café docket. Mr. Chapel had already settled up his bill—not that she could remember him eating or drinking anything. The last thing she remembered was being in that funny little store, waving her hand over bunch of crystals like some freaking New Age hippy. Weird. The stress of the past few months had obviously come back to bite her on the ass at the worst possible moment.

She delved into her bag to check the contents of her wallet. Just enough cash for coffee and a muffin, plus the credit card she kept for emergencies. No new receipts. Hmmm. She drummed her fingernails on the tabletop, nervy and unsettled. Something weird had happened to her in that crystal store. Something profound. And if she’d believed in woo-woo stuff, she might have concluded she’d been hypnotized. The pragmatic side of her snickered at that fanciful thought.

The waitress swooped in to collect the cash and clear the table. Chalcey pulled her fractured thoughts together and asked for her check. She copped a sideways look and raised eyebrows—the kind people gave someone who was losing it. “You didn’t order anything, ma’am. There’s nothing more to settle up.”

“Oh. Okay. Thanks.”

Now what? Uncharacteristically, the last thing she felt like right now was coffee. Not when her stomach was swooping with nervy unease. First thing on the agenda, have a chat with the old guy and find what the deal was with the damned crystal. And, if she really lucked out, perhaps he could shed some light on whatever the heck was up with her.

She exited the café. It was an effort to walk rather than give into the growing panic that threatened, and run flat out. She hung a hard right at the door, all the while rehearsing her defense in the event she had actually stolen the crystal from the poor old guy.

She needn’t have bothered. There was no sign of the store. Or its owner.

A cold worm of dread slimed her skin. She wrapped her arms about her middle, shivering, struggling to process the truth of what she was seeing. Namely, a fancy designer boutique immediately to the right of the café, and an even fancier antique store to the left.

Oh God. She really was losing it.

She shook off the numbness of disbelief and forced herself to move. The store had to be somewhere nearby. She couldn’t have imagined it.

She wandered the entire block in vain. She even stooped to questioning snooty store assistants, enduring one sneering put-down after another. Doubtless they all thought she was certifiable but she kept at it, until even her particular brand of stubbornness was reduced to a whine of protest. No one recalled the crystal store she described. It was as though the store, and its mysterious owner, had been conjured up by her fertile imagination.

Defeated, she slumped against a storefront window to catch her breath. Was it too much to hope this had all been a dream, and it was early morning, and she’d wake in her bedroom out back of the studio? She pinched her arm. Hard. But her bizarre reality didn’t magically change for the better.

As a last resort, she opened her bag to check that the hunk of crystal she’d somehow acquired really did exist.

There it was, right at the bottom, vying for space with her brush, a packet of tissues, and a tube of lip gloss—rock-solid evidence that something weird had gone down. Her head reeled as she sought valid explanations for something so out there, she couldn’t even imagine trying to explain it to anyone. But there was no logical explanation for the time she’d lost. Wasn’t like the old guy had had the opportunity to slip her a roofie. And even if he had, why? What was his motive?

Reality check. The meeting with Mr. Chapel was already done and dusted. Nothing she could do about it now so there was little point in fretting. Plus, there was a heap of work to do at the studio. It was time to head home, put this whole experience behind her, and hope that after a decent night’s sleep it’d all make sense.

She wiggled her cramped toes in the low heeled pumps she’d bought to go with the cheap suit. Should have gone with a pair of old dance shoes. Sure, the pavement would have ruined the soles but at least they would have been more comfortable than these cheap crappy things. She shouldered her bag, and started walking.

When she rounded the final street corner she paused to gaze up at the Laureano’s Dance Studio sign. The space was perfect. She’d known it the instant she laid eyes on it. And, after months of backbreaking physical work, the basic refurbishment was nearly complete. Her opening-night party advertisement had run in the local papers and everything was good to go.

Tears stung her eyes. She was so damn close to achieving her dream she could taste the syrupy sweetness of success on her tongue. She could almost hear her dad’s voice launching into his favorite pep talk about how Chalcey could do anything she set her mind to. He’d given her the Mickey Mouse watch as a gift after her first dance recital at the tender age of six. He would have been so proud of her.

The sweetness faded, leaving behind the bitter aftertaste of anxiety. The lease and renovation costs, and even her own meager living expenses, had eaten through the small legacy her dad had left her. And now that she’d finally convinced her dance partner, Jai, to ditch his straitlaced ballroom studio and come teach with her, she had an employee to worry about, too. If class numbers didn’t reach her expectations….

But she wasn’t going to think about worst case scenarios right now. Mr. Chapel’s cronies would come through with the loan she needed to ease her temporary cash flow woes. Why wouldn’t they? Her stomach rebelled with a lazy somersault. Why wouldn’t they, indeed.

~*~

“Why the heck aren’t you ready?” Sam’s outraged screech careened through the studio and made Chalcey jump like a startled cat. She glanced up to see Sam approaching, and sucked in a sharp breath in preparation for some screeching of her own. “Stop right there!” She reared on her knees, menacing Sam with her pallet knife. “Lose the shoes or I’ll do you bodily harm!”

“Huh?” Sam froze, deer-in-headlights startled.

“Your fuck-me-big-boy spike heels—” she waved the knife at Sam to better emphasize her words “—are gouging holes in my floorboards. How many times do I have to tell you about heel protectors?”

Sam kicked off her shoes and surveyed Chalcey, hands on curvy hips, Botoxed brow doing its darnedest to wrinkle. “You’ve forgotten.”

“Forgotten what?”

“It’s Friday.”

“Oh, yeah. Well, now you’re here in person, Happy Birthday, hon. Muwah!” Chalcey blew her a kiss. “See? I didn’t forget.”

Sam waved a dismissive hand. “We’re going clubbing. Tonight. To celebrate.”

“Clubbing? No dice, girlfriend. Got too much to do.” Chalcey crawled over to plug one of the holes Sam’s heels had made with a smear of wood-filler, smoothing it carefully with the pallet knife before moving on to the next one. Thank goodness Sam had only taken a few steps before losing the shoes. Chalcey had nearly finished filling all the holes, and she ached in places she didn’t know could ache. The thought of going back over what she’d already done was just about more than she could bear.

“God, Chalce, you’re freaking hopeless. You promised.”

Chalcey sat back on her heels and worried her lower lip with her teeth. “When?”

“A couple of weeks back. DVD night?”

“Ah. Right.” Damn. It was all coming back to her now. And in her defense, after downing a couple of Sam’s designer cocktails, a girl would promise the soul of her firstborn. “I’m really sorry, hon, but I don’t feel up to partying tonight. I’ve, uh, had some bad news.”

Chalcey ducked her head, concentrating on the floor in the hopes Sam wouldn’t notice how close she was to bawling. A scoop of filler, a swipe of her knife over the gouge in the old, battered wood, press firmly, and smooth before scraping off the excess. Automaton-like, she shuffled from hole to hole, performing the mundane task with single-minded concentration. Which was way the hell better than dwelling on that horrible phone call from Mr. Chapel.

Silence. Then the swish of Sam’s skirt as she crouched. Her hideously expensive floral scent tickled Chalcey’s nose.

“You got turned down for the loan, huh?”

Chalcey peered at her friend through bird’s-nest hair. “You psychic or something?”

Sam squeezed her shoulder. “Hell. That really sucks. Anything I can do?”

She hadn’t offered Chalcey the money she needed, thank God. Sam didn’t make the same mistake twice. She knew Chalcey needed to do this all herself, without anyone’s help. Prove to her mother and her mother’s know-it-all husband once and for all that she could turn this “silly dream” into a viable business.

She blotted her brimming eyes with the back of a dusty hand. “I’ll get through this,” she said, more for her own benefit than Sam’s. Maybe if she said it often enough, it’d be true. “It’s no biggie—I’ll still make the first lease payment. It just means I’ll have to forget about finding an apartment any time soon. And if I pull some additional advertising I’d planned, and don’t take Paulo and Leah on board until next year—”

Her shoulders sagged at the thought of breaking the news to the enthusiastic couple. They were superb dancers, and had the potential to be excellent teachers. “They’ll be gutted but they’ll understand. Means I’ll have to work heaps longer hours than I expected but— Yeah. Anyway, I’ll manage. Though I’m kinda wishing I hadn’t spent up large on those fancy shower units.”

Sam snorted. “If I was all hot and sweaty after a dance class, I’d sure as heck want to shower and change before I headed out for the night. You’ve got a fitness club kind of setup, now. It’s classy—a huge draw-card for students. Which is why you did it. And please don’t tell me you’re cancelling the opening night party on Monday. You have to go ahead with that. It’s too good an opportunity to sign up people for classes.”

Chalcey summoned a weary smile. “You’re right.”

“Good.” Having straightened Chalcey out to her satisfaction, Sam bounced to her feet and smoothed her skirt down her thighs. “Hurry up and get ready. You need to get plastered. Have a good time and forget all about this for just one night. Besides, I’m pretty sure I mentioned that you promised.”

A moan escaped Chalcey’s lips. “Do I have to?”

“Yeah, you do.”

“You know I don’t do clubbing.”

“You think you got problems? I’m a whole year older. Hell, I think I found a gray hair this morning. You’re my best friend and I’m relying on you to help me commiserate. C’mon. It’ll be fun. A heap more fun than the fancy birthday dinner my mother has planned for me Wednesday week at Adagio.”

Adagio was the hottest new restaurant in town. Chalcey would never in a million years be able to afford to eat there. “But your birthday’s today,” she said.

“Mom couldn’t get in any earlier—and that didn’t go down well at all, I’m telling you. Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.” Sam snickered. “I’m told it’s my birthday gift, and it’s gonna be just me and Mommy Dearest. Won’t that be fun. Not.”

Chalcey appreciated Sam’s attempts to cheer her up—really she did. But as of right now she was time-poor and cash-poor. “Since we’re being painfully honest, bottom line? I can’t afford to go out on the town.”

“My treat.”

Chalcey tried another tack. “I’ve got people coming in to wax the floor tomorrow lunchtime. And I had to pay extra for them to work Saturday. The filler from there, back—” she waved a hand to indicate half the studio “—has hardened enough for me to sand, and if I get it done tonight, it’ll leave me less to do in the morning.”

“I’ll help you with the sanding tomorrow morning.”

“You? Up before noon on a Saturday?” Chalcey’s gaze lingered on Sam’s purple-lacquered nails. “And sanding floors with those talons? Riiight.”

“I will, I promise.” Sam clutched both hands before her chest, prayer-like. “Pleeease!”

“All right, all right.” Chalcey threw up her hands. “I give in. But only because I’ve finished plugging holes, and only because you’re a pain in the ass when you don’t get your way. And you have to promise to get me home by one at the latest. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Give me a half-hour to shower and change, and I’ll be right with you.”

Sam treated her to a Samantha Greenwood once over, and wrinkled her nose. “Take as long as you need, okay?”

Apparently her dust-smudged clothes and filthy hands were not particularly reassuring. “Thirty minutes is all I need,” Chalcey said. “It’s your birthday. Doesn’t matter what I look like.”

Sam waggled her perfectly plucked eyebrows and made a show of leering at Chalcey’s chest. “With that rack, you’d show me up even if you wore a sack and— Hmmm.” A pregnant pause if ever Chalcey had heard one. “I’ve just thought of the perfect present you can give me.”

Chalcey climbed to her feet, and stood massaging the small of her back. “Free Salsa lessons?”

Sam cocked her head to one side, pursing her lips and considering the offer. “If you can promise me a hot dance-partner—one who looks as hot as Jai, but isn’t gay—then I might just consider signing on. But I insist on paying.” She waggled her finger like a teacher lecturing a student. “If you keep offering your friends free classes you’ll never get this place in the black. No, I was thinking.”

Uh oh. Wait for it—

“Why don’t you let me choose your outfit for tonight?”

Chalcey closed her eyes and prayed for salvation, all too aware that her dreams of wearing something comfortable were about to go up in smoke. “What’s wrong with what I usually wear?”

“Skanky old jeans and a t-shirt?”

Ouch. Just as well they were best friends. She’d hate to think what Sam might have said otherwise. She opened her eyes and speared Sam with a you-have-no-freaking-idea look. “I have to dress up and look the part for every single frickin’ class I teach. Is it any wonder I can’t be bothered tarting myself up in my downtime?”

“How ’bout a dress to show off your killer legs?” Sam wheedled. “Guys’ll take one look and be all over us.”

“They’ll be all over you more like.”

She pouted. “For me? Pretty please?”

Sam was a five-foot-two package of man-eating gorgeousness. Tonight she’d paired the hooker-worthy heels with a deep purple dress that had a tight bodice and sinfully short flirty skirt. She looked spectacular. She always looked spectacular—it was coded in her DNA.

Of course Chalcey caved under the relentless pressure of that cutesy damn but-it’s-my-birthday pout. She jerked her chin toward the pokey storerooms she’d converted to a barely adequate bedroom, only slightly more adequate office-cum-lounge, and a pocket-handkerchief-sized kitchenette. “Fine. Whatever. Have at it. At least I won’t have to listen to you harping on about my dress sense all evening. But the rack with my dancewear is off-limits, okay?”

Sam’s green eyes glinted. “Deal.”

Should have known Sam would win this one, Chalcey thought ruefully as she slid into a booth at the Cabana Club. She’d been conned into wearing a costume. Specifically, a costume intended for a dance competition. Sam—damn her beady little eyes!—had found the thing stuffed away in the bottom of a drawer, all but forgotten.

Almost worse than the dratted dress was the lack of what Chalcey considered appropriate, non-breezy underwear. And that was a whole ’nother sad story featuring laddered hose, and starring her not having done her laundry in far too long.

She glanced down at her sparkly self and grimaced. Again. Her ex dance partner had bought the costume for her a few years ago. Talk about scandalous masquerading as a dress. What had he been thinking?

Okay. She had half a brain so she knew exactly what he’d been thinking. But like she’d have lowered her standards and worn this piece of trashy flash for a competition. Or slept with him just because he’d bought her a hideously expensive dress—and made sure she’d known exactly how much it’d cost by leaving price tag attached. Way to be classy. He’d been a total jerk-wad about her not putting out, too. Boy, had she ever misjudged him. Dumping his ass only a month before a competition had been a singular delight.

She focused her glare on her perilously-close-to-being-ex best friend. Sam gyrated with uninhibited abandon to the horrendous booming that passed for music in this club. Sam didn’t need Chalcey to lure men to her, they took one look and came running. Panting with tongues lolling, even. As she pranced off the dance floor with her two latest victims in tow, she caught Chalcey’s gaze. And smiled. With “look what I’ve found for us!” delight shining in her eyes.

Chalcey scooted across the leather booth-style seating, intent on making a dash for the Ladies, and knocked her battered old handbag—the only handbag she owned—to the floor.

Aw, heck! She dove under the table, scrabbling for the contents that had spilled all over the place.

“Nice ass,” a male voice said.

The owner of the voice was a good-looking blond sporting a not-so-good-looking leer. Great. Just freaking great. Seemed today was her day for making excellent first impressions.

Chalcey scooped her wallet, the crystal, and a tube of lip gloss into her bag, and crawled out from under the table. She didn’t need to glimpse herself in a mirrored wall panel to know that her face was fire-engine red as she tugged the short skirt down over her butt, and resumed her seat with as much dignity as she could muster. Which wasn’t much.

Sam’s eyes sparkled with mirth as she squeezed in next to Chalcey and grabbed her cocktail. “Ducking for cover, huh?”

“Of course not.”

“Mmmm.” By the time Sam had gone down on the cherry decorating her cocktail and finally popped it into her mouth, the blond was slack-jawed and practically salivating.

“Chalcey’s a really great dancer, Ray,” Sam told him. “She owns her own dance studio. Isn’t that, like, so cool? Hey,” she prompted with such transparent obviousness that Chalcey cringed. “Why don’t you ask her to dance so she can show you some of her moves?”

To Chalcey’s surprise, the blond—Ray—didn’t appear too disappointed to be fobbed off with the booby prize. “Let’s go show ’em how it’s done, eh, babe?”

Chalcey glared at Sam, shooting imaginary daggers out of her eyes, but her attempt at malevolence was blitzed by Sam’s pleading puppy-dog gaze. Sam wanted alone time with the other guy she’d hooked. And Sam was the birthday-girl, after all.

She blew out a defeated sigh. “Okay.”

Ray dragged her toward the dance floor. “Babe!” he said, as he copped the full effect of Chalcey’s dress and all its low-cut glitzy glory. “Some outfit.”

“Gee. Thanks.” She favored him with a saccharine smile and fought the impulse to turn tail and flee for home. Boy-next-door good looks aside, the heavy-lidded way he kept looking her over made her skin crawl. Pity Sam hadn’t pushed the dark-haired, brooding type with the Van Dyke beard her way instead. He gave the impression he was capable of holding a real conversation. Maybe it was a sign Sam’s taste in men was improving. One could always hope.

She began to shuffle from foot to foot in time to the music. “I’m Chalcedony, by the way.” She had to lean in to him to be heard over the noise.

“Huh?” He was so busy ogling her barely covered cleavage that he didn’t hear her.

Gee. A breast man. Lucky her. “Just call me Chalcey,” she yelled, thankful at least he wasn’t the touchy feely— “Eep!”

Ray cupped her butt in his hands and ground his groin against her. Probably imagined that he was doing the Lambada. God save her from amateurs.

When he wasn’t grinding, he squeezed her butt in perfect time to the beat of the music. Gosh, was that supposed to win him points? Enough already. She wasn’t big on scenes, but nor was she going to put up with some guy she’d just met pawing her. She ground the lethally pointed heel of her sandal into his instep and pushed him away, making it quite clear her actions had been deliberate.

He staggered, glaring at her through watering eyes. “Bitch! What’s your fucking problem, Chel-sea? Thought you were gagging for it.”

Wonder where he’d gotten that idea? Stupid dress. She silently cursed her ex dance partner for his slutty taste in costumes. And herself, too, because if she hadn’t been feeling so tired and depressed about the loan being declined, she would have put up more of a fight.

The pair of dancers closest to Chalcey took one look at her expression and gave her some space. She sucked in what was supposed to be a deep, calming breath. And got even more riled when Ray couldn’t tear his gaze from her chest. Just because she hadn’t seen any action in a couple of years, didn’t mean she would jump any half-decent-looking guy who showed an interest. A girl had to have standards and Chalcey’s were pretty high. She was hanging out for the perfect man… if such an animal truly existed. And Ray wasn’t anywhere near a close contender. He was shaping up to be an ass-hat of monumental proportions.

“Even if I was gagging for it, I don’t appreciate being treated like a piece of meat.”

He sneered, his upper lip doing an impressive curl. “Cockteasers like you really piss me off.”

Excuse me?”

“Whaddya expect? Don’t put it out there if you’re not offering. Yanno what I’m saying?”

“Gee, you sure know how to compliment a girl.” Chalcey bared her teeth in what was probably a truly hideous parody of a smile. Unfortunately, Ray didn’t take the hint and run screaming into the night.

To hell with him. She turned her back on him and marched straight back to her seat. It was so time to make tracks.

“You two seem to be getting on all right.” Sam dragged her attention from Ray’s hopefully less sleazy friend to wink at Chalcey. “Ray’s a babe, right, Chalce?”

Chalcey gave Ray-the-babe another once-over as he slunk back to his seat. Around six-foot. Hair a shade of blond most women would open a vein to possess. Blue eyes. Great physique. Shame about the toxic personality. “I don’t think we’re exactly compatible. Listen, I’m gonna head home. Got an early start tomorrow, remember?”

“But it’s just gone eleven-thirty,” Sam said. “Another hour?”

Chalcey shook her head. Sam wasn’t going to railroad her a second time. “It’s been a rough day.”

Sam held her gaze and gracefully conceded. She knew Chalcey well enough to know when she was fighting a losing battle. “See you tomorrow, then, huh? Bright and early? And promise me you’ll take a taxi home.” She flicked open her evening bag.

Chalcey flushed. She didn’t do well with charity. “Thanks, Mom, but I don’t need cab money. I’m a big girl and I—”

“You sure are.” Ray sniggered and nudged the other man. “Tits on a stick, eh, Marcus?”

“I can take care of myself.” God. Sam could sure pick ’em.

“Quit being an asshole,” Marcus said to Ray, winning some major kudos for coming to Chalcey’s defense. He seemed like a pretty decent guy. If Sam went home with anyone tonight, Chalcey sure hoped it would be him.

Ray made some smart comeback and Chalcey made her getaway, leaving Sam to soothe both men’s egos with her usual flair. They wouldn’t realize what had hit them.

She ignored speculative glances from a group of guys hanging ’round out front of the club. Damned dress had a lot to answer for. Mind you, given her chest measurement, so did her gene-pool. She rummaged through her bag, half-hoping for a miracle in the form of a previously unnoticed wad of cash. No such luck. The inner depths revealed one worse than useless hunk of crystal, the usual assorted junk, and the wallet containing a pathetically small amount of cash plus her emergency credit card.

She could strangle her stupid pride, head back inside and accept the cab fare from Sam— Nah. Damned if she’d put up with a certain foulmouthed sleazoid again. An emergency this definitely wasn’t, so a brisk stroll home it would have to be.

Once she’d left the main street behind, Chalcey regretted her decision. Big-time. The shadows thrown by the empty warehouses, so innocuous during daylight hours, morphed into spooky watchers eyeing her as prey. She quickened her pace.

Those aren’t footsteps behind you, okay? Don’t look back. Don’t look back—

She dared a quick glance over her shoulder. Shit. There was someone behind her. A man. So shrouded by shadows she could barely make him out. Wait. He was turning down an alley, headed toward a group of warehouses. Just some guy going about his business—like she was. He wasn’t following her. He had no reason to be interested in someone like her.

Panic over. She slumped against a chain-link fence to catch her breath. Okay, okay, to scold her fertile imagination and wildly thudding heart into submission.

Chalcey was confident she could hold her own against most people. She wouldn’t have walked home alone, otherwise. She was no too-stupid-to-live character in a horror movie—no way. She was taller than average, and years of dancing had given her a few more muscles than the average girl, too. Plus all the dancing meant she was ultra-fit, so she could run pretty damn fast if required. As a last resort, she always carried ’round so much junk in her handbag, one solid wallop with it would knock anyone’s brains for six. But walking home alone in the dark, imagining big bad maniacs with all manner of nasty intentions, wasn’t for her. She wouldn’t be doing this again in a hurry.

Lesson learned. If you’re too damned proud to accept the fare from your best friend, then do the smart thing and always keep aside enough cash for a taxi. Hah. Guess I’m not that much of a badass after all.

The grumble of a car engine snagged her attention. Headlights lit up the sparkly material of her dress like some flashy Christmas tree ornament. The vehicle slowed as it approached and the driver leaned out the open window. “Hey, babe. Need a lift?”

Great. A different kind of nasty. “No thanks, Ray. I’m nearly home.”

“Awww, c’mon. You’re not still pissed about our little misunderstanding are you?”

“Haven’t given you a second thought.”

He frowned, probably mulling over whether he’d just been insulted. “It’s what I said about your tits, huh? Sheesh. Cut a guy a break. It was meant as a compliment. Let me drive you home—show you what a real nice guy I am.”

“Gee, let me think. No thanks.” She continued walking. Sam had obviously made her choice and it wasn’t Ray. Hence him out trolling for someone else to play with. How many other girls had he come on to at the club before he got desperate enough to come looking for her? The mind boggled.

His car purred along beside her, matching her pace. He obviously wasn’t the type to give up in a hurry. Time for some plain talking. “Look, Ray. I’m just not interested, okay? You’re so not my type.”

“Pity, ’coz with those tits, you so are mine.” He giggled, a high-pitched, incongruous sound coming from such a buff guy.

Chalcey didn’t respond. She focused straight ahead, keeping her pace not too slow, not too fast, projecting a confidence she hoped she could maintain.

The car slowed and fell behind. She risked a glance behind her and saw it pulling over to the curb. Ray got out and leaned on the door, striking a pose. “Think you’re too good for the likes of me, huh?” he called.

“Go home, Ray.”

He sauntered toward her. “Don’t be like that. You and me, babe. How ’bout I show you a real good time?”

“I don’t think so.” She increased her pace to a full-out march and, just her damned luck, caught the heel of her shoe in a crack in the pavement. The heel snapped right off, throwing her forward onto hands and knees. “Owww!” To add insult to injury, her handbag went flying.

Ray reached her before she could scramble back to her feet. He grabbed her arms and hauled her up on tiptoes so that her body was plastered against his. “Aw, you hurt yourself, huh? Let Ray kiss it better.”

His face loomed closer. Chalcey jerked her chin aside. Yeah, he was strong but she could take him. Not to mention insure that he thought twice about forcing his attentions on any other woman. She’d had a gutful of men who assumed a girl was begging to be pawed just because she had a larger than average cup size and wore something a bit revealing. Well, okay, a lot revealing. But it didn’t matter what she happened to be wearing, he was way out of line. She’d show him. And while she was at it, she wouldn’t feel the slightest bit guilty about taking all her frustrations about the male of the species out on him, either.

She could easily have broken his grip. There were three simple and very effective maneuvers she’d learned in self-defense classes a couple of years back that she could use in this situation. Instead, she pretended to give in, melting into his arms, tempting him to relax and let down his guard so she could hit him where it hurt and deal to him in a way he wouldn’t forget in a hurry. She didn’t have quite enough leverage to knee him in the balls—yet. And she’d only have one chance at making that maneuver count. If it didn’t work, it was no biggie. She’d simply resort to some of the other dirty stuff she’d been taught, stuff that would leave a guy in a moaning sniveling heap on the ground.

He mashed his lips onto hers.

Ick.

His tongue probed her mouth.

Double ick! There sooo was a bottle of mouthwash with her name on it when she got home.

His grip eased up… so he could grope her breasts. Huh. Why did that particular move not surprise her?

While he was occupied, she toed off her useless damn sandals. She’d found her balance and was preparing to carry out Plan A to devastating effect, when an ear-splitting roar sounded behind her.

She froze.

A shadow loomed. It ripped Ray away from her.

“Aaargh!” Ray flew through the air and landed in a sprawling heap on the pavement. He groaned and lay still.

Chalcey sucked in a shaky breath and confronted the shadow’s chest. She gazed up. And up some more. Until she locked eyes with an incredibly large, incredibly furious man, who threw back his head and bellowed so forcefully that the tendons in his neck distended.

~*~

Chapter Two

Whoa. Chalcey mentally fanned herself so she didn’t do something stupid. Like hyperventilate, and get all dizzy and fall on her ass. He’d been poured into those scarred leather pants. And as for the chest-hugging leather vest and shit-kicker boots…. Lord have mercy. He looked like a warrior king of old. He could have stepped right out of one of her private nighttime fantasies.

He turned his back on her and stalked toward Ray. The stiffness of his spine, and the rhythmic clenching and unclenching of his fists, screamed deadly intent and purpose.

Oh no. This could get out of hand real quick. She wasn’t the sort who’d stand helplessly by, wringing her hands in dismay, while a guy got pulped—not even if he did deserve it.

“Hey!” She darted forward and clutched her rescuer’s arm, hauling him around to face her.

His gaze latched onto hers again, ensnaring her. She couldn’t look away. Her heart raced, its beat echoing manically in her ears. Her bare skin prickled as though he’d run cool, caressing fingers down her flesh. She flushed with heat as parts lower down clenched and throbbed with lust. Her body responded to him, cried out for him, even though she’d never met him before in her life.

“Who—?” Her question died when he grabbed her and planted a kiss on her lips that stole her breath.

He speared his fingers through her hair to cup the back of her skull with one big hand. He held her immobile and lowered his mouth to hers again. This time his kiss was hungry, demanding, brutally intense. She was so stunned that she didn’t even try to struggle. He took her mouth as though he would brand her as his own. And she would have let him mark her. Hell, she would stoop to begging!

When her legs wobbled, he clasped her so tightly against his body that she was forced up on tiptoes. She stared into his eyes. So intensely blue… like the sky viewed from a mountaintop on a crystal-clear day.

His mouth hardened on hers, forcing her lips apart so that he could thrust his tongue inside her mouth. Still she didn’t protest. Her head spun. Her eyelids drifted shut. She became a creature of pure sensation. There was only him and her. His lips on hers, her body pressed against his. Her yearning for him to fill a gaping hole in her soul that she’d not realized existed before now. His needs and wants and desires, all of them focused upon her, all of them centered around her. The rest of the world dissolved beneath his sensual assault. Nothing else mattered. Nothing but him.

“Hey!” somebody—Ray—shouted. “Who the fuck d’ya think you are?”

Chalcey blinked. The hulking great hunky stranger, the one who had dealt to the sleaze-bag mauling her, was now… well… mauling her. Did she have “Grope Me” tattooed on her forehead, or something? What was with this guy? He was just as bad as Ray.

So she did what any self-respecting girl who’s had enough of men would do—even if the man was an incredibly hot one who kissed like there was no tomorrow. She totally overreacted. She grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked his head back. And kept on yanking until he quit kissing her and released her enough that she slid down his body. The instant that she had her balance, she drew back her arm and punched him in the face. Hard. Putting all her strength and the power of her body behind it.

He grunted and backed off.

“I don’t know you from a bar of soap. Where the hell do you get off thinking you can manhandle me?” She flexed her fingers, shaking out the pain as she squinted at him, trying to spot where she’d hit him. She’d been aiming for his nose but he’d angled his head at the last second and she’d missed her target. The cheek, perhaps? A reddened patch of skin was the only evidence.

His gaze suggested that he was more shocked that she’d dared hit him than hurt. Huh. Obviously she hadn’t punched him as hard as she’d thought. And she didn’t quite know whether to be relieved she hadn’t done him serious harm, or majorly pissed that she hadn’t defended herself more effectively.

“Nice move, babe.” Ray peeled himself off the pavement. He limped toward The Warrior, as Chalcey had christened her would-be rescuer-turned-victim in a fit of inappropriate whimsy. All semblance of boy-next-door good looks had fled, leaving Ray’s features twisted and ugly.

In one hand he clutched a wicked looking knife.

The unholy glee lurking in his eyes sickened her. She lost it. She saw red—literally, for her vision became washed in a blood-red haze. “Stuff your ego back in your pants and fuck off, Ray!” Her shout hung in the air, unnaturally loud and menacing in the stillness. “And while you’re at it, how about you stuff that stupid knife where the sun don’t shine, too.”

Ray sized her up as though testing her resolve. She straightened her spine and socked him with the “I’m totally serious so don’t piss with me!” evils.

He resorted to what passed for charm for a guy like him. “Just wanted to give you a lift home. Was worried about ya, babe. ’Specially with assholes like him looking for some hot tail to tap.”

“For fuck’s sake, spare me the ‘I’m such a gentleman’ routine, Ray. You and I both know it’s a crock. Piss off.”

Ray’s gaze cut to the man behind Chalcey, as if sizing up his opponent. Then he had the nerve to turn his full attention back to her and leer at her chest. “Shoulda told me you liked it rough, babe. I can do rough.”

“Be gone, scum,” a voice rumbled from directly behind her. “The woman is mine.”

“Excuse me?” Chalcey glanced over her shoulder at The Warrior, and before she could so much as squeak, he grabbed her and thrust her behind him.

Ray lunged at him. A scream ripped from Chalcey’s throat. The Warrior slapped the knife from Ray’s hand, sending it skidding across the pavement. Then he grabbed Ray by the scruff of the neck and tossed him aside like he weighed nothing. Again.

Ray scrabbled about on all fours, shaking his head like a confused dog. The Warrior stood legs planted wide, arms akimbo, lips curled in a derisive sneer. “Do you wish to try that again, scum? I do not believe that you will provide much of a fight but I find myself in the mood for some light entertainment.”

Huh. The Warrior was goading Ray.

Men! Testosterone-fueled dickwads.

Well, she refused to provide these two with an audience while they beat on each other. She made a beeline for the knife and crouched to pick it up between thumb and forefinger. A full-body shudder racked her. Nasty. It was so going in the Dumpster. She stood on tiptoe and tossed it in. The foul stench of the garbage made her gag but it was all good. Ray wouldn’t be keen on jumping in to retrieve it any time soon.

Next on the agenda was her handbag. She peered around until she spotted it, stalked over and bent to snatch it from the ground, then kept on walking. There. Just like that she’d wiped her hands of Ray and The Warrior.

It was a pretty good plan except, fool that she was, she couldn’t resist glancing back.

The Warrior had twisted Ray’s arm behind his back. His piercing blue gaze caught hers and, as he forced Ray to his knees, they shared a moment. A really intense “you’re gonna be mine, all mine!” moment.

Commonsense finally crawled out from whatever hole it’d been cowering in, and Chalcey took off at a flat-out run. Jerk-off Ray she could handle, but this guy? Not so much.

All the way home thoughts of him haunted her. His eyes, that expression on his face as she’d turned away—she’d never seen a man look so bereft. And as she searched for her keys to unlock the street door to her studio, she was forced to admit another truth. Never in all her twenty-five years, had she experienced such instant, gut-wrenching wanting for a man.

 

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

The Crystal Warrior by Maree Anderson

© Copyright 2011,  Maree Anderson

www.mareeanderson.com/books/the-crystal-warrior

www.thecrystalwarrior.com

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