She was the first woman to turn him down.
CEO-turned-rancher Curran Shaw is no stranger to hard work, but women have never required much effort. When a mysterious brunette at a resort-town Halloween party sparks his interest and then vanishes, he vows to finish what she started. It’s finding her that’s going to be the hard part.
He was her fantasy, and that’s all he could ever be.
Victoria Linden has reconstructed her life and soul from the devastation wrought by an abusive ex and her own failures. She desperately wants to be loved, but what man will agree to the control and limitations she needs in order to hold herself together? Especially a man like Curran, who’s used to getting whatever he wants. Walking away from him after a searing kiss is her only option.
When serendipity brings them together in the snowy mountains of Utah, will Victoria and Curran be able to mend the fences in their hearts, or will discovery and heartbreak tear them apart?
Available in paperback and as an ebook.
Note: While there are some crossover characters between this book and Finding Refuge, each stands alone.
Excerpt: Chapter One
Curran Shaw treasured his anonymity, but maintaining it required solitude. And the damned solitude was killing him.
Sanctuary presented itself on Halloween in the form of a massive party at a local club. The event promised fulfillment of his primary needs at the moment—a mass of humanity surrounding him, buoying him up, plus the nameless, faceless facade provided by costume-only admittance.
He arrived late, saving himself a long wait in line to enter Brindle’s. He paid his cover charge in cash. No sense in flashing a card with his name emblazoned on the front. Notable names and faces appeared with some regularity in the Park City area, so staff members, such as the skinny young man cashiering tonight, generally said nothing when they recognized him. Still, being recognized at all bothered him. He’d grown accustomed to no longer seeing his name and photo in the tabloids, but there was always a chance some reporter’s curiosity about his disappearing act would set the bloodhounds on his trail.
For tonight, a black, hooded cloak and a leather mask covering his face down to the tip of his nose rendered him unidentifiable.
He stepped through the main doors into the club. Pulsating flashes of color ripped through the dimly lit interior, reflecting off the polished walls and churning through the fog on the floor, cutting through the starlight cast from a mirrored disco ball spinning above the central dance arena. Whiffs of different perfumes, bubblegum from the fog machines, sweat from the bodies crowding the dance floor, and the spicy tang of the club’s chicken wings all tangled together in his nostrils, the intensity of each shifting and changing with every step he took through the crowd. The deep, driving beat of music thrummed through the air, pounding against his bones when he crossed the corner of the dance floor. In the table sections, the clever design of speakers and sound walls kept the music controlled, soft enough to allow conversation, should a body be so inclined.
His eyes adjusted to the low lights as he made his way past throngs of vampires, monks, and witches. He edged into a narrow open spot at the black and chrome bar between a Star Trek yeoman and Doctor Who in a tweed jacket, bow tie, and red fez.
The bartender, painted with zombie-grey makeup and fake blood, passed a white wine spritzer to Marie Antoinette and turned to him. “What can I get you?”
Curran glanced over the menu board on the wall behind the bar. “You still stock that honeyed porter from the microbrewery up the street?”
“You bet. Coming right up.”
He looked around while he waited for his beer, watching the flow and eddy of the crowd as it moved like water through the club. Brindle’s was always busy, but bodies filled it to capacity tonight, for which he was grateful. He missed going out all the time, being surrounded by people. A crowd assimilated him, turning him into a simple cell in a greater entity. The energy generated among a mass of people, the electricity, made him feel alive in a way nothing else matched.
A woman dressed as Red Riding Hood laughed at the end of the bar with her date, the Big Bad Wolf. Yeah, that was another way to feel alive, one he dearly missed. But one didn’t troll for women when one was living anonymously. Eleven months now he’d lacked female company, and what a hell of a price to pay for a private life.
The bartender slid his beer across the bar. Curran paid with a generous tip and stepped away from the bar to make room for an intrepid fellow decked out in full Dr. Frank-N-Furter regalia, right down to the fishnet stockings and deep red lipstick.
He raised his glass to the man. “Impressive, mate.”
Dr. Frank laughed. “Thanks. My girlfriend bet me I wouldn’t dare go out in public. She owes me a hundred bucks.”
Curran grinned. Bringing The Rocky Horror Picture Show to life in an outfit like that took far more courage than he had. He’d settled for black, from cloak to boots. With the mask over his eyes, he wasn’t a character. He wasn’t himself. Just an enigma in the dark.
He leaned against a pillar supporting the upper floor of the club and sipped his beer, watching the mass of bodies writhing on the dance floor. He glanced to the left as the crowd near him shifted, and glimpsed a woman sitting alone at a small corner table. The glow from a jack-o-lantern on the table brightened her chin-length curls to a glossy medium brown, glinted off her long-sleeved black dress and the high spiderweb collar rising behind her head. Fine, pale fingers tipped with short, dark nails tapped a rhythm on the tabletop.
A mummy and Cleopatra shifted into his line of sight, so he stepped past them to get a better view of her. She wasn’t wearing a mask. Sculpted cheekbones, a narrow, rather pointed nose. Very nice lips, not too full. Attractive, though not a stunning beauty. Tall, given the length of her frame in comparison with the chair. She held herself with a degree of elegance—reserved, almost distant from her surroundings, like royalty thrust into a throng of commoners.
She held the single glass on the table. Perhaps she was waiting for someone. Then again, maybe she was alone, too, fighting off the solitude before she lost her mind.
Her head turned and her gaze sheared directly into his. Caught staring at the pretty girl, way to go, Shaw. Narrowed eyes, rimmed with wide, heavy smudges of black, met his evenly. A flood of heat coursed through him, doubling his pulse, tightening his groin. He’d felt instant chemistry before, but never like this—powerful, demanding.
The warmth pulled at him. Where there was heat, there would be fire, and he’d been cold and alone for a long time. Hell, if she had some brains, simply talking to her for a while might be nice. He drained his beer, deposited the glass on the tray of a passing waitress, and headed across the floor. Her wary gaze followed his approach. When he reached her table, he grasped the curved silver back of the extra chair. “May I?”
“It’s a free country.” She shifted her gaze to the dance floor.
Hmm. Not a welcome, nor exactly a dismissal. Royalty didn’t usually appreciate an invasion of personal space, but he was already here, standing at her table. There was no sense in going back. After such a strong initial reaction, the need to follow through compelled him.
He lowered himself into the chair. “Glad I’m not the only one who went for basic black.”
She tensed and her eyes snapped back to his, glittering in the lantern light. Amber. She had wolf-eyes. A sense of familiarity tingled at the edge of his mind, weaving through the air between them. He’d seen those eyes before, somewhere.
The barest of smiles crossed her mouth. “When you make last minute decisions, it’s difficult to be a character. Black works.” Her low, smoky voice toyed with his senses. The tremor of recognition shivered through him again.
He nodded and chuckled softly. What a ridiculous way to start this, she was going to hate it. “I know this is the world’s oldest line, but—have we met?”
Her eyes widened and she stared at him for a moment. “Does it matter?”
“No, I suppose not.” If she did recognize him somehow, she obviously wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it. The idea should make this whole thing a non-starter, but at the moment, she could be anyone other than his ex-girlfriend and he simply wouldn’t care. Not with the heat flaring inside him at every glance of those golden brown eyes. What was it about this woman?
She turned her attention back to the dance floor. Her fingers tapped against the empty glass on the table. “You’re dry. Can I buy you a drink?” He winced. Damn, that was lame. Surely he hadn’t lost all his charisma and social skills in less than a year.
Amber eyes met his and narrowed. The Queen was not amused. “Yes to the drink. No to anything else.”
“I wasn’t aware I suggested anything else, but I’ll take that under advisement.” He smiled, searching her hard gaze for fire, or at least humor.
Nothing. Seriously, what the hell? He couldn’t remember his approach ever being so flawed. Women he found interesting always responded in kind. That was simply his reality. Now he fumbled the way he had as a scrawny kid of fourteen, trying to ask Sara Myles out for his first date.
He raised a hand to get the waitress’s attention. The Queen arched one delicate brow at him before looking away, accepting the refill of sparkling water with two lemon slices from the perky little waitress with ‘Miranda’ etched on her name tag.
The Queen sipped her drink, then raised her glass in his direction and said, “Nothing for you?”
“Two is my limit when I’m driving, and I had one at the bar already.”
“Not really. Wisdom calls for something along the lines of water.”
She smiled. Just a partial victory, though. The smile softened her sharp features, but failed to light her eyes. Tension shimmered around her, visible in the way she sat with her back straight and her free hand closed into a fist on the table. She was trying very hard to appear relaxed. He obviously made her nervous. Maybe it was time to chalk this one up to a lost cause. “I apologize. I’ve intruded on you and I think it’s probably time for me to rack off and leave you be.”
Her gaze locked onto his and he felt the weight of her full attention for a moment, sending a tendril of heat through him. With a sigh, the tension unwound a bit, and she shook her head. “No, you’re fine. I’m just…I haven’t done this get-to-know-someone thing in a while.”
Hmm. A little encouragement. He leaned forward, crossing his arms on the table. “I’m out of practice myself. Let’s see, what’s the next line I should try…ah, yes. Do you come here often?”
That got her. She gave a genuine laugh, the rich sound tossing tinder on the flame her gaze had lit inside him. “Occasionally. And you?”
“About that often.” Perhaps that’s why she seemed familiar. He might have caught sight of her at the club before.
She sipped her drink. “Tell me, do they celebrate Halloween in Australia?”
He jerked back a bit and blinked. After all this time in the States, his accent had mellowed enough that people who noticed it rarely identified it properly. “You have a good ear. But I might be faking the accent. This is a night to pretend, isn’t it?”
She brushed her fingers across her forehead, shifting her curls away from her eyes. “Someone pretending would lay it on a whole lot thicker. How long have you lived here?”
“A very long time.” The wistfulness in his own voice surprised him.
She laughed softly. “Well, well, a homesick expatriate.”
He smiled. Time to turn the conversation around to her. “What about you? Are you from Park City?”
Her expression darkened slightly, an edge of wariness returning to her eyes. “No, just came into town for the party.”
Her brow rose as she leaned back in her chair. “Do I live alone or did I come to the party alone?”
With a bit of a chuckle, he nodded. “Both. Are you happy being alone?”
Her eyes narrowed, but a hint of a smile played across her lips. “Is that a pickup line?”
For a moment, he focused on her red-stained lips, on what they might feel like under his. That little contemplation simmered his blood. He flicked his gaze back up to meet hers. It wasn’t intended as a pickup line, but maybe it should be. Or not. He hadn’t thought this through, he was just pushing ahead full-throttle. “No, it’s a legitimate question.”
“Living alone has its advantages.” She raised her glass and took a long drink. “I can make my own rules. It’s quiet or noisy, depending solely on my mood.”
Curran nodded. “You don’t have to dress if you don’t want to. You can eat chili straight out of the can and no one will complain.”
She grimaced, wrinkling her distinctive nose. “Chili from the can, at room temperature? Gross. That’s such a guy thing.”
He couldn’t help laughing. “Yeah, comes pre-loaded on the Y chromosome, along with belching and scratching ourselves. The same way a love of shopping and shoes is hard-wired into women.”
Her eyes widened, but her grin spoiled the look of indignation. “I do not live to shop, thank you.”
“How many pairs of shoes are in your closet?”
“I only have what I need.”
He leaned a little closer to her. “How many?”
“I don’t know…the basics. Pumps in black, navy, neutral, ivory. Running shoes. Flats in brown, black and…” She stopped ticking them off on her fingers and laughed. “Okay, okay. Let me guess, in your closet, you have running shoes and dress shoes.”
“Actually, I’m a little more in touch with my feminine side than most. I’ve a couple pairs of boots, too. And a great pair of fuzzy slippers.”
A laugh bubbled out of her, pulling a grin onto his mouth. God, her laugh…talking to this woman lightened his heart and stirred his desire at the same time. He liked it. “What about the disadvantages of living alone?”
Her smile faded. “I find they’re a small price to pay for being able to be myself.”
“And you can’t be yourself without being alone?”
She finished her water. “Not in my experience.”
The edge in her voice snagged his curiosity. It sounded like a conclusion she’d come to at some great cost, but he doubted she’d appreciate him probing for details.
The urge to touch her struck him, making his skin itch. He brushed his gloved fingers along the knuckles of her hand where she held her empty glass. Her eyes darkened and he caught the slight tremor that shivered through her. So, the chemistry wasn’t one-sided. She felt it.
It had been nearly a year since he walked away from his life. Was that long enough to give him the obscurity he needed to take a chance on this? To pursue the connection pulling him to this woman whose name he didn’t even know?
He lifted her hand from the glass and caressed her long, pale fingers. The sound of her breath catching kicked the slow burn in his gut up a notch. Oh, yeah, she definitely felt it, too. “Do you ever get lonely?”
Her gaze left their joined hands and slid into his. “Do you?”
He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry. “Frequently.”
She leaned a bit closer, enough for her scent to drift toward him. He breathed her in. Flowery, sweet, with a hint of something deeper, more exotic.
“And how do you deal with your loneliness?” Her smoky voice reached inside him, fed the fire until the sparks soared.
“I find a crowd and become a part of it for a while, until the worst of it passes.”
“Funny,” she said softly. “I do that, too.”
Curran raised his hand, lifting her fingers to his mouth. He watched the fire dance in her golden eyes, his own temperature climbing in response. He held her gaze and turned her hand, exposing her wrist, pressing his lips to her delicate skin.
Her scent clawed through him, reshaping the heat in his body into a distinct ache.
Her pulse leapt beneath his lips and lightning flashed in her eyes. She drew a sharp breath, then slid her hand from his and said, “You’re moving fast. I take it we’ve gone beyond the need for lines?”
Curran couldn’t contain the wicked grin that spread across his face. “They get progressively more pathetic from here, and you’ve likely heard them all before anyway.”
“I suppose I could cut to the chase and ask if you have plans for the evening. Want to get out of here?” He tensed the moment the words tumbled from his mouth. He hadn’t intended to take their conversation quite that far, but his desire raced ahead of his brain.
Her brows lifted and she laughed. “You get points for being direct. Has anyone ever turned you down?”
Now there was a question he’d never been asked. “Truthfully? Not since I was sixteen.”
“Really. Never once, in all that time?” The Queen pushed her chair away from the table. She rose, stepped toward him as he slid his own chair back. She fisted her pale hands in the black satin of her long dress and pulled, hiking the fringed hem up to mid-glorious-thigh, exposing a hint of black lace at the top of her stockings. Without warning, she straddled him, lowering herself onto his lap.
Curran sucked in a harsh breath, his erection instant. She reached her hands into his hood. Grabbed his hair. Covered his mouth with hers.
Rational thought scattered.
She kissed him hard, her tongue thrusting into his mouth, brushing his in a tantalizing stroke. She tasted sweet and sharp. Her scent, her warmth filled his senses. Something deep inside him knotted and a groan escaped him as he slid his hands along her thighs. The whole of his existence focused on the primal need to thrust inside her.
Before he could return the kiss, or even properly respond to it, she dropped her hands to his chest and pushed herself back off his lap.
“Thanks for the drink,” She straightened to her full height and smoothed the reflective surface of her dress. A hint of a smile curved the edges of her mouth. “But I turn into a pumpkin at midnight.”
Curran’s head swam. His skin tingled all over, his blood surged in his veins. What in the hell had she done to him? Never had a woman kissed him in a way that completely short-circuited his brain.
It took a moment before the synapses fired correctly again, and in those few seconds, she had vanished. He leapt to his feet, scanning the club for her.
She was gone.
“No, no, no,” he muttered, cursing under his breath. “Not fair.”
The waitress came by, gathering glasses and bottles off the neighboring table, then leaned close to talk to him. “I don’t know what you said to Victoria to get a kiss like that out of her, but you’ve made a lot of guys here very jealous.”
His spine stiffened. “You know who she is?”
“Just her first name.” Miranda threw him a smile and walked away.
He turned the name in his mind. Victoria. Perfect. He’d been thinking of her as a queen already. Elegant name for a cool exterior, belying the heat of her kiss. He made his way back to the bar and downed a second beer in an effort to kill the fire inside him.
It failed. Miserably.
Half an hour later, Curran unlocked his front door. He trudged down the hall into the master suite, flicking on the lights, stripping his clothes as he went. So much for a night of fun on the town, finding rejuvenation in a crowd. God, he needed a cigarette. He’d picked the wrong time to try quitting.
He stepped into the rock-walled shower, turned the faucet to cold, and let it rip. The icy water pounded against his skin, taking his breath away, but it did little to temper the blaze she’d kindled.
Victoria. He still felt her hands in his hair, her tongue in his mouth. Her taste, her scent, those unique eyes stayed sharp, penetrated deep into his thoughts and hardened him all over again.
Curran mentally kicked himself. How had he let this happen? He’d gone and let his hormones come out of dormancy, reminding him precisely how much of a bitch celibacy could be. It was far too easy to picture Victoria beneath him, her creamy skin soft under his fingers, her long legs wrapped around his hips.
He swore. The carnal need was bad enough on its own. To make matters worse, this wasn’t just sexual. She’d piqued his interest, and her disappearing act would nag him relentlessly. This wasn’t how it worked, damn it. He should have the opportunity to decide if she was worth investing his time before he then chose to walk away or stay.
He’d be damned if he’d end up looking back on Victoria as the proverbial one who got away. Finding her would severely test his resourcefulness. Her first name gave him next to nothing to go on, but he would find her, somehow, to finish what she’d started the moment her lips touched his.