Falling in love was easy. Dare he take her to Faerie and declare his love?
Falling in love was easy. But demons of the past and evil intent on destroying the present tear Carrie and Bryce from their newfound love, throwing them into a world of deception, lies and revenge.
Finally Bryce decides to give up looking for the masked dancer who captured his heart and get on with his life. But his darlin’ daughter climbs onto the lap of a captivating woman in a coffee shop and calls her mommy. He wouldn’t mind exploring the possibility.
Carrie’s vacation is over. Although she loves her job, she dreads returning. Especially when a blonde cherub insists she’s ‘mommy’. Add the girl’s intriguing father and Carrie believes she’s finally ready for a real relationship. But repressed memories of a horrific attack surface, bringing fear and doubt.
One of Bryce’s fathers is kidnapped by a cult. Not knowing whether the abduction was of human or fey origin, Bryce must chance seeming crazy and losing Carrie with tales of the Faerie Otherworld. Dare he take her to Faerie and declare his love?
Enjoy Chapter One
She absolutely dreaded going back to work. Not that she disliked her job; she loved what she did and missed the camaraderie with her coworkers. What she didn’t miss was the back stabbing and bitching. After nearly six weeks off, getting back to her normal routine was low on Carrie’s list of priorities.
But, it was time. She’d taken the time off because she could. She’d hardly even thought about work—except to chuckle occasionally at the rumors she knew had to be flying at The Panther’s Back.
Nightshade had been true to his word and hadn’t contacted her about new dances or costume designs. In fact, he hadn’t called her at all. Carrie leaned her chin in her hand. She missed the flamboyant exuberance of her manager—much of the world paled in comparison.
The bookstore was busy and the tiny coffee shop crowded. A moment of guilt at taking up a table when there were others who glanced meaningfully at her nearly empty mug flared through Carrie. She mentally shook herself. Why did she always have to be the one who moved aside, made way for others? She didn’t—and she was staying at her miniscule table until she was ready to leave. Maybe she’d even have a second cup of cocoa.
Carrie sipped her cooling chocolate and watched shoppers browse through the myriad of colorful, slick magazines at the nearby display. A trio of women poured over the bridal magazines. It was easy for Carrie to tell which young woman was the bride-to-be. Happy, almost giddy, she pointed out dresses and giggled over honeymoon suggestions with her friends. That was as it should be, but it still made Carrie sigh with longing. There weren’t many things she really wanted out of life…
A tall, pale blond man caught her attention as he crouched in front of the gardening magazines. That—the way he held himself, the intensity of his gaze, the gentle lines of his face—could be one of those things she wanted. Unable to look away from the compelling man, Carrie craned her neck to read the titles of the magazines he already held in one hand.
The slick, bland cover of an architectural digest was easy to decipher. The second magazine was gaudier, full of color. The magazines slipped in his grasp and Carrie caught a glimpse of cartoonlike drawings. Anime? She loved the Japanese style of animation. This guy became more intriguing by the second.
Carrie set her mug on the table and stared unabashedly. Certainly there must be some way to introduce herself. There were plenty of hows, the real question was how could she work up enough courage to introduce herself to a stranger. How could she be so successful in her job, yet be so hesitant to meet people when outside of her work persona? Just another one of the mysteries of her life.
All she had to do was stand up, move to the magazine racks and stand next to him. Carrie cocked her head and watched as he glanced through a magazine, shook his head slightly, and returned it to the rack. Was he looking for something specific?
Maybe she could help him look. Never mind the fact that she knew little to nothing about gardening. She’d even forget to water silk plants.
::Come, Carrie. Ye can do this. If ye really wish t’ meet him, just go meet him. He’ll like ye.::
Great. Carrie stared down into her empty mug. It had been a long, long time since she’d heard the voice of her imaginary childhood friend, Lottie. She didn’t need to hear the odd tones and accent now; she’d long ago grown up and away from the need for an imaginary protector and friend. A low, mental sigh, then empty silence teased her mind. Had she been alone, Carrie would have called out to Lottie and begged her to return. Still, she could take the imaginary advice, even if she didn’t think the guy would like her. Not after he got to know her.
Carrie took a deep breath, steadied the sudden quivering in her belly, and flattened her palms against the laminated tabletop. One last look and she’d leave. She had to pass by the magazines to reach the door. It would be a perfect time for a chance meeting. She could do this.
The man had risen and turned his back to her. From the way his head swiveled one way then another, Carrie guessed he was looking for someone. She let her eyes close in defeat. A wife probably. At least a girlfriend. Why did she even bother with daydreams?
More customers crowded into the coffee shop and Carrie could no longer justify remaining at the table. She gathered her latest purchase, tugged her purse strap over her shoulder, and turned in the chair to rise.
A pair of tiny arms wrapped around her knees prevented her from standing. A cherubic face, all wide, blue eyes over a rosebud mouth, surrounded by pale, white-blonde hair, smiled up at her.
With the magazines he had been looking for tucked under his arm, Bryce rose and moved toward the children’s magazines. The small, specially designed section was empty. A flare of anguish burst from the pit of his stomach. “Bree?” he whispered.
The anguish rushed to panic. Where was she? He hadn’t looked away for that long—had he? She wouldn’t run off; he’d drilled the dangers of such actions into her. In her four year old way, she obeyed him and limited contact with strangers. It was difficult for her. As a gregarious child, Breanna loved to talk to anyone and everyone.
Just as Bryce turned toward the front of the store where a security guard leisurely attended the entrance, he heard Bree’s high giggle. “Mommy!”
Whipping his body toward the beloved sound, he scanned the area designated as the store’s coffee shop. At the edge, near a low, metal divider, Bree had her arms wrapped tightly around a woman’s legs.
Relief flooded through him, cooling the hot panic, and Bryce closed his eyes. Embarrassment followed and heated his face. Generally, most people accepted Bree’s hijinks without a problem, but Bryce knew someday she might meet someone who didn’t care to like her. It would surprise his daughter, and he dreaded the resulting loss of innocence.
Bryce rushed into the coffee shop and took a deep, shaking breath before he confronted his daughter and the woman who now spoke softly to her. The gentle tones of her voice soothed his frazzled nerves and he released his breath slowly. He looked at the woman.
And could not draw another breath.
Until she glanced up, noticed him hovering and flashed him a tentative smile. She stroked her hand over Bree’s hair and gave a minute tug to the ribbon wrapped around one of her short pigtails. “Is this yours?”
“I’m sorry if she disturbed you. She knows better than to run off.” Bryce crouched beside Breanna and cupped her chin with a bent finger. “Don’t you?”
“No,darlin’.This isn’t Mommy. Mommy’s gone, remember?”
“My new mommy.” The small girl climbed into the woman’s lap and wrapped her arms about the woman’s neck.
Bryce squelched the insane urge to do the same thing. Well, maybe he’d hold the woman on his lap instead, but having her in his arms definitely aroused some interesting, uncomfortably pleasant sensations.
The woman gave a small sound of surprise. Before Bryce could apologize a second time, she waved at the empty chair across from her. “It’s okay. Why don’t you have a seat while we sort this out.” She leaned back to look into Bree’s face. “Do I look like your mommy?”
“Don’t know. She’s gone.” Bree shook her head, unwrapped one arm, and patted the woman’s face. “I saw you. My new mommy.” With that proclamation, she snuggled into the woman’s lap and tucked her thumb between her lips. “See, Daddy?” She spoke around the obstruction. “I finded her.”
“Found her,” Bryce corrected automatically.
“Huh?” The question in the single word startled Bryce. Was she interested in more than why Bree clung to her? He hoped so. “No, her mother died shortly after she was born. The strain of carrying a child was too great.”
“How awful. You must miss her terribly.”
Bryce lifted one shoulder in a casual shrug. “She was a good friend. Bree was an accident that strained our friendship.” The smile reserved for his daughter stretched his lips. “A very happy accident.”
“A-dent.” Bree closed her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t pry. She just surprised me. Does she often pick out strange women and call them mommy?”
“I wonder why she chose me.” The woman stroked Bree’s hair.
For his own sake, and his rising interest, Bryce didn’t have to wonder why. There was something about this woman. He could have picked her out of a crowd of thousands—and would, if she would give him the chance. Only once before had he felt such an instant attraction—and that to a woman who wore a mask so he couldn’t even see her face.
“I’m Bryce MacAlister.”
“And you’ve met my daughter, Breanna.”
Bree opened her eyes and smiled up at Carrie. “Met mommy.” Then she turned her earnest gaze to Bryce and shook one chubby finger at him. “I find, you keep.”
“Uh, it doesn’t work that way, honey.”
Bree sighed. “I know, Daddy. You’ll find a way.”
Bryce lifted his gaze from his daughter to Carrie’s questioning expression. He shrugged again. “She’s never mentioned wanting a mother.
“Not a mommy,” Bree piped up. “This mommy.”
A faint pink covered Carrie’s cheeks and she glanced away. Bryce took the opportunity to study the woman cradling his daughter so carefully in a completely relaxed, natural embrace.
Her highlighted, golden brown hair was pulled back with a clip. Strands had escaped the confinement and trailed loosely around her face and down her neck. A tiny spot of whipped cream, a remnant from her beverage, hovered just above her upper lip. A shapely lip, poised above the lush, kissable pout the lower.
Yep. Definitely kissable.
Her lips moved and pulled into a wide smile. Guiltily, Bryce lifted his gaze. Chocolate brown eyes twinkled as if she fought to control some hidden amusement.
He’d been caught.
“Uh, sorry for staring.”
“’S okay. Actually, I’m used to it.”
He could believe that.
“But, it’s not usually my face being stared at.” Carrie chuckled, a low throaty sound that insisted he respond. He did, in a pure, naturally male way. His gaze dropped to her breasts. She chuckled again, her body moving against the soft material of her shirt.
The Sahara Desert would seem lush and tropical in comparison to the sudden dryness in his mouth. Her breasts were—perfect. Neither overly large, nor small enough to need padding. Nope, there was no padding there. In fact, if she even wore a bra, it had to be one of those soft athletic things. He could see the tantalizing, firming peak of…
Oh, God. What was he doing?
Carrie shifted and repositioned Bree to cover her breasts.
“I… uh. Sorry.” Why didn’t somebody just shut him up?
To his surprise, Carrie reached over and touched the back of his hand. “Don’t worry. Like I said, I’m used to it. It’s all a part of my line of work.”
But, it wasn’t at all like to what she was accustomed. Somehow, the way he’d stared at her was—nice. There was no leer in his expression, no mental drooling. Just assessment and approval.
Carrie wanted this man’s approval so there was no way she was going to tell him how she earned a living. But, with her last statement, he was sure to ask. She’d give him her stock, brush off answer and hope he fell for the lack of details.
“So, what do you do? For a living, I mean?”
He was flustered. How endearing. Now, she really couldn’t tell him the truth. “I do a kind of modeling.”
Bryce leaned his head one way to look at her. She canted her chin to strike a practiced pose and he grinned. “Not difficult to see why.”
Part of her, some little kernel of hope, wanted her to tell him everything. A little bit of hope praying he wouldn’t be disgusted or turn away when he found out the truth. Carrie bit back a sigh. She couldn’t chance his rejection.
The warm bundle of child in her lap gave a sigh as deep as the one Carrie held within her. She responded by holding Breanna just a bit more tightly and stroking two fingers over her fine, straight hair. The man and his daughter were a potent combination. One that made her both jittery with anticipation and full of peaceful longing. No, she couldn’t take the risk and hope he would stay. Better to be only partially honest.
And part liar.
Carrie ducked her head to hide the shame she feared grew bright in her eyes.
A masculine hand appeared in her vision and Bryce stroked his daughter’s cheek. “She’s asleep.”
Carrie lifted her gaze and Bryce grinned at her. “It’s a miracle. Bree’s not the best at taking naps and sometimes she gets overly tired. I hate to admit it, but she’s not a joy to be around when she’s cranky. Hopefully I can get her to the car without totally waking her.”
“Why don’t you go pay for those.”
Carrie nodded toward the magazines stacked at the edge of the table. “Your reading material. I can carry Bree out to your car. The fewer times she’s moved, the less chance of her waking up.” That way she’d get to hold the warm, sweet smelling child a short while longer. Holding Bree was suddenly the most important thing she could do. Besides, it would keep her close to Bryce as well.
Nodding once, Bryce rose, slid the magazines from the table and left the coffee shop. Carrie stared at his back as he walked toward the cash register. Nice. More than nice. She swallowed heavily. She’d have to do whatever she could to keep this man.
Keep him? How could she keep what she didn’t have?
“Shut up, Lottie,” Carrie murmured under her breath. Great, more comments from her imagination. Yet, those thoughts merely echoed her own, reinforcing her unconscious decision to do just that—make Bryce MacAlister hers.
Rising carefully, she watched Breanna’s face as she tried to juggle a child who was heavier than she looked, her sack of books, and the eel-like movement of her purse strap. She frowned at the large white mug still sitting on the table with a wadded paper napkin popping from the top. She hated leaving a mess for someone else to clean up, but there was no way she could add the cup to her burden.
An elderly woman touched her elbow softly. “Are you leaving, dear?”
“Yes. You’re welcome to the table. I’ll get my mess out of the way—somehow.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll take your cup back with mine later. I wouldn’t want you to disturb your sleeping angel. Go on now, take your baby home and love her.”
“But, she’s not—”
“An angel? I’m sure she is, dear. Run along now. The longer you delay, the cooler my cappuccino is getting.” The woman’s wrinkled face burst into a sunny smile. She shooed Carrie away from the table and sat in the recently vacated chair.
“Thank you. Enjoy your cappuccino.”
“Double mocha. Of course I’ll enjoy it. Give that angel a kiss for me.” The woman lifted her mug, inhaled deeply, and took a careful sip. She waved one hand then turned her attention to a book she pulled from her purse.
Carrie hurried toward the front of the store where Bryce waited. She tried to read his expression, but distance hid any nuances from her. By the time she stood at his side, his expression was guarded and his smile tentative. Was he regretting letting her help him with his daughter?
He rested his hand at the small of her back as they exited the bookstore and used easy pressure to guide her through the parking area to his car.
Carrie bit at her lip to stop a nervous giggle. His four-door, white sedan was parked right next to her small SUV. If she believed in fate, this would be a prime example that they were meant to meet. But, there was no fate, no luck. Nothing directing her life except her own decisions.
Silent, she watched Bryce unlock his vehicle then open the rear door and ready the child seat. He nodded back at her and stood to the side to allow her to place the still sleeping girl in the seat. Before she backed out of the car, Bree opened one eye. “Bye, Mommy, see you soon.” Bree’s eyelid slipped closed and she tucked her thumb back into her mouth.
Carrie chewed on her lower lip. Only minutes ago this child broke into her life and changed it. How could she let the small girl go? She shook her head. It wasn’t up to her—or was it? Straightening, she angled to face Bryce.
“I’d really like—”
“Would it be okay if I—”
They chuckled together at their simultaneous speech.
“Daddy first.” The soft instructions came from inside the car, but when Carrie bent over to peek in at Bree, the girl had curled slightly to one side with her cheek resting against a soft, stuffed hippo. Carrie glanced up at Bryce and he shrugged.
“Would it be okay if I called you sometime?” A faint ruddiness colored the fair skin over his cheekbones.
Yes! Her heart screamed the word. She barely kept the single syllable from slipping from her lips but was unable to contain a silly grin. “I was going to say I’d really like to see you—and Breanna—again sometime. So, of course. Yes. Call me.”
“I will. Your number?”
“Oh.” The nervous giggle returned to tickle her throat. “I guess that would make it easier, huh?”
“Much.” Bryce held out the paper sack with his magazines. “Write it on here.”
Carrie dug a pen from her bag, lay the sack on the hood of his car, and carefully printed out her phone number. She paused a moment, then wrote a second number. “I’ll give you my cell number, too. Sometimes that’s the only way to reach me.”
She seldom gave anyone the number to her cell phone. There were too many crazy people who would harass her mercilessly if they could reach her. “And the other number is unlisted.”
“You’re a very private person, Carrie.”
“I have to be.” She handed the sack to him and inched toward her vehicle. She didn’t want to leave, but she couldn’t stand around a parking lot all day either. He’d call. She was positive he would do as he said he would. She’d hear from him soon. Now, all she had to do was convince herself he hadn’t asked out of politeness or because he thought she expected the request.
The keys rattled loudly when she pulled them from her purse and juggled them to find the right key for the door lock. Bryce covered her hand with his. “Let me.” He took the keys from her hand, easily found the proper key, unlocked and opened the door for her. He kept her keys in his hand until she slid behind the steering wheel. When Bryce placed the keys into her waiting, open palm, she tingled from the brief touch of his long fingers. Oh, he had to call.
“Well, uh, bye. Thanks for your help with Bree.”
“It was my pleasure, Bryce.” Saying the word pleasure and connecting it with his name increased the tingles.
Bryce stood in the open door; his fingertips lingering against Carrie’s palm. Reluctant to let her go, even though he had her phone number, he simply looked at her. She returned his gaze with frank, honest interest. There was no way she was leading him on, pretending to be interested. Her hand trembled.
How soon could he call her? With his free hand he touched the plastic lump of his own cell phone. As soon as she left the parking lot? No, not while she was driving. How long would it take her to get home? No, that would make him seem desperate. Tomorrow. He would call her tomorrow. Maybe she would be free tomorrow night.
Bryce smiled and Carrie returned the grin as she curled her fingers around the keys and moved her hand. Cold settled over Bryce. Had her touch warmed him that much?
“I’ll look forward to your call.” Pink rushed to cover her face and Bryce wondered at the reaction.
“Daddy, home. I’m sleepy.”
“There’s a new one. My daughter admitting she’s sleepy. Will wonders never cease? Carrie, thanks again. I will call.”
“I… I know.”
Bryce stepped back and shut the car door. She gave a jaunty wave after starting the vehicle, checking behind her, and backing from the parking stall. Bryce stuffed his hands into his pockets and watched as she drove away. He still watched the street for long moments after her distinctive purple vehicle disappeared from sight.
He turned back to his car and ducked into the back to secure Bree in her car seat. Her bright, blue-green eyes glittered at him. “Do you like my new mommy?”
Bryce kissed the top of his daughter’s head. “Yes, honey, I think I do.”