Chapter 1 - Present Day
Wasn’t dating supposed to be fun? Because this was anything but. At any moment, a man I’d never met—approximately six-foot-three, brown hair, and soul-piercing blue eyes, according to his online profile—would walk through the door of the Conga Lounge, give his name to the hostess, and scream hysterically at the sight of me. Okay. He wouldn’t scream. Aloud, anyway. Not that I was heinous, but anyone who looked closely enough might notice I was…different.
I eyeballed the door, contemplating making a mad dash before he arrived.
No, you can do this, I thought while staring at the condensation channeling down my glass of water, my leg bouncing under the table. Why had my date picked a corny theme-bar that looked like Gilligan’s Island threw up? What sort of man goes novelty on the first date? Bad sign. Bad sign.
At least the other patrons—seated around the faux-torch lit room, leisurely sipping Bahama Mama’s and Mai Tai’s—were oblivious to my impending meltdown.
I felt the gentle whoosh of summer evening air as the door swung open and the noise from the traffic-packed New York street poured in. A tall man with sun-kissed skin, broad shoulders, and tousled brown hair floated in—yes, floated—as if he’d ridden in on a cloud straight from Hot-Man Land. He wore a black polished-cotton shirt, which hugged his well-constructed chest, and low slung jeans that molded to his lean physique. He wasn’t just good looking, he was Milan runway edible.
“Oh, sweet Virgin of Guadalupe, please be Jake,” I muttered under my breath.
Like a cliché from a movie, our eyes met from across the room, and his face lit up with a dimple-framed smile. My heart nearly stopped. “Thank you, Virgin,” I said, releasing my breath.
He strutted across the restaurant, a magnet for every female in the room.
“Emma?” he said in a deep slow-churned voice then smiled and held out his hand. I stood up in a daze, mentally pinching myself.
“You are Emma, right? Curly, shoulder-length, red hair, five-three. Several crazed female stalkers for best friends?”
Oh, no. What had my roommates done? Since the whole online-blind-date thing was their idea, they assured me they’d carefully “screened” the guy. But I thought they were just joking about breaking into his apartment and rummaging through his underwear drawer. And dammit, they hadn’t even bothered to dish. Tighty whities or boxers?
I looked down at his outstretched hand. Oh, shoot. Shake hands. “Sorry, it’s just—I wasn’t expecting someone so…” I swallowed and placed my palm in his. It was warm and inviting, just like his eyes. “Um…so tall.”
“And I wasn’t expecting a woman so…” He paused to look me over like a dog eyeing a giant juicy steak. “…adorable.”
“Adorable?” said the deep male voice inside my head. “What kind of moron compliments a woman with the word ‘adorable’? Does he think you’re a goddamned puppy?”
Couldn’t I have one, just one lousy day without the voice? My blood began to boil instantly, but I resisted the urge to snap back with something lame like, “Well, maybe Jake senses I want to lick him from head to toe. Maybe even have a go at his leg.” But then I thought better of myself. Because tonight, I was on a mission, and nothing would stop me from climbing my own mental Mt. Everest: convince myself that I, Emma Keane, could feel attraction for a real live man with ten fingers, ten toes, arms and legs, and the other necessary dangly bits needed to make a relationship normal. All I needed was the right man.
The other person I needed to prove this to wasn’t exactly a person. Okay—truth be told, he was a mysterious voice only I could hear. Yes. A luscious, deep velvety voice so seductive that it could turn me into a quivering mindless puddle of need with one little sigh. Sound crazy? That wasn’t the half of it. But it was why I had to do this. If I wanted a shot at normal, I had to take this first step.
With his golden face beaming, the man smiled as he stroked my sopping wet hair and cradled me against his warm, smooth chest. “I love this dream,” I said with a breathy voice, then stretched my arms above my head, gazing happily into the most striking set of luminescent, turquoise green eyes I’d ever seen.
To boot, they belonged to a breathtaking, masculine face, a face one would expect to see on the cover of a magazine named something like, I’m Way Too Hot to Be Your Man, or In Your Dreams, Honey.
Oh, yeah. Without a doubt, I’d topped myself this time. Sculpted cheekbones, thick dark lashes, chiseled jaw, and lips so full they simply had to be meant for kissing or eating something really juicy. He was way hotter than the specimen of perfection from my last dream, and bonus, he didn’t have that scary vibe. I reached up and ran my fingertip along the ridge of his hard-lined warrior nose.
“Emma, what in the name of the gods’ creation are you doing?” he scorned. “We really don’t have time for your immature little fantasies. We’re in the middle of a crisis. Do you not remember?”
I blinked and slowly moved my eyes from side to side.
Jungle? I was in the jungle. And my clothes were wet. Come to think of it, for a dream, I didn’t feel so hot. My lungs burned, my body felt like it’d been chewed up, and my head was throbbing. So, aside from the perfect man with long, damp, wavy black hair holding me in his arms, none of this felt like a dream. It felt…
“Holy Mother!” I pushed myself away and rolled into the dirt, pointing in disbelief. “Wha—you—you—?”
“Aaah. So eloquent as always, my sweet. It is astounding; you actually have a college degree, yet cannot find better words.” He pushed himself up off the ground.
As he rose, my heart stopped, started, then went into overdrive. His legs and spine straightened into a towering mass of unforgiving muscles. With shoulders like a lumberjack and thick, powerful thighs, I didn’t know if I wanted to run away or climb him like a tree. He was utterly enormous. Jolly Green Giant enormous. Except, obviously, not green. More golden brown. He was a gorgeous, towering mass of golden brown perfection.
No. Definitely not a cave-dwelling, wart-infested troll. Great. Just great. Now I knew I wasn’t crazy—Guy was definitely real—but now I also knew I was way over my head. He was gorgeous.
I stood in awe, my mouth gaping as my eyes attempted to register every rope of muscle, every capacious curve packed with power. Christ, he had to be at least seven feet tall.
“Six nine, actually,” he said, guessing my thoughts.
“This can’t be possible,” I whispered, my eyes continuing to dart up and down the length of his body, stopping right on dark trail of hair that started just below his navel and continued down, down, down to his enormous beast of a—“Oh! You’re naked.” I turned sharply, but only to stop myself from reaching out to touch it; no man could be that…that…endowed. Wow. “This can’t be happening.” I covered my face.
“Emma,” he moved behind me, placing his powerful hands on my shoulders. A jolt shivered its way through my body.
I was wrong about the vibe. Way wrong. This man, or whatever he was, radiated hazard. He should come equipped with a set of blinking lights or flares. He was…“Bad. Very, very, bad,” I mumbled, pinching the bridge of my nose.