Chapter 1

 

Golden Alexander hated interviews. She hated the fact she might be insane worse, but she had to make a living regardless. She smoothed her black pencil skirt and stared at the side door of a white, Victorian house in Poultney, Vermont.

Welcome.

The word etched above a moose on a purple, slate plaque hung on the dark stained door, beckoning her. It promised security, a homecoming, but she wasn’t coming home. No, she was as far from home as she could get.

Three thousand miles, and a week had slid by since she’d last seen the demon, and she still woke up in a cold sweat every night, heart thumping, a scream on the tip of her tongue. But when she opened her eyes, all she found was the ceiling above her bed.

She prayed it would stay that way.

The sun heated the top of her head and beads of sweat tickled her armpits. She stepped back and waved her arms, trying to cool herself before she got on with this necessary evil.

A light tapping startled her. Her hand shot to her chest while her gaze darted to a big picture window between two hanging pots of red petunias.

A woman with plump cheeks, salt and pepper hair, and a motherly face peered out and smiled. Crap, she couldn’t wait until she stopped jumping at every noise. She blew out the breath she’d been holding and attempted a smile. The woman probably thought she was an escaped mental patient. Her smile felt like a grimace and she was sure she looked like she was trying to fly away, which didn’t sound like a bad idea at the moment.

Not the image she was going for at an interview.

The summer heat combined with the cloying sweet fragrance of the flowers left her slightly nauseous as the woman raised a finger in her direction before disappearing from view. She took a deep breath, now or never. She glanced back at her car, wondering if she should . . .

The door opened with a thump. “Golden? I’m Mary Pietka.”

Golden turned back, her opportunity for escape gone.

Mary wiped her hands on a faded red apron, which covered a navy housedress. Her short, round figure and rosy, unlined cheeks reminded Golden of the German nesting dolls her mother had kept on the windowsill in the kitchen. The only thing missing was a scarf around Mary’s perfectly coifed hair and she’d be the mother doll. That doll, the tallest of the set, had always been her favorite, the one her eyes were drawn to whenever she stood at the sink, and the similarity eased her urge to flee somewhat.

“Call me Mary. Is it Golden or Goldie?”

“Golden.” She hated Goldie. Her sister, Izzy, was the only one who called her Goldie and only because Izzy refused to stop. But then her sister always did whatever she wanted. Izzy had left home shortly after the accident and was never subjected to their other sister, Maggie’s, constant meddling.

She shook Mary’s outstretched hand, hoping her palms were no longer sweaty. Mary gave her hand a pat before releasing it. “Come on in, dear.”

She followed the woman up a short flight of stairs to a small kitchen. Frying onions and butter scented the air, her stomach clenched as though about to rumble. She hadn’t smelled home cooking since the accident, frozen food and take out were the staples back home.

She handed Mary her now crinkled résumé, but Mary barely glanced at it before setting it aside and waving her into a chair next to a beige Formica kitchenette. Cherry stained, twelve-inch moldings and trim, ancient looking appliances, and a deep country sink gave the place an old world charm that made her feel as if nothing much had changed since Poultney had become a town at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Nervous energy caused her hands to twine in her lap, and she found herself really wanting the job. Mary’s warmth, and the house, made Golden feel as if she’d come home. To a real home, not just a house with people living inside going through the motions of life, but a genuine home. She was suddenly desperate to spend more time here.

“My mother’s sleeping now, and I don’t want to wake her,” Mary said. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself?” She picked up a piece of cabbage and palmed it, then scooped a spoonful of rice and ground beef mixture from a large silver bowl and dropped it onto the cabbage.

Let’s see . . . I inherited a house from relatives I didn’t know. I traveled across the country to this foreign little town to get away from my overprotective sister and the weird things that keep happening to me. I’m trying to be a grown up while part of me wants to get in my car and run back home. I now live isolated in the middle of nowhere, and I really want this job so I don’t totally lose it from lack of human contact. Oh, and I might be insane.

She decided on the abridged version instead. “I grew up in Southern California and just moved into town. I have two years’ experience caring for the elderly.”

Mary wrapped the cabbage leaf around the filling. “My mother-in-law, Jadwiga, is one hundred and three. She was in perfect health, until a few months ago, and now requires more care. I no longer feel comfortable leaving her alone. I have a nurse coming in a few days a week, but I need someone to keep her company so I can run errands, clean the house, and have a break once in a while.”

Mary’s gaze never left her as she placed the oblong food into a casserole dish and reached for another leaf. Her brow creased ever so slightly, and her head tilted as if she were listening to something. “It must be hard moving into a new town, being as young as you are without any family around, living in that big house in the middle of the forest.”

A tingle of unease pinched her shoulders and straightened her back. “Ah . . . ye . . . yes it is.” Had she said all that aloud? How did Mary know about her house?

Mary smiled, her crow’s feet deepening. “Small town, dear. Are you going to take some classes at Green Mountain College?”

Golden eased back in her chair. “Yes, I’ve signed up for some core classes this fall.”

Mary went over the details of the job while she ladled tomato sauce over the top of the cabbage rolls and put the dish into the oven. “Have you ever had Golumpki? Are you Catholic?” Mary turned in her direction. “Can you start Monday morning at nine?”

“Um . . . no, yes and yes.” Golden chuckled at the rapid succession of questions, warming to Mary’s offbeat personality and so relieved she wouldn’t have to go back home a failure and listen to Maggie telling her she wasn’t ready to leave home.

The side door to the house opened behind her.

Matka? Dzien dobry? Ma? Hello?”

The deep male voice filled the kitchen. Filled her. Her muscles tightened, her arms vibrated like she’d been doing yard work for the last hour and had just turned off the weed whacker.

Mary raised an eyebrow in her direction before looking past her to the door. “Kris, proszę meet Golden. Come, come.”

Heavy boots sounded on the wooden steps. The loud thumping stopped as if in mid-step and an invisible electric current slammed into her back. Heat spread through her and settled in her belly.

Matka, what’s going on here?”

“Golden is your Babci’s new caregiver.” Mary enunciated as if she were speaking to a five-year-old. “I told you last week she answered the ad and was coming today. She’ll be starting on Monday.”

Mary glared at Kris and then turned to Golden with an apologetic smile on her face. Kris moved around the table and stood next to his mother.

Her mouth fell open.

He narrowed his piercing blue eyes at her, and a lock of sandy brown hair fell from behind his ear.

Holy shit.

He looked exactly like the man she’d been dreaming of for years.

The once cozy kitchen felt tiny. Airless. Too hot. Using the table as a lever, Golden forced herself to stand and shot a glance in Mary’s direction, worried she was hallucinating her dream man and looked delusional. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d acted crazy. Okay, Mary didn’t act like her new employee was tripping her ass off. Good to know.

Words in a language she didn’t understand flew out of his mouth, his unfriendly gaze fixed on her. Wow, angry much? He was obviously talking about her in a not so nice way, which pissed her off. Combined with her confusion, she was a hot mess. And all the while her emotions were ping ponging, her body pulsed, begging for this jerkoff to touch her.

His brows furrowed, and he ranted as though she weren’t in the room. Rude. New plan. She’d figure out how she’d dreamt of him later. First, she wanted to know what he had against her and why she reacted to the jerk like he’d brought her a dozen roses while hanging out the sunroof of a limo.

Mary cut him off with a single word. “Dosyć!” She closed her eyes and whispered, “Enough.”

Kris sucked in a breath, and without another word, pivoted on his heel and walked deeper into the house.

What was wrong with him? Ever hear of anger management classes? And what was wrong with her Benedict Arnold body? Pick an emotion and stick to it. Anger, that’s what was called for here. Not, gee you’re hot, I’ve been dreaming of you for years. Want to hook up?

Figures, the one guy that finally made her wake up and say hell yes was a total turd.

“I’m so sorry about my son. I don’t know what’s gotten into him. Will you still take the job? I really need the help.” Mary’s cheeks flamed red.

“I’ll see you Monday morning.” Golden grabbed her purse, thanked Mary, and rushed out the door.

Monday morning? What had she been thinking? That man didn’t want her anywhere near his family.

Perfect, meet man of dreams—check.

Man of dreams turns out to be an asshole—check.

Just freaking awesome.

Golden banged the car door shut to her light green, VW Bug and started the engine. She looked in the rearview mirror and cursed. A huge, silver pickup truck was parked right behind her on the single strip of black asphalt that ended at a detached garage, in the rear of the property.

Asshole Guy.

There was no way she was going back inside and ask him to move his truck, so she pulled toward the garage before throwing the car into reverse. She tried to keep two wheels on the asphalt so she’d do the least amount of damage to the lawn, but in doing so, she was close as hell to the truck. With her luck, she’d hit it and have to deal with Mr. Nice Guy again.

Sun glinted off the truck and she slammed on the breaks. She blinked a few times and could have sworn she saw the metal edge of a sword in the back window of the truck. Her vision cleared, and the blade disappeared. Weird. She shook her head and backed the rest of the way out of the driveway, her hands in a death grip on the steering wheel.

Two blocks over, she passed an old train depot. Weeds sprouted beside the rails and it looked as though it hadn’t had a train roll across its tracks in years. A couple walking by waved and she glanced around making sure they were waving at her before peeling a hand from the steering wheel and raising it. Wow, people barely acknowledged someone they knew back home, let alone strangers.

At a stop sign, she tried to relax and put the meeting behind her. To her left, a white spire of an old church slashed into the blue sky and to the right, at the end of Main Street, Green Mountain College stood proud. God, other than a Dunkin Donuts, Vermont Country Store and some other small business’, there wasn’t much else.

Nestled in a valley within the Adirondack and Green Mountains, the town looked like a jigsaw puzzle she’d begged her mother to buy and never finished. She’d been bored with the puzzle, just as sure as she’d be bored with this Podunk town, but going home was not an option in her mind.

Her stomach grumbled, she sighed and headed to Shaws.

Grocery shopping when she was hungry was a bad idea. She tossed a box of Lucky Charms into a cart filled with frozen dinners, Ho Ho’s, and chips, before moving across the aisle and reaching for a loaf of bread. Her fingers slipped, and the white plastic rectangle with blue, yellow, and red dots did a summersault before sailing onto the worn linoleum floor five feet from where she stood.

She stared at the bread as exhaustion hit her like a Mack truck. God, she felt like a zombie with the brain capacity of a gnat. A large pair of hiking boots stepped into view, and her body hummed as if she were still in the car going seventy down the highway.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Stepping back, she caught her hip on a display of rolls. Crap. She grabbed the heavy cardboard and set it to rights before the whole thing toppled to the floor.

A man chuckled.

She looked up.

Asshole Guy stared back. Any humor he may have had at her expense wasn’t evident on his hard angular jaw, high cheekbones, and slashed eyebrows. The murmurings and background noise of the store faded. Heat spread through her and pooled between her thighs.

Golden checked him out. She couldn’t help it. At Mary’s, she’d been so caught up in the fact he looked exactly like her dream man, her gaze hadn’t wandered below his thick neck.

A skintight, black T-shirt stretched over a ripped torso, tapered waist, long muscular legs in faded jeans—holy crap he was huge, and delicious, and standing in front of her.

He continued to stare.

She couldn’t believe the nerve of this guy. Babe or not, he was a giant A-hole. “Could you get out of the way?”

A delicious musky scent reminding her of woods and spice surrounded her, confused her.

She blinked several times, hands fisting the cart. His frown deepened above eyes so blue, she lost herself. It seemed as if they stood staring at each other for an eternity, though she knew it was more like seconds. She tried to swallow the lump in her throat, but couldn’t—no words—no movement—nothing.

He shook his head as if trying to clear something away, then in one graceful move, he lunged, picked up the bread, and held it out to her. A half-grin transformed his face into supermodel gorgeous and a dimple sank in his cheek. His eyebrow rose as he glanced at her basket of junk food.

“Your Wonder Bread—my lady.”

The deep timbre of his voice caressed her skin, and she wondered how it would feel to have his tongue flicking the sensitive flesh of her throat with feather light kisses, tickling her collarbone. Heat flooded her face.

What was wrong with her? Her lascivious thoughts made her cheeks and inner thighs burn. God, he made her think of words like lascivious. She needed to get away from him. He was trouble. As she clasped the bread, her hands shook like she’d drank two pots of coffee.

His head tipped, and a confused expression washed over his face before he turned and walked away.

She pulled the loaf to her tightening chest. How could he be real? She never thought he’d be real. She looked around the aisle in a daze.

He was gone.

Had she hallucinated again? She held her breath and sweat beaded her upper lip as she considered the idea.

Shit, she really was crazy.

***

Anxiety bunched Kris’s shoulders as he prowled from room to room in his house. He couldn’t stop thinking about Golden and it was driving him nuts. His heavy footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor as he passed through the sleek lines of his house. The sparse décor; black leather furniture, glass topped tables, and black and white prints on the walls, usually calmed him. Not today.

He stopped in front of a wall of windows comprising the entire back of the house, but didn’t see the manicured lawns in the backyard. Instead, a petite blond with emerald eyes stared back at him.

My lady? Had he actually called her that?

The words had rolled off his tongue as though he’d spoken them for years, when in fact he’d wouldn’t be caught dead saying anything so romantic.

He’d made an even bigger fool of himself sniffing her like some animal trying to figure out why her lemony scent seemed so familiar. Shit, she probably thought he was some creepy Hannibal Lecter guy. Not that it mattered what she thought of him, because he would never see her again. If he had to avoid his mother’s house while Golden was there, so be it.

It didn’t matter that both times he’d seen her a shockwave of electricity rocketed through him, straight to his cock. He wouldn’t be able to do anything about it anyway.

Fuck.

Why couldn’t he stop thinking about her? With a groan, he tried to push her image out of his mind, and headed down the short hall off the living room toward his office to get some work done.

Stopping in front of the chrome and glass desk, he picked up the reports from the quarry. His job was the only thing that kept him sane these days. His father had risked everything to buy the quarry from Cameron Alexander, and at first, that was the reason he’d worked so hard to keep it going. But now, it was all he had. All he’d ever have, really.

He had work to do, but her face kept interrupting his thoughts.

Protect her.

Great. Not only was he incapable of having a normal relationship with a woman, now he was hearing strange voices in his head.

This had been one fucking weird ass day.

He answered the ringing phone with trepidation. He’d snuck out the back door of his mothers to avoid this conversation. Of course, that was after he’d watched Golden leave, loving the angry expression scrunching her face. Adorable. And then he’d followed her to the store.

“Krzysztof Pietka, what the hell is wrong with you?”

Shit. His mother sounded upset.

He tossed the reports on the desk and sat in the chair, settling in for what was sure to be a long conversation.

“Ma—”

“You will go over to Golden’s house and apologize for your behavior. She is an Alexander. You make this right.”

He hadn’t heard his mother this mad since he’d broken the neighbor’s window playing hockey when he was ten. “Ma—”

“I didn’t raise you to be so rude. How could you treat her that way?”

He gave up trying to get a word in, he knew from experience it was a waste of time to try, and he wasn’t about to tell his mother the real reason he’d acted that way.

“Make this right, Kris or so help me God . . .”

“I’ll do it tonight.” He would regret it, he was sure, but it was the only way to get his mother off his back.

Chapter 2

 

“Get it together,” Golden said to herself, pulling off the deserted road onto a gravel drive. She’d already made two wrong turns. Granted, she’d only been in town for a day, but that wasn’t the reason she kept getting lost.

It was Asshole Guy invading her every thought.

Her stomach flip-flopped.

She couldn’t stop thinking about what happened at Mary’s and the store. The way she figured it, she had two choices. Somehow he was real and she’d dreamed of him without ever having met him, or she was crazy and hallucinating.

Her options, as usual, sucked.

If she were imagining him, it was far better than her California hallucination. She could definitely get down with Asshole Guy version of crazy, but still, she had to wonder if she’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole.

Maybe she should find a psychiatrist here . . . just in case.

Huge maples, spruces, and oaks lined the drive and sunlight filtered through their heavy boughs hanging over the road in an arc. The tree line broke after the last curve of the driveway, and she slowed her car. Nestled up on a small rise, surrounded by lush green grass sat her house. Her father’s house, but now it was hers. A colonial with yellow clapboard siding, green shutters, and a green slate roof. She smiled. She couldn’t believe she was here.

After putting away her groceries, she changed into some old jeans and a T-shirt. She grabbed a chocolate Pop Tart from the kitchen and went to explore the thirty acres of forest surrounding the house. Nature always cleared her head and she could definitely use some clarity.

Following an overgrown trail, snaps and crunches erupted as she broke dry twigs underfoot. The forest was quiet yet full of sound. Small animals scurried, birds sang, and insects buzzed. Peaceful. She stopped and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath through her nose.

Mmmm, woods and spice.”

Her lids popped open. It smelled like him. She tried to ignore the instant heat coursing through her as she pictured Asshole Guy.

A small trickle of sweat ran down the side of her neck and she envisioned his finger following the trail. A strange shiver of anticipation tickled its way down her spine.

God, she hoped he was real. She felt like a torch whenever she thought of him, which never happened when she’d dreamt of him. In the dreams he’d only stared at her with longing and she’d felt safe, it was never some erotic, hot and bothered kind of thing.

Her psychiatrist told her she’d invented him to help with the traumatic loss of her family, and she’d always thought he was right about that even though she hadn’t wanted to believe any of the other diagnoses.

She’d never wanted anyone touching her the way she wanted Asshole Guy to. Real or imagined. She tried to shake him from her mind and failed miserably.

The trail ended at a stacked, stone wall surrounding a small cemetery. Gray marble headstones looked ancient in the sunlight. Darkened with age, lichen covered much of the engravings. She walked around the small space and read the names, most were Alexanders.

The family plot.

Sun glinted off a flat stone with an arched top on the far side of the cemetery, and she made her way over the mole-softened ground toward it. A Celtic-knot design followed the curve on the stone and she whispered the inscription carved below the knot. “Gus am bris an là, agus an teich na sgàilean.”

Her parents had always spoken Gaelic to each other at home and she was pretty sure it meant, ‘Till the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

Rough lichen clung to the lower part of the stone’s surface and obscured part of the name, but she could see enough of the lettering to know it was an Alexander, and the date of death read, 22 June, 1922.

Under that, in small lettering, 21 years. She knelt and picked away the crusty fungus from the given name. After uncovering four of the six letters, she plopped her butt on the ground, and traced her finger in the grooves.

G. O. L. D.

A chill settled on her skin despite the warm day as she stared at the last two letters of her name. Pressing her finger against the N, a trickle of fear closed her throat and made it hard to take a breath.

She pulled her hand. Stuck.

She yanked harder.

Still nothing, like she’d touched her wet tongue to a frozen pole.

Heart hammering, cold sweat on her brow, she couldn’t get away. She pried her fingers against the stone, trying to release whatever held her hand firm.

Her cell phone rang in her pocket.

Grabbing her forearm, she yanked. The force it took to dislodge the connection sent her flailing backward. She landed on her back and crab-walked away from the stone.

Her phone stopped ringing.

She ran to the other side of the wall and narrowed her eyes at the stone. It felt like a million spiders crawled over her skin. She glanced at her bare forearms and swiped away the invisible creepy crawlies while running toward the house.

When she reached the rhododendrons bordering the back courtyard, she skidded to a stop and stared at the empty path. Tucking her shaking hands under her armpits, she gulped in air. The birds no longer chirped.

An eerie silence permeated the woods. She shivered.

Her phone shrilled.

She jumped and almost fell into the shrubs. Never looking away from the trail, she fumbled to pull her phone from her back pocket.

A bird cawed. The forest and all its sounds came back to life.

Her hair fell forward and tickled her forearm, and it was all she could do not to scream. She rushed into the sunroom and locked the door. Peering out the windows, she tried to slow her breathing. The phone started ringing again, and she tapped the screen to connect the call with her sister.

“Goldie, what’s wrong?” Izzy asked before she had a chance to say hello.

With a last glance into the backyard, she convinced herself it was her imagination, checked the deadbolt, and walked into the kitchen. “Nothing, why?”

Izzy sighed. “Not sure. Um . . . no reason, forget it. How do you like the house?”

No reason, my ass. Izzy never did anything without a reason. Maggie probably put Izzy up to it, knowing Golden wouldn’t tell Maggie if things weren’t going well, and rightfully so, it’d been Maggie who’d made her see a psychiatrist for five years and treated her like she was crazy.

Golden tried to sound excited, but a niggling fear rested heavy on her shoulders. “You would love it. It’s a huge rustic farmhouse. Lots of wood, red walls, brown furniture. Very cozy. Living room and dining room in the front on either side of the staircase, family room and kitchen in the back, and four bedrooms upstairs.”

“Ooh, I can’t wait to see it. I’m coming for your birthday next week. I’ll text you my flight info when I get settled back home.”

“Hey, Iz? Did Mom or Dad ever say who I was named after?”

“Someone in Scotland, I think, why?”

She told her about the tombstone and the other Golden, leaving out the weird part.

“I’m pretty sure it’s someone else, but who knows. They didn’t even tell us about relatives in Vermont, let alone them leaving Dad a house.”

They spoke for few more minutes, Izzy doing most of the talking, before Golden hung up.

The house was quiet, but her mind went a mile a minute as she stared at the green slate countertops in the kitchen. It was almost as if the phone ringing had broken whatever hold the stone had on her.

Unless it had all been in her mind. No, she wasn’t going there.

What could have caused the other Golden to die so young? God, was it genetic? If she were named after the woman, why didn’t they ever visit Vermont? Why hadn’t her parents ever mentioned these relatives? Or the house?

A thump on the front door echoed through the house. She jumped.

“Coming, hold on.” She set the rooster saltshaker she’d been playing with next to the pepper on the breakfast bar side of the center-island and cut through the dining room to the front door.

She pulled it open. A black SUV with dark tinted windows headed down the drive. She stepped onto the porch waving her hands, but the SUV never slowed and soon disappeared around the bend of the driveway. She turned to go back in and kicked something.

A small cardboard box.

She carried it to a wide-planked, pine table in the dining room, the wood’s discolorations giving a hint to its age. She could easily see a large family having many animated discussions around the table’s scarred surface, the same as she used to have back home before the accident ripped her life to shreds. She sighed.

The box was bare except for one word written in black curly-cue lettering: Alexander. Okay, no post markings meant it wasn’t from her sisters. She went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife.

Before making her way back to the dining room, she clicked on her favorite Celtic CD, not wanting to jump at every little noise the old house made. And with how strung out her nerves were, that’s exactly what she’d do.

She sliced through the clear tape securing the top of the box and folded back the flaps. Nestled in tissue paper, lay her father’s black leather journal.

Her throat tightened at the sight of his initials and she remembered the words he’d spoken so many years ago when she’d tried to look at what he’d been writing. ‘When you’re older, my Golden warrior, these will be yours. Be patient, but vigil. When the time comes you will need to see, but not yet.’

She’d searched everywhere after he died and never found any of his journals. How had one of them wound up in Vermont? And who had left it for her? She opened the front cover and stared at her father’s distinctive penmanship.

My dearest Golden warrior,

Would you be willing to take up a blade to save yourself and all those you hold dear? Would you my Golden lass?

Don’t ever forget where you came from. Life is a circle. You must remember this Golden, if you are to be the one. Always search for the truth. Fight with honor until your last breath on Earth for what is right and good.

I hope you’re still my Golden warrior. You will need to be when the time comes.

I love you, lass.

Da.

She swiped a tear from her cheek and set the journal down with shaking hands. This was too much. Why had he written that? He used to tell her stories of knights, and ladies who’d lived in castles in Scotland. It was something just the two of them shared, but this was written a week before he died. Two years after she’d told him she was too old for such stories.

A haunting melody of bagpipes, flutes, and drums filled the house with melancholic sounds of her youth. She scrubbed her face and sighed, staring at the journal. She was almost afraid to pick it up again, she felt like if she did something bad was going to happen.

With a pressing weight on her chest, she traced an arm dressed in silver armor embossed in the lower right hand corner of the journal. It pointed upward holding a sword, and above it, gold letters shined in the overhead light. Per mare, per terras.

“By sea, by land,’ she whispered as she gazed at her family crest and motto.

She brushed her finger over the tip of the sword, felt a sharp twinge, and jerked her hand to her chest, rubbing it.

She was losing it.

Pushing her hair out of her eyes, she ignored the nagging doom stabbing her brain and picked up the journal. She ran her hands over the soft leather avoiding the embossed corner. The CD changed pieces, and a rhythmic drum beat as a Gaelic chanting song thumped.

“Oh, Da.” She opened to a random page.

And froze.

On the white page, her father had drawn in intricate detail, a familiar winged creature. Heat spread into her fingertips as if the journal were a living thing, breathing fire. Terror sucked the breath from her.

Her hands shook. The beast began to move, undulating across the page. Red eyes bored into her. Her pulse thudded in her ears. Saliva dripped from the creature’s short pointed teeth. Mold and fire tainted the air.

The same as when it’d been in her bedroom—when she’d hallucinated the demon.

With exaggerated slowness, the beast’s forked tongue moved across its teeth. It taunted her with innuendo. Her breathing erratic, iridescent wings beat in time to the increasing rhythm of drums. She squeezed her eyes shut as the crescendo in the piece reached its peak.

The image remained. Seared into her memory.

The music stopped.

Her eyes popped open.

Kris stood at the other end of the table, a casserole dish in his hand. “You okay?”

She dropped the book on the table and stepped back, narrowing her eyes. Was he real? She should probably be afraid if Kris had just walked into her house, but after seeing her father’s drawing and what had happened in the cemetery, she was glad she wasn’t alone. And really glad he appeared to be real.

He placed the dish on the table and walked toward her. “You didn’t answer my knock.”

“That doesn’t usually mean walk on in, you know.”

She turned and wiped the tears from her cheeks. What was he doing here anyway? She barely knew the guy and what little she’d seen of him, she didn’t like. Sure he was hot, but he’d been completely rude and obnoxious when she’d seen him at his mother’s, and then out of the blue, called her my lady in the grocery store.

Maybe he had a split personality and she should be afraid.

She wasn’t.

Of him, anyway.

He stopped right in front of her, too close. He glanced at the table where the journal landed, and did a double take before scrunching his brows at her.

Why was he glaring at her, in her dining room?

A loud thump sounded from the back of the house. In perfect unison, they whipped their heads toward the kitchen. Kris looked back in her direction and his brows arched.

She shrugged and mouthed, “I don’t know.”

He motioned for her to stay put, as if he owned the place.

Ignoring him, she followed into the kitchen where he grabbed a butcher knife from the wooden holder on the counter. He paused long enough to shake his head at her presence before they crept toward the family room.

When he stopped suddenly, she almost ran into him and had to stop herself from thinking how much she wanted to wrap her arms around his waist and feel safe. Instead of embarrassing herself, she stepped around him.

Her mouth fell open.

Leaning against the armchair sat a huge framed kilt across the room from where it used to hang. She wiped her moist palms on her hips.

“That was on the wall over the fireplace,” she whispered, and pointed.

Her nerves were on sensory overload. Her pulse throbbed, mouth dry. Why did her life have to be so . . . creepy?

After searching the house and yard, they made their way back into the family room and Kris frowned at her. “There’s no one here, and with the exception of the front, all the doors are locked.”

“Then how . . .” She couldn’t finish her sentence. Without any explanation for how the frame moved itself across the room, more questions arose and she wasn’t sure she wanted the answers.

The frame moved itself. Not likely. Or she was now going into some kind of fugue state and rearranging the house. Acid burned her esophagus with the worry she was so much more than slightly nuts.

Wringing her hands, she walked over to the fireplace. On the mantle sat two heavy-duty screws and two wall anchors balanced on their heads. They pointed toward the ceiling, and the last quarter-inch near the tip was covered in a fine powder of wood and drywall dust. Raising her gaze to the wall, her breath hitched.

No holes marred the smooth surface.

Kris came up beside her. “I thought you said this was hanging here?”

Standing on her tiptoes, she reached up to where the holes should have been, but couldn’t reach. “I was in here a few minutes ago and it was on the wall.”

Kris ran his hand up the wall, almost to the ceiling, and tilted his head, studying it from different angles. “It doesn’t look like there’s ever been holes here. You’d be able to see or feel the drywall compound if they’d been covered.”

She glanced around the room, looking for tools of some kind. A drill? Paint? Shit, she wouldn’t even know how to cover holes in a wall if she had to. Calm down, breathe. You’re not crazy.

His gaze narrowed in her direction. “Are you sure it wasn’t just resting on the mantel and leaning against the wall?”

She bit her lower lip, shaking her head. “No, it was hanging. I was thinking of getting candles to put on the ledge because there was about eight inches of wall above it.”

He walked over to the chair and lifted the frame, his triceps bunched with the motion. “It’s heavy as hell.”

He turned in her direction, sizing her up. “I’m not sure you could even lift it, let alone get it down from there.”

She wanted to scream in frustration, but measured her tone. “I didn’t move it. Didn’t I just tell you that?”

His mouth pressed tight, he set the frame on the hardwood floor. Thump. She jumped at the same sound that had led them into the room.

He tilted his head. “Then how did it get here?”

That sure was the question of the hour. She shrugged and met his gaze. Like in her dreams, his blue eyes calmed her; she felt floaty and relaxed, the same as when Dr. Rosenthal had prescribed her Valium for stress.

He broke eye contact first and raked his hand through his hair. “I’ll be right back.”

She stared at his back as he disappeared into the dining room and an overwhelming sense of loss hit her. “Don’t leave me,” she whispered.

Her throat thickened and she swallowed.

What the hell?

With a sigh, she shook off the strange feelings, chalking it up to anxiety, and walked over to the red checked kilt. The huge, shadow box frame leaned against an arm of a brown velour club chair, and she crouched to get a better look. She grabbed the top of the frame and pulled it toward her. There had to be another explanation that didn’t involve her sanity.

Or lack thereof.

A small breeze blew her hair into her face. She bushed it back and frowned at the still blades of the ceiling fan, then glanced at the closed windows and the baseboard heater. The heat was off and the house didn’t have air conditioning. She wanted to scream, what the hell is going on?

The frame heated in her hand as if it rested on a bed of hot coals. She yelped, let go, and jumped back. Losing her balance, she landed hard on her ass. The frame fell onto the chair with a soft thud. Something fluttered underneath.

Oh God, was she hallucinating again?

Her gaze darted around the room, but nothing had changed, and there was only one way to find out if she was completely screwed in the sanity department.

She crawled to the other side of the chair, avoiding the kilt, and inched forward on her stomach. She reached her hand into the darkness.

This is most definitely a bad idea.

Her fingertips grazed whatever had slipped from the backing of the frame. It was real.

She stretched her fingers forward in a walking motion, trying to get a better hold while her face pressed against the side of the chair. She trapped it under her palm and slid out a single sheet of old parchment paper. It looked as though it’d been ripped from the pages of a book. Sitting back on her butt, she read the elegant faded black script:

21 June, 1922

It all began with Lailoken, the Druid High Priest, the Trickster. The destinies of three, forever altered by one. The curse began upon the altar of the old ways. Two bound by love, one by honor. Two destined to repeat the sacrifice, and one to forever bear witness.

There must be a way to end this. Time is short. I have seen the demon, and fear its fiery breath awaits Krzysztof and me, but I scarcely know what to do. At midday tomorrow, we will meet the priest at the church. I pray he can help us.

Acid coated her tongue, and she tried to swallow it down.

“Golden?”

She jumped.

“Look at this.” She stood and handed him the paper with shaking hands.

He read it, then looked at her with a crease between his eyebrows. “The day after this was written, the old Catholic church in Poultney burned to the ground. My great uncle Krzysztof, a local woman, and the priest all died. My grandmother was just talking about this the other day. This must be the woman—she must’ve been an Alexander.”

“There’s a headstone in the family plot dated June 22, 1922. The name on the stone is Golden Alexander.”

She wanted to tell him about the demon she’d seen, but knew he’d think she was crazy. Hell, she thought she was crazy.

She pressed her hand to her forehead and rubbed the dull throbbing pain.

“I have to show you something.” He set the note on the chair and handed her father’s journal to her.

She held it, but couldn’t take her eyes off Kris as he pulled his T-shirt over his head. Her pulse quickened.

She devoured his torso with her eyes. Smooth chest, tapered waist, jeans hugging hips, his corded six-pack disappeared below the faded blue material. A river of fire shot between her legs.

She’d never felt anything like it.

His arm waved in her line of sight. Embarrassed beyond belief, she was sure she was six shades of red.

“Why is my name next to this drawing?”

She had no idea what he was talking about. She tracked his hand as he pointed to a faint pink mark above his right pectoral, clearly visible against his tanned skin.

She sucked in a breath. Her hand shot to the left side of her chest, her inability to stop staring at him had nothing to do with desire anymore.

Fear turned her blood to ice.

Three lines originated from a central point, evenly spaced, and slightly scrolled at the ends. She pushed her pink V-neck shirt and bra strap off her shoulder exposing an identical mark.

Kris pulled the journal she held down by her side up to her face, and pointed.

A sketch of their birthmark blackened the white page. A triple spiral.

A triskelion.

Penned in her father’s hand, beside each of the scrolled ends of the symbol:

Goldhain—Krzysztof—Curse.

Chapter 3

 

Kris’s nerve endings singed and tingled. A live electrical wire snapping within him as he stared at Golden’s chest.

With her shirt pulled off her shoulder, the creamy swell of her breast pushed up from the visible edge of her pink bra. The color almost matched her flushed cheeks and he wondered if she looked as beautiful when she climaxed. She raised her gaze from the journal to his chest, and his cock jumped in his jeans.

Jamming his hands in his front pockets, his heart thudded with anticipation. Right, anticipation of what? Nothing was going to happen in that department, except embarrassment and pitying looks.

No thanks, fuck me very much.

She scrunched her brows and slowly shook her head as though confused. The journal fell to the floor. She swayed.

Oh, Shit.

He scooped her into his arms before she followed the journal down. Her head wobbled and fell against his forehead. He stiffened.

Arms wrapped around her waist, torsos flush, her feet dangling, God, she was tiny and felt so damned good against him, smelled wonderful too. Citrus and ginger. He closed his eyes and concentrated on keeping nausea from crawling up his throat.

It would come. It always did.

The nerve endings on his chest lit up. Golden tensed and let out a small cry. He looked at his birthmark, now practically on fire. Golden’s markings perfectly mirrored his own.

Protect her.

Protect her? He seriously had some genetic defect of some sort. Impotent from a woman’s touch and hearing voices. There had to be some named disorder covering everything wrong with him. He was a walking side effect from some drug. May cause uncontrollable nausea, vomiting, impotence, and strange voices.

He sucked in a breath and tried to figure out a logical explanation as to why this beautiful woman had an exact replica of his birthmark painted on her skin.

His mother.

She’d been trying for years to get him into a relationship, said he worked too hard. And she’d insisted he come over here tonight. She must’ve concocted the whole thing. God, what did it say about Golden that she went along with it?

Stay away. That’s what it said. No problem there, he would just skedaddle his ass right outta here and not look back.

He looked up.

Her gaze bored into his.

Time stopped. The house and everything in it, faded. Intense heat caressed his penis and took his brain from his skull. He wanted her. To hell with the fact he’d end up embarrassing himself when he had to run to the bathroom to lose his lunch.

His lips brushed hers. Sweet and plump. The feather light touch reminded him of something he couldn’t quite remember but desperately wanted to.

Her full breasts pressed against his chest. She sighed against his mouth. Cock hard, throbbing with need, he didn’t stop to analyze why that was; he’d just enjoy it while it lasted. Tentative and soft, their mouths moved. His tongue flicked across the seam of her lips, and she opened for him. He groaned and took the invitation, delving inside.

As if they’d kissed a million times before, their tongues twirled. He tightened his arm around her waist, palmed the back of her head, pressing her more fully to his mouth.

A torturous scream resounded behind him.

He jerked away from Golden and turned toward the sunroom. A black shadow blocked the ceiling fan light before disappearing.

“What the . . .” Spell broken, instantly alert, a sliver of unease tensed his muscles.

She wiggled from his hold and slid down to the floor. When she stepped away from him, his chest tightened with loss as though surrounded by an invisible vice grip.

“I’ve seen that shadow in California, Pennsylvania, and now here. I think it’s following me.” She looked terrified.

Raking his hair while walking into the sunroom, he looked everywhere. He ran his hand in front of the light trying to replicate the shadow. He couldn’t. An overpowering need to protect Golden sucker punched him, and he jerked his attention back to her. She stood in front of the kilt, dancing back and forth on her toes, biting a fingernail, staring at him.

“I don’t want you staying here tonight. Grab some things, you’re coming with me.” Another bad idea, he knew the moment the words were out of his mouth.

He was sure there was a logical explanation for everything, but hell if he knew what it was. He knew what it wasn’t though—unexplained shadows, demons, or curses.

More likely, an overactive imagination, conniving Polish mother, and Golden, new in town with stalker tendencies. Whatever the fuck it was, he had to get them out of the house. The place totally creeped him out.

He walked back into the family room and picked up the journal from the floor next to Golden. She looked like a waif standing there. “Okay?”

She nodded and he followed her to the stairs.

He would let her crash at his place tonight and then figure out what to do with her and his mother tomorrow.

***

Thirty minutes later, they were sitting at an end of his glass dining room table with plates of Golumpki and glasses of wine while Golden stared at the untouched journal on the far side of the table.

The wine had put color back into her cheeks and he was glad. She’d looked so pale on the ride over. So fragile. They hadn’t spoken on the short trip, he’d been lost in figuring out what to do with her, and she’d probably been lost in his mother’s plan.

But he refused to analyze what he felt when he was around her. He wasn’t going to get involved with anyone, it never worked out. End of story.

He pushed aside the sudden ache in his chest and cleared their plates. After refilling their wine glasses, he urged Golden to the sofa in the living room and went to start a fire. He liked to keep the thermostat set at freezer mode in the summer, but he wanted to make sure she stayed warm.

With the fire now blazing, he grabbed the journal and sat on the other end of the couch from her. “You mind?” He held the book out in her direction.

She shook her head and covered her face with her arm, probably embarrassed. He skimmed through the journal until he came to a drawing of a demon. So lifelike, it watched him. Dread hit him hard.

Shit, too much wine.

He quickly turned the page and stared at the drawing of his birthmark, running through explanations in his mind. Either she or his mother had drawn the triskelion, and Golden planted the note behind the frame for him to find. Made sense. Someone must have been hiding in the house, moved the frame, and made the screeching noise and shadow. He could have missed them when he searched the house.

The only thing he couldn’t explain was why. He was far from a great catch. He understood his mother planning the whole thing, she wanted him to settle down with someone. He was pissed as hell, but he understood.

But why this gorgeous woman would feel the need for an elaborate plan like this didn’t make sense. She could have anyone she wanted with the bat of a single eyelash. Well, except him, but he was broken.

As he thumbed through more pages, he was completely aware of how far she sat from him. An invisible current tugged him toward her. Resisting the urge of his unreliable libido, he leaned forward and rested his arms on his thighs.

“Why did you write all this?”

She moved her arm and hit him with a glare. “I told you, I didn’t write that. It’s my father’s journal and was left on my doorstep today.”

God, she was cute as hell when she was angry.

“It went missing after he died. I have no idea who left it.” She continued to scowl at him. “I don’t understand how my father knew you, or that we share a birthmark. I was reading it for the first time when you showed up.” She sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Why did you come over anyway?”

“Ah, I came to apologize for being a dick at my mothers.”

“Oh.”

In the silence that followed, he returned his attention to the book. He really wanted to believe she was telling the truth, but if that were the case, things just got a whole hell of a lot weirder. He turned the page, deciding to give her the benefit of the doubt for the time being.

“Listen to this.

‘Golden Alexander, b. 21 June 1901, Poultney, Vt.—d. 22 June 1922 in church fire in Poultney, Vermont with Krzysztof Pietka, b.1894 Chocholow, Poland.

Golden MacAlexander, b. 22 June 1811, Menstrie, Scotland—d. 21 June 1832 in fire at home in Krakow, Poland with Krzysztof Pietka, b.1804 Chocholow, Poland.

Goldhain McAllister, b. 10 June 1721, Tarbert, Scotland—d. 10 June 1742 in fire at Barmore House, Tarbert, Scotland with Krzysztof Pietka, b.1714 Poland.

Goldhain Alexander, b. 11 June 1631, Menstrie, Scotland—d. 10 June 1652 at Balquharn Mine, Menstrie, Scotland with Krzysztof Pietka, b.1624 Poland.’”

A cold chill ran down his spine. “There are four more with variations on your name and they all died with Krzysztof Pietka.” What the fuck was going on? Had she made all this up? God, this was crazy, but it somehow rang true.

She sat up and scooted over next to him. Their bodies touched as she looked around his shoulder at the journal, a low-level hum coursed through him.

“Kris, June twenty-first, my birthday, is six days from now. All these women died the day before or the day after their twenty-first birthday, with the exception of the one in 1742 who died on her birthday.” She looked at him with pure terror on her face and whispered, “I’ll be twenty-one this year.”

She jumped from the couch and paced in front of the fire. “How can this be possible? Do you believe any of—” She stopped long enough to stare at him with her wide emerald cat eyes while frantically gesturing to the journal and their birthmarks. “This?”

His thoughts scrambled as he attempted to reason things out.

“I don’t know what to believe.” He wanted to believe her, he really did. And by the look of it, she believed it and was scared to death. “Can I see your mark again?”

She walked over and pulled her shirt off her shoulder, he peered at it. It looked real. He wet his fingertip and scrubbed it. Fuck, wasn’t paint. It couldn’t be a new tattoo, it would be scabbed and puffy, and she’d only just met his mother today so an old tattoo made no sense.

Okay, he was starting to freak out a little. Something strange was going on here, and coincidence didn’t begin to cover it.

His grandmother’s warning popped into his head as Golden pulled her shirt to rights and began to wear a trail on his hardwood floor. “When I was a kid, my grandmother spoke of a family curse. She said I would be the one to slay the demon. I always thought she was telling tales of Polish superstition mixed with folklore to scare me into doing what I was told.”

He stood and blocked her pacing. Shoving his hands in his front pockets, he analyzed her face. Shit, she was so familiar.

“I think tomorrow we need to pay a visit to my grandmother and see what she knows, and try to figure out who left the journal at your house.” He didn’t like it, but he was starting to believe something bigger than the both of them was going on, and it was bad.

“Do you think it could be true? Do you think we’re going to die?” She spoke in a whisper, almost to herself.

An overwhelming need to comfort her pushed aside any fear he may have had. He braced himself for the nausea and wrapped his arms as tight as he could around her.

Protect her.