When the train slowed and shuddered to a halt without any warning, Charlotte was able to stop her artistʼs portfolio from sliding off the vinyl seat opposite with one rapidly and strategically placed foot. Protecting her prints and unfinished work took highest priority, which was why she whipped one long limb, clad in a thinly banded silk knee-high sock out from under her, before thinking to grab the slim-line smartphone that just as swiftly rocketed onto the floor. Bracing the portfolio more firmly with her grey calfskin satchel, she cursed softly as she reached down to find her hopefully still-intact phone and her knee-high Marc Jacobs black suede and leather button boots. Charlotte craned her neck when she bobbed upward from her search, trying to see through the patches of early morning September mist outside the 360 degree concave plexiglass window. A sign made bleary by the fog read North Bay; she sighed with frustration, and then again with growing anxiety, chewing on her upper lip. Only a few hours remained of the long journey north from Toronto, where she would finally be safe from the malevolent being following her every move, and they were stopped again!
And the loss of momentum did nothing to ease the nagging feeling that something not right, not natural, was still lurking just out of sight. She shivered, finally locating the mobile under the adjacent seat. Checking its functions, she gave up for the moment on her boots to fish instead for hand sanitizer and a lipstick. After removing floor grit from her fingers, she began to carefully reapply colour to her lips – the light plum shade would do nothing to protect her from her stalker, but somehow made her feel better, like psychological armor. The light outside the passenger car was dim enough still that the glass beside functioned as a mirrored surface. It also enabled her to unobtrusively scan her surroundings, while she cast a search-and-protect spell around herself. Just as the magick dissipated, rippling into the air, without detecting any immediate peril, her eyes caught the amused gaze of a man in a dark brown jacket. Pausing, before slowly putting a final coat on her full lips and pressing to blot, she registered not only that he was scanning her in return, he was grinning appreciatively at her – and holding her boots.
It was no wonder her guard had gone up, with a man like this nearby. Of course, he wasnʼt nearly as threatening as the vampire whoʼd stalked her from the shadows for over a year, but he was putting her on edge, just the same. How long, exactly, had he been observing her before sheʼd noticed him? Long legs clothed in clean, worn denim led to a battered, dark chocolate brown leather bomber, straining over broad shoulders; the high shearling collar was opened, exposing a collarless blue linen shirt. His grin widened as she turned and he held up her Marc Jacobs. Charlotte was startled by the beautiful strangeness of his eyes – silvery grey irises bordered by a fine line of deep blue. For a moment, she wondered how might might feel to touch the mahogany hair curling slightly over his forehead and just under his ears, to brush her palm over the dark caramel stubble on his jaw – would it feel deliciously coarse and masculine, or soft and velvety like a cat? He ran the tip of his tongue over his upper lip, and Charlotte shivered with a sudden wave of longing, bringing her back to herself. She couldnʼt afford to fall for anyone, she knew, or even to have a friend – it was still too dangerous. Swallowing the unintentional reaction, she narrowed her eyes, and held her hand out for the boots.
Pike had thought nothing would ever surprise him in this world again, and then the train had stopped when he was about to pass this incredible creature. Physical balance had never been a problem for him; he could keep his feet on a tossing crab ship in the north Pacific when the ice was slick and the waves were high, and squirrel up among the uppermost branches of a West Coast pine without fear. So why, when he met the forthright, challenging gaze of those hazel eyes, was he suddenly feeling like he was falling? Heʼd definitely enjoyed the spectacle as sheʼd searched for her things, especially her finely shaped bottom wiggling around in that short, soft-looking burgundy wrap-dress, while she retrieved her cell phone. Her boots had slid right to his feet just behind her, but heʼd taken his time in picking them up – the show was too good to miss. By the time sheʼd turned to the window to put on her lipstick – an action heʼd always thought of for any woman as being enticingly erotic – the hem of her dress had risen much farther past her knees than sheʼd known, revealing several inches of smooth, honey-toned thigh. And then sheʼd caught him watching in the reflection of the glass, and turned around to blast him to cinders with her glare. For a moment, the high cheeks of her heart-shaped face had flushed, and her eyes widened with something he thought he recognized as desire, before sheʼd shut that down to project indignant cool. She snapped the tube of colour closed, her eyes flashing. He suppressed a chuckle, widening his smile as she sniffed and reached out for her footwear, obviously expecting him to kneel like a high-class shoe salesman in some downtown boutique. Her breasts, round and perky under the v-neck of her dress, rose as she took a breath and sighed. Oh, he was enjoying himself all right.
Charlotteʼs face burned as his eyes wandered down her body, roving over her curves. Choosing cool indifference over red-hot anger, she inhaled slowly to slow her heart, crossing her legs as she pulled the hem of her dress back down. Highly aware that he was probably mentally stripping away the layers of her clothing – and deciding to ignore the fact that she had been imagining his body as well – she waited for him to pass over her boots. When he didnʼt still didnʼt move, she gave up on polite nonchalance.
“Good morning,” she stated, dropping her hand. “Do you know why the train has stopped?”
“Youʼre not going to ask for these?”
His eyes twinkled. “Cinderella only lost one,” he explained, “and she was
probably nice enough to say please when it was given back. Though, these are clearly not tiny little things meant for dancing.” The bass tenor of his voice raised
goosebumps on her skin. She chose to ignore the way it was making her quiver.
“Well, I assumed that anyone with good manners might just say something first, like, ʻAre these yours?ʼ or ʻHere, I found your boots.ʼ” Charlotte replied coldly,
“but you just stood there, so clearly you wanted to start a conversation.”
“Hmm. You know what they say about those who assume, donʼt you?” His eyes penetrated hers for a moment. Was he seriously flirting with her, at six oʼclock in the morning? Before she could form a freezing retort, and send him packing, he plopped down into the empty place beside her, pulled her legs into his lap, and pushed one of the three-inch heels onto her foot. The movement caught her off- guard, and she slid down against the wall of the train while he swiftly fastened the buttons along her calf. She liked what he was doing – the way he asserted himself attracted her. But Charlotte didnʼt have the liberty of indulging in a sexual encounter, no matter how appealing the guy was. Shoving herself upright again, she tried to pull her leg back, but Pikeʼs grip was firm. Holding her leg in place on his, he reached for the other one, ignoring her protests.
This time, instead of working with a precision that bordered on
professionalism, Pike held her foot still for a moment, squeezing the instep gently. Ye gods! Her foot, a size 10 in proportion to her willowy 5ʼ 11ʼʼ frame, looked positively tiny in his big, tanned and calloused hands. He rubbed his thumb deliberately slowly along the arch, drawing his fingers along the silky bands of colour. Her breath caught, and at the same instant, her eyes met his. She read humour, and hunger in his expression, as he gently placed the lightly tapered toe of the open boot and drew the suede up along her leg, smoothing it over her toned calf muscle. One eyebrow arched at her as his hand approached her knee, and for a thrilling second she wanted that hand to go further. Flustered, she slapped at his hand, and whisked her legs off his lap, turning her flaming face away as she finished the buttons herself.
Sheʼd shut him down, so why was he still there? When she sat up again, the irritating man was lounging, one battered workboot propped close to her portfolio.
And he was still watching her, speculatively, chewing on a toothpick. Charlotte eyed it with distaste. “You never answered my question,” she said. “Do you know why the train stopped?”
Pike had caught the widening of her eyes, the dilation of her pupils, as heʼd caressed her softly curving limb with a practiced hand; now, as she pulled herself back together, he decided to keep tabs on this fascinating woman. He hadnʼt met with many who had demonstrated such excellent self-restraint when heʼd put on the charm like this. Pike knew how to pleasure a woman, and usually, the females he went after enjoyed his attentions, reciprocating whole-heartedly. A challenge was a rarity in his life, and thatʼs what she was, as she glared again at him, her hazel eyes like the leaves in the changing boreal forest – shades of green, brown, and gold. Her aggravation was the flame of the maple trees, under a mass of wavy midnight hair that reminded him of a moonless night. A golden ankh on a fine gold chain had slipped out from under her neckline, and now she caught it defensively, to tuck it away in her cleavage. As much as she frowned, she couldnʼt take away from the sexy angles of her features. No wonder he couldnʼt stop grinning.
“Itʼs a police check,” he confided, leaning across her to look out the window, to take in her fragrance. A lock of her hair brushed against his skin as he pulled back, taking the toothpick from his mouth. “Just a precaution, thereʼs been some drug smuggling lately.”
Charlotte swiveled to try for a better look, disbelieving. “All the way up here? Youʼre kidding.”
Pike was now heartily amused. He knew he could have her eating out of the palm of his hand – teasing her would be an enjoyable way to spend the remaining few hours until he got to Talbot. “Well, itʼs not the first time Iʼve made this ride,” he stated easily, looking at the way the rising sun glistened against the flecks of gold in her autumn-toned irises. “Thereʼs a market up here, like anywhere else; the drugs get shipped away from the city and then are distributed along the Trans- Canada. Hell, thereʼs been contraband on the railway since the tracks were laid.” He shrugged. “Or, it could just be a moose on the tracks. Thatʼs been known to happen.” She noticed a few dark, curling hairs fringed the slight v-shaped opening of his collarless linen shirt, and she found herself wondering whether they might feel rough or silky against her skin.
“What are you betting on?” she teased, amazing herself with her daring. Where had she found the courage to flirt, after all sheʼd been through in the past twelve months?
Pike chuckled. Now she was getting into the game. “Well, personally, Iʼm waiting on a call.” He leaned against the headrest, tilting his face closer toward hers. Impressively, she didnʼt shrink away. “You see, only the real professionals know how to outfox the police.” He winked, and Charlotte inhaled sharply. As her senses registered his utterly arousing male scent, and her heart raced, he smoothly withdrew a card from his pocket, turning it in his roughened, slender fingers. “So, where are you headed, Cinderella?”
“I thought knee-high boots didnʼt qualify me for the category of damsel in distress.”
He dipped his head in concession. “Well, in the absence of a formal introduction.”
“Talbot,” she replied unwillingly, astonishing herself. She hadnʼt told anyone about her destination other than her contact there, an event coordinator who had engaged her as Artist in Residence and to be a guest speaker at the Fall Fair and Art Festival. He grinned again, making her vibrate right to her core. “Well, isnʼt that – convenient? Thatʼs just where Iʼm headed.” With one last twinkle of his heart- stopping silver eyes, he stood and passed her his card. “Iʼll have to look you up, Cindy.” Whistling a jaunty tune, he sauntered away down the aisle, leaving her feeling curiously unsatisfied.
Charlotte struggled with herself, and managed to keep from craning her neck to watch him go. The train lurched and shuddered, picking up speed again, and she looked at the card heʼd left her. Pike Mahonen. Well, Pike, she thought to
herself, youʼre now on the top of my list of people to avoid. Sighing, she considered tearing the little piece of cardstock in half, before guiltily tucking it away in her handbag. Falling in love, or even lust, was at the bottom of her list of priorities. She had to keep her focus, stay alert. As soon as she got to her destination – the small town which had once been the provinceʼs most important silver camp – she hoped that the isolation would help to protect her from a fate worse than death. No-one knew she was going there, except the event organizer, and even that was being kept under wraps. She would start over, in Talbot. And she would do it alone. As for that nagging feeling of nastiness dogging her – feeling the warmth of the sun, and watching the mist evaporate, she felt the weight of it coming off her shoulders.
And in the boxcar behind her, hidden beneath the masses of iron equipment in a lead-lined crate sealed off from the sun, the vampire smiled.