Ivy Green was sick and tired of rescuing her little sister, Heather. But--she was doing it again. For the umpteenth time. This time was the worst yet.
Ivy drove along the sand and gravel road that cut through the pine trees as easily as driving on the Interstate except it was just a bit slower. Michigan back roads were definitely not what she was used to. All the dust and sand kicked up by her tires cloaked her car in a thin layer of grime. She didn't like it. Ivy liked the city. Chicago. Lived there all of her life. Never wanted to leave.
The diversity of the city was her bread and butter. Ivy was a private investigator--specializing in pulling kids out of the deep Goth scene for parents who hadn't paid attention when their kids were at home but now that they were gone, wanted them back. She could never understand how anyone could ignore their kid long enough they couldn't see what they were getting into, what connections they were making. Especially on-line these days. Didn't parents know the sort of people who were out there, just waiting to prey on unsuspecting teenagers? She'd never do that to one of her own kids. If she ever had any. Which was very unlikely at this stage of the game. Two failed marriages under her belt and no desire to take a relationship past the third date kind of left the option of kids and picket fences in limbo.
Ah well. Could be worse. Of course, not much was worse than chasing after an errant baby sister who wasn't a baby anymore but sure acted like one. Heather might as well be Ivy's kid. Ivy was only three years older than Heather but it didn't make any difference. Heather was twenty-five going on fifteen and acted accordingly.
"When I get my hands on her..." She gripped the steering wheel tighter as if it were her sister's neck. Wishing it was Heather's neck.
The waning sun filtering through the pines cast the road in a greenish light, enhancing the effect of the landscape being so alien to her. The air was nice, the scent fresh and full of pine, even if it did have the hint of 'dusty road' mixed in. Not like the medicinal odor of the pine tree air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror of her last 'date's' car.
Why did it seem like every guy she dated fit the same profile? Too 'in', too pale, too boring. They were always worried about the opinions of other people, always wanting to be in style, to be 'Metro-sexual'.
It was bullcrap.
What she really would like to see was tall, dark and dangerous as hell. Sure, you could find that in Chicago but the 'danger' part could require a really high price when you moved in the circles she did. Plus, in the Goth crowd, her twenty-eight years was considered bordering on geriatric. She didn't want to snag some guy just past his teens.
Give me experience. She flicked her headlights on high beam as she drove though a mysteriously dark section of woods. Experience beats youth and hard bodies hands down in my book. Yeah. Some well-experienced man who knows how to please a woman. One who isn't concerned only with himself but likes to hear a woman moan with passion. Like she'd meet a guy like that out here in the Michigan wilderness. Right.
She braked for a stop sign, dimming her lights. It was a crossroads, the scenery looking the same in every direction. Dammit, she was lost. She dug through the pile of road-trip mess on the passenger seat and pulled out her atlas. Centering it on the steering wheel, she turned on the dome light for a little added brightness and scanned the map of Lower Michigan.
"Well, this says a lot for your talent of investigation, Ivy, ol' gal," she grumbled to herself. Her finger traced a blue line up the map. "Throw you into the woods and you get lost. Some investigator you are." Not making any headway with the map--knowing even looking at the map was a waste of time because this narrow sandy road wouldn't be on it anyway--Ivy slammed the atlas shut and tossed it back into the passenger seat. She rested her hands on the steering wheel, her fingers tapping. There was something she was missing. Something that would lead her in the right direction. What was it? She narrowed her eyes and scanned the road.
She had been headed for the western shoreline of Lake Michigan when she'd gotten off the Interstate. Heather had left Chicago three days ago. It had taken Ivy a full day to trace one of her sister's weird friends who knew something about where she had gone. The friend--a creepy little girl who used way too much black eyeliner-- said Heather had left with Catharine and Elizabeth. When Ivy asked who the hell they were, Little Creep said all she knew was Catharine and Elizabeth had British accents and lived on a boat. They said they were trying to spread the word about the life, and Heather had gone with them. Of course, Ivy went on to ask 'What do you mean ... the life?' Little Creep had replied 'Being Sanguinarian.'
Immediately, Ivy had the sickening feeling her sister had gone too far this time. After doing some additional checking around at some of the underground clubs, she found out that the two women in question were into a form of blood sport that was gaining fans. But these women took it seriously. They were rumored to be true vampires. Not the movie kind--but real blood drinkers. Not ones who only took a sip, no...they were the sort who wanted a full glass of it. Now Heather was involved with them and Ivy had no idea to what extent. What if she caught some disease or something?
From all of the information she had gleaned in just twenty-four hours, these two women sounded like the Pied Pipers of the Vampire Wannabes. So last night, she had hit the road in search of a cabin cruiser by the name of Bloody Hell carrying at least two women and her wayward sister.
Blood sport was one thing. Living the Sanguinarian lifestyle as these two women supposedly did was another. Heather was known to dive head first into the next new thing that struck her fancy and if she was out there drinking blood, it scared Ivy half to death. Reason being: Ivy didn't think Heather would stop to ask if her 'victim' was clean. As in 'disease free.'
Of course, victim wasn't the right word. Donor was. People who were Sanguinarian didn't take blood by force. At least that's what she had found while doing her last job tracking down a sixteen-year-old who really thought he was a vampire. Ivy had pretended to want to be a donor to get people to open up to her and allow her access into the lifestyle so she could track down the teen. Sanguines didn't open up easily. They protected their own. She could see why. Their lifestyle left them open to persecution. She had ferreted out the teen and gotten him back to his parents while also gaining some knowledge about the culture. But...from what she had learned, these two women were way more extreme than any Ivy had ever encountered.
She sighed. The sun was going down and she still hadn't decided which way to take. She'd been sitting here a good fifteen minutes already. The sun dipped lower, sending shafts of light through the pine boughs, making everything look surreal and dreamlike. Ivy winced when a bright shaft of light struck her directly in the eyes. Duh. Sun sets in the west. The lake is west of me, otherwise this car would be underwater. She pulled out into the intersection, turning left, toward the setting sun.
The blare of a car horn caused her to swerve, fishtailing in the sand and gravel. Fighting for control, Ivy gritted her teeth and waited to hear the crunch of metal she was sure would follow. Her car slid off the side of the road, the rear tires burying themselves in soft sand as the front end swung around. Eyes wide in horror, she saw the big black car slew sideways, throwing up a spray of sand in a huge wave, heading straight for her. With a sharp intake of breath, she covered her face with her hands and did something she rarely did.
Holt fought the steering wheel, the tires of the Lincoln sliding on the sandy gravel as if it were ice. He had seen the little white car sitting at the stop sign. He'd never thought in a million years it would pull out right in front of him. The driver had never even looked. He'd laid on the horn and hit the brakes. He must have scared her because she lost control and slid into the ditch. Now he was trying his best not to ram into her. He swung the wheel to the left, barely sliding by the front end of the other car.
Safely around her, Holt shifted back to the right and skidded to a stop, the Lincoln rocking on its suspension.
He took a deep breath, watching the dust cloud swirl and settle.
Rogue broke the silence. "That was some damn good driving there, Holt. Thought you were going to nail her for sure."
He glanced at Rogue. He was calmly sitting in the passenger seat, grinning from ear to ear. Colin sat in the back, not saying a word.
A loud clap against his window caused Holt to jump.
"Uh-oh." Rogue leaned forward. "Company."
Holt turned to look. Standing outside his car door was a woman. And from the evil look on her face, he could tell she was pissed.
"You going to sit there all day or what?" Her voice loud enough to carry easily into the car.
"Oh boy. You want me to handle this one, old buddy?" Rogue tapped him on the shoulder. "I'm pretty good with the ladies, you know."
Holt didn't reply. He opened his door and got out. He closed the car door behind him and turned. Before he knew what hit him, he was slammed back against the car by a two-handed blow to the chest.
"What the hell were you trying to do, scare me to death?" The tiny woman's voice echoed off the trees.
Holt pushed himself off the car and before she could shove him again, he snared her wrists in his hands.
"Let go of me, you..."
Holt said one word. "Stop."
The woman became utterly still, looked up at him, head tilted. Her eyes bright, she studied him.
His heart stuttered for a second when he looked down at the most angelic face he had ever seen. Her eyes were intelligent, intense and the color of warm, melted chocolate with brows that arched daintily above them, accenting the way they tilted up at the corners. Her nose was small and pert. She had a bow of a mouth that only looked more delectable as he watched the tiny pink tip of her tongue peek out to wet her lips. Her skin was smooth and most assuredly creamy beneath a pale ivory makeup.
Holt swore he could see the hint of freckles sprinkled across her nose, which she evidently was trying to hide with the pale powder she wore. Her hair was raven black, likely dyed, but it set off her skin so expertly she looked made of alabaster. The effect of her angelic face, combined with her fiery attitude and wild dress only managed to make him wonder what it would be like to be in bed with her with that pretty little face with its pouty mouth hovering above him while she rode him like a wild horse.
Her effect on him shocked and excited him at the same time. He had to shake it off. He heard the electric sound of a car window lowering.
"Need some help there, Holt?" Colin asked from the back seat.
The woman's eyes shifted to Colin. "Does he ever need your help?"
Holt heard a laugh issue from inside the car. Rogue. "I don't need anything." Holt released her wrists.
"O...kay." The window went back up.
The woman--really just past being a girl--rubbed her wrists. "I see you handle women like you do the road."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Like you own it." She tucked her hands into the back pockets of her ripped jeans.
Pretty defiant for someone who barely comes up to my chest. He forced himself not to smile at her impishness. "Seems to me you're the one who thinks she owns the road."
Her finger came up, swift as a drawn gun, and pointed at him. "You are the one racing down these back roads--"
"You are the one who pulled out in front of me." Holt suddenly had an uncontrollable urge to kiss that feisty mouth. He fought it.
She folded her arms across her chest and tilted her chin higher. "Are you going to help me get my car unstuck?"
"If you're nice."
She pursed her lips, hesitating. "Just how nice do I have to be?"
Holt thought for a moment before he spoke. It would be so easy to... He cleared his throat. "You have to be civil."
"Civil?" She raised one perfect eyebrow.
What is she thinking? That she would have to do something 'extra?' It would be nice but... "That's it," he said. "Can you manage that?"
"Fine." She stood looking at him, her eyes daring. "Well?"
He shook his head and turned back toward the car. He opened the door, shut the engine off then looked at Rogue and Colin. "Let's get her car back on the road."
Ivy shoved her hands back in the pockets of her jeans so that tall, dark and dangerous couldn't see the way they trembled. Not only had the near miss shaken her--his presence rocked her back on her heels. Good grief, talk about being careful what you wish for. She had been thinking about what kind of man could light her fireworks not long before that exact man ran her off the road. She had been 'pure angry' when she got out of her car, and that was why she'd shoved him. His chest had felt like solid rock under the palms of her hands and when he fell against the side of his car, she had been amazed she'd been able to move him at all. The top of her head didn't even come up to his chin.
When he latched onto her wrists and uttered that one word--'stop'--it had been a command. One she couldn't ignore. That's when she looked up into his eyes and a tremor passed through her like an earthquake. Pure animal, primal attraction. Thank God, he didn't seem to notice.
There was nothing about this guy that even whispered weakness. He looked like raw power on a stick. She had actually licked her lips before she could stop herself. It was his eyes that caught her attention. Black as night, she could swear he had to be wearing contacts. His eyes held a sharp intelligence that she'd never seen in a man who dressed like him, completely in black. His slicked-back black hair was caught in a leather thong at the back of his neck; she had noted it when he'd turned around. His skin was neither pale nor rosy but there was a definite five o'clock shadow accenting a firm, solid jaw. Her gaze had traveled from his eyes to his mouth. His lips were full and wide, but not too wide. Kissable. Nipable.
His hands had held her wrists firmly, heat radiating from them, but she could tell there was even more strength behind that grip. He was holding back. She had been glad because from the size of his biceps, which she had a lovely view of thanks to the tight short sleeves of his black T-shirt, she knew he could crush her wrists like toothpicks. His arms were the size of her thighs. Bigger, even.
Ivy watched him as he bent into the car to shut it off and was pleased with the way his black jeans hugged his firm ass. A damn nice ass. She sighed. Too bad she was on a rescue mission. And too bad there were two more men getting out of his car. She'd love to be alone with him, out here in the middle of nowhere with night coming on. The possibilities were endless. But they weren't alone and she knew better. Well, her mind knew better. It was a struggle to stave off what her body wanted. She turned her attention to the two other men.
Both of the other men were drop-dead gorgeous but neither of them had that certain aura of controlled menace that Tall, Dark and Dangerous did. That presence.
One of the men was slim and his hair was a bit lighter in color, with a good build and a look of mischief on his face with a smile that said trouble with a capital T. The other wasn't so tall, had wonderful chestnut hair and striking green eyes with an expression which was pure business and serious effort. They both nodded at her and smiled.
She didn't smile back. Don't let your guard down. You're on a deserted road with a car that's stuck and three very healthy looking strangers. Who knows what they're up to?
"We'll have you out of the sand in a minute," the dark god said.
Dang, was he ever ... stunning.
"Right." She walked to the rear of the long, black car and leaned a hip against it as the men began to work on solving her little problem.
The long-haired one got in her car while the other two placed themselves at the back bumper, ready to push.
"Hey, Holt," the one in the car said, leaning out the door, "forward or reverse?"
"Forward." The dark god bent down and grasped the back bumper of her car.
So, his name is Holt. What an odd name.
"Now," Holt called out.
The one in the car floored it.
Holt and the other one sputtered in the cloud of sand thrown up by the spinning tires. Both men almost fell face forward as the car lurched ahead then stalled in its forward progress.
"Rogue! Stop!" Holt yelled, regaining his footing. The one in the driver's seat hit the brake and leaned out the window.
Ivy turned her back and covered her mouth with her hand. The sleep-deprived giggles were on the edge of overtaking her at the sight of sand-covered Holt. She couldn't help it. It didn't matter that she was in one major jam here. The look on his face as he straightened up at the back of her car was priceless.
The once suave, slicked-back, raven-colored hair was now a sickly brown gritty mess. His face was sandblasted with dirt and his deliciously tight T-shirt now looked as if he had been dusted with brown sugar. His eyes flashed with closely contained anger, his mouth turned down in a frown as he rounded the back of the car.
Holt, the Dark God, didn't look so all-powerful at the moment.
Ivy pressed her lips together and took a deep breath, struggling to get control of herself. God, she was so tired. 'Silly' tired. With a shake of her head, she dropped her hands from her mouth and turned back around.
The men were in a huddle at the side of her car. This doesn't look good, she thought. "Well, are you going to get it on the road or not?" she asked as she approached.
Holt was crouched down, eyeing the now half-buried back tires. He looked up at her. "You have a shovel?" he asked.
"Are you kidding? Why would I have a shovel?"
"No reason," he said, standing up. He brushed the dirt from his hands and walked toward her. "Get what you need out of the car and come on," he said. Then he walked past her to his car.
"What?" she whirled, her eyes following his wide back.
"Best to do what he says," the one called Rogue said as he brushed past. "Holt doesn't mess around."
Holt could not believe the audacity of the young thing that was standing on the edge of the road, hands on her hips, her mouth working to spit out words that wouldn't come. He managed to mask his smile until he was well past, his back to her.
He rarely smiled, but this little imp of a woman looked like she needed a good spanking--and more than likely she would enjoy it. He opened the trunk of the Lincoln and whipped his T-shirt over his head, used it to wipe his face, then tossed it inside. Retrieving a clean one from his duffel, he laid it over the fender then released his hair from the thong that held it.
With a shake of his head and a quick rake of his fingers, he managed to get very little of the sand out of his hair. He'd take care of it later with a much needed shower now that he felt he'd been playing in a sand box. He drew his hair back into a ponytail and secured it, then pulled on the fresh T-shirt. Then he turned to face the imp, closing the trunk lid with a thud.
Standing there, one leg slightly forward, arms crossed tightly beneath her pert breasts, the imp glared at him, her dark brown eyes flashing. Looking like she was ready to stomp her foot and throw a fit. Still looking like she needed a spanking.
Holt sighed. He had the distinct feeling she wasn't going to make this easy.
"I don't know, Holt," Colin said, nodding toward the woman. "It doesn't look like she wants to come with us."
Holt took a deep breath, and then started walking toward her. He didn't fail to notice how her eyes, no matter how angry she appeared to be, traveled over him as he approached. By the time he stopped a foot in front of her, she was craning her neck back to be able to look him in the eye. She was standing her ground. She was also the most tempting little bit of orneriness he'd ever come up against.
"Look, Miss..." Holt said quietly, looking down at her.
"Green," she said through clenched teeth. "Ivy Green."
He raised an eyebrow.
Ivy snorted and waved a hand. "Save it, okay. I've heard it all, the Green Ivy, the do you wilt when you're not in the sun, etcetera, and I'm not having a good day."
"I wasn't going to say anything."
She smirked. "Yeah. Right. Everyone has some sort of joke lined up as soon as they hear my name. Why should you be any different?"
She tilted her head in a more alluring way, though Holt didn't think she meant it to be alluring. There was something in the way she stood, that little spark in her bright eyes, in the way she pursed her lips, forming them into a bow that brought out something in him that he'd never experienced before. He wanted to sweep her compact little body up in his arms and carry her off somewhere--someplace where he could see just how much spunk this little creature had.
Holt leaned forward until he was barely two inches from her face. "To answer your question," he said slowly, watching her eyes, "I am different. Never forget that." He quelled a smile as she swallowed hard, though her eyes never left his and she didn't take a step back.
"One thing you need to know about me, Holt," she said, her voice strong and determined, "is that I can't be intimidated. So just back off and give me some room."
Holt allowed one corner of his mouth to curl up in the tiniest of smiles as he straightened. Oh, she's a hot little number, he thought as he watched her struggle to keep her breathing steady and even. "Ivy," he said, "you're going to have to come with us. We can't get your car out unless we have a shovel to dig it out or a tow truck to pull it out, and as you can see, we have neither."