September 18, 2018
NATALIE KALETA DROVE up the mountain, prepared to beard the dragon in his lair. She was brave, she was fearless, she was on a mission. Only was “beard a dragon in his lair” right? Did dragons have beards? And if they did, was it just boy dragons or did the girls have to deal with a beard, as well, which seemed desperately unfair.
Okay, so the dragon-beard issue was questionable, but she was totally sure about the lairs. Dragons had lairs. Cool-looking caves with secret rooms and hidden treasures and maybe a chandelier because a chandelier would look great in a lair and the light would bounce off the dragon scales in a really beautiful way.
Although electricity was an issue. It wasn’t as if the dragon could call the local utility company and get a line brought in. How would they use a phone with their little claw-hands and how would they pay for a phone, for that matter?
Candles could work. Dragons were tall enough to be able to light the candles and replace them when needed…still, if a dragon couldn’t buy a phone how would she buy candles? Unless she made them. It wasn’t that hard. Natalie had taken a class once, when she’d been wanting to experiment with wax in her art.
Okay, so a candle chandelier with a beardless girl dragon and no cell phone.
Her mental image reestablished, she turned off the main highway when her phone told her to and headed up the mountain. In the rain. Although rain in no way described how much water was falling. Monsoon was more like it. It was late August and still the season for crazy rain in the desert.
Natalie’s tired, battered, twenty-five-year-old Volvo wheezed as the road got steeper. She downshifted, offered silent words of encouragement and wished for a dragon to give her car a little push…or her a ride.
“You can do it,” she told her car, hoping she wasn’t lying because she did not want to get stuck on the side of a mountain, in the rain or, frankly, any other time. Seriously, when was it convenient to get stuck by the side of the road?
Natalie turned right when instructed. The road narrowed and the rain came down in even bigger buckets.
This was no fun, she thought, driving more slowly, less by choice than by the limitations of her taxed car engine. She shouldn’t have volunteered to go check on Ronan, only someone had to. No one had heard from him in over a week and he wasn’t answering her texts.
Ronan Mitchell disappearing into his work at his house for days at a time wasn’t uncommon, but no matter what, he always answered her texts. As the part-time office manager for the Willow Gallery, Natalie was responsible for all the local artists. All three of them. Nick and Mathias were never any trouble, but Ronan was a giant, somewhat good-looking pain in her butt.
Oh, sure, his work was amazing. What he could do with glass—turning something that should be static and not that interesting into movement and beauty—was astonishing. She could spend hours watching him create. But he wasn’t very friendly and, more significant to her, when he disappeared like this he stopped communicating to the point that she had to text with a very pointed, Are you home sulking or are you dead? Which always got a response. Only not for the past five days.
As far as anyone knew, he hadn’t taken a trip. Ronan wasn’t big on travel and when he did, it was for work, so the gallery would know. His brothers had no knowledge of anything other than his normal reclusiveness, or as she liked to call it, brooding artist pouting.
She’d tried to talk her boss into checking on him, but Atsuko had only laughed and told Natalie to keep track of the miles so she could be reimbursed. Which was why Natalie was still driving up, up, up in a horrendous downpour and wishing there were indeed dragons. Or bigger guardrails should her tires lose their grip.
“Just a little farther,” she whispered.
She’d only been to Ronan’s a couple of times. Once to deliver some packages—yes, being the office manager of a gallery came with mind-boggling responsibility—and once to take a piece of his art back to the gallery. Both tasks had been accomplished without him having to let her inside his gorgeous house. If she arrived in one piece, she was going to insist on a tour…and maybe a snack. Honestly, it was the least the man could do after not admitting he wasn’t dead.
Unless he was.
Natalie didn’t want to think about that but why else would he not answer her? Maybe he was hurt, she thought, although was that better? If he was so injured he couldn’t text her back, then there might be blood, and while she had many excellent qualities, the ability to deal with blood was not one of them.
“I’m fine,” she told herself, trying to ignore the bile rising in her throat. “There’s no blood. Just rain. Look!”
She gripped the steering wheel with both hands as she continued up and up, the water racing down the road in the opposite direction, lightning flashing in the sky. She slowed even more, her car complaining loudly. An unfortunate knocking began from somewhere in the engine area. An ominous red light flashed on her dashboard.
She was pretty sure she was close to his house. Nothing looked the same in the driving rain but she was confident that just around the bend in front of her was—
She screamed as her car hit a river of mud and started to slide off the road. She’d barely begun to panic when she slammed into something hard and unmoving. Her body jerked, the car engine died and there was only the sound of the rain.
“This can’t be good,” she murmured, taking the key out of the ignition and unfastening her seat belt. She peered through the curtain of rain and thought she saw Ronan’s house up ahead. She must have made it onto his driveway, only to be swept into—
She’d been pushed into a tree. A big tree that had probably put a sizable dent in her already-on-its-last-legs car. While her boss was willing to pay her mileage, she doubted Atsuko would cough up repair money. Plus her favorite mechanic had told her there was nothing that could be done anymore. That her car deserved a decent burial.
Which she was working on. Ah, getting a new car, not the burial. She had savings, but she wasn’t ready yet. Regardless, she had to make her way from here to the house without getting swept away.
Natalie glanced at the umbrella she’d brought and knew it would be less than useless. She zipped up her lightweight coat, grabbed her handbag and opened the car door.
Rain immediately pelted her, but that was nothing when compared to the six inches of cold, wet mud swirling around her ankles. She shrieked and bolted for the house, only to realize there wasn’t going to be any bolting. There was too much mud everywhere. She had to physically drag each foot out of the muck before planting it down again. The mud seeped into her ankle boots and splattered her legs. In the middle of the storm the temperature had dropped enough that she actually shivered.
In a matter of a minute, she was totally soaked. Her hair clung to her head, water dripped off her glasses and, about five steps in, she lost one of her boots.
“Damn you, Ronan Mitchell,” she yelled into the storm. “You’d better be dead or I’m going to kill you!”
The house, a huge stone fortress that normally looked as though it had grown up out of the mountainside, was barely visible in the deluge. She kept moving because to stand still was to be swept backward. She fought her way to the front door and rang the bell, then began to bang on the door.
It opened without warning and she nearly fell inside. Ronan Mitchell stared at her, his eyes wide, his expression confused.
“There’s a storm, Natalie. What are you doing here?”
“A storm? Really? I hadn’t noticed what with sliding off the road and almost drowning on my way up the walk. Wow. A storm! Who knew.”
He grabbed her arm and pulled her into the house. “Now I know you’re upset. You’re almost never sarcastic. What happened?”
“What happened?” she asked as she dripped on his tile floor. “That’s not the question.” She tried to wipe the moisture off her face only to realize her wet hair was the ongoing source. “The question is, why aren’t you dead?”
Ronan stared at her for a second. “Did you hit your head?”
“No. I didn’t. I slammed into a tree, which was not my fault, by the way. It was the mud.” She felt herself starting to shake, no doubt from shock and his air-conditioning. “You didn’t answer your phone. I texted, then I called like eleven times. Everyone was worried, and since they’re all more important than me, I was tasked with coming up to check on you.”
“I left my phone in my locker at the studio in town.” One shoulder rose and lowered. “Probably why you couldn’t hear it when you called.”
“At work?” Her voice grew louder. “You left your phone at work and because of that I had to come all the way out here?”
The same shoulder rose and lowered again. “Sorry.” He looked her up and down. “You’re soaked and freezing. Come on. Let’s get you dry.” He turned away and started down a long hallway.
Natalie tried to go after him only to realize she still had just one shoe. She toed it off, then followed him barefoot, dripping and shivering. Not exactly her finest hour.
“This is your fault,” she said as she caught up with him. “You could have—”
“I don’t have a landline.”
“Sent an email,” she said triumphantly. “When you realized your phone was missing, you should have emailed one of us.”
“I didn’t think it would matter. It was only a couple of days.”
“Five. It’s been five days since anyone saw you.”
He glanced at her, his eyebrows raised.
“Oh, please. I only know because it’s my job to know. Don’t flatter yourself.”
Not that she didn’t find Ronan attractive. How could she not? He was tall and muscled, with light brown hair and green eyes all put together in a dreamy package. A woman would have to be totally, well, she wasn’t sure what not to notice his good looks, but still. There was no way he had to know that.
“Do you think I like babysitting you and your brothers?” she asked, trying to sound haughty and put-out, which was tough considering how hard she and her voice were shaking. “If you’d all just show up and do your jobs, but nooo. You have to live out here in the mountains, like some troll.”
She followed him into a huge bedroom dominated by a big bed and a stone fireplace. She was about to continue complaining about how all this was his fault, but then she caught sight of a massive piece of glass by a turret-shaped window. Stunned, amazed and overwhelmed, she thought she might never speak again. How could she in the presence of something so incredible?
The statue had to be at least eight feet tall and was done in every shade of blue known to God and man. Part sprite, part fairy, all female, the glorious creature seemed to twirl right there before her. The wings appeared her keep her aloft and her feet would dance any second. She was curvy and naked, both sexual and otherworldly.
Natalie squished across the hardwood floor to the piece and put her hand as close as she could without touching her. Her face was beautiful—all angles and lines, as if to emphasize she wasn’t quite human. Her hair was short and spiky, her lips parted in such a way that Natalie half expected to hear song or at least words.
“No wonder you don’t have a girlfriend,” she said before she could stop herself. “Who could possibly measure up?”
“We’ve never actually had sex.” His tone was dry, almost amused.
“You should have made her anatomically correct.” She circled her, studying the beautiful lines of the piece and wishing she were a quarter as talented as Ronan. “Although the positioning would be tough. Still, she would be worth it.”
“Is there anything you won’t say?”
She thought for a second. “Probably not. I try not to be mean or hurtful, but otherwise I’m not much into self-editing. It takes a lot of work.”
“Come on. You need to get warm.”
It was only when they entered the huge bathroom complete with steam shower, a tub for four and matching vanities that she realized they’d been in his bedroom and now were in his bathroom.
Yes, she thought Ronan was very handsome, and okay, sure, she’d had the odd naughty daydream about him, but shouldn’t there at least be a bit of conversation first?
“W-what are you doing?” she asked as he punched several buttons on a complicated keypad outside the shower.
“Getting you warmed up. Wait here.”
He disappeared into what she guessed was the closet, then reappeared with a T-shirt, socks, a sweatshirt and sweatpants.
“They’re going to be way too big, but you have to wear something while your clothes are drying. We’ll wash them when you’re done.”
He walked back to the panel and pushed another button. After a couple of seconds, water came on and the shower began to fill up with steam.
“I’m going to leave now,” he told her. “Take a shower. A long one. When you’re warm and dry, come find me. I’ll be in the kitchen.”
Not waiting for her in bed? The thought occurred without warning and caused Natalie to wonder if maybe she had hit her head. At best, Ronan saw her as a cross between a useful piece of office equipment and a baby sister. At worst, he found her annoying. Men did not, as a rule, find annoying women attractive. Plus there was the sprite. Who could compete with her?
“How do I turn off the shower?” she asked.
He pointed to a red button with the word Off printed on it.
“Oh. Good. I can do that.”
“I have every confidence. Now get in the shower.”
“There’s no need to be bossy. I was doing a good thing when I drove up here to find out if you were dead. And I have no idea what I would have done if there’d been a body. So technically, this is your fault. You could have emailed.”
“You mentioned that already.” He pointed to the shower. “Get in.”
She pointed to the door. “Get out.”
One corner of his mouth turned up. “Yes, ma’am.” He turned and left.
“Annoying man,” she muttered as she tugged her wet, muddy, clammy dress over her head and dropped it on the floor, then put her glasses on the counter. But the words were said without much energy, and as she stepped into the shower, she found she was smiling.
A Happily Inc Novel, Book No. 3
September 18, 2018
Natalie Kaleta will do anything for the artists at her gallery, including risk life, limb, and the effect of humidity on her naturally curly hair. Braving a downpour to check on reclusive Ronan Mitchell, Natalie gets stranded by a mudslide at his mountain home where the brooding glass artist reveals his playful side, sending her inconvenient crush from under-the-radar to over-the-top.
After a secret tore apart his family and made him question his sense of self, Ronan fled his hometown for Happily Inc, but the sunny small town can't fix his damaged heart. He won't give in to his attraction for beautiful, perpetually cheerful Natalie. She's untouched by darkness—or so he thinks.
Natalie knows that when a heart goes through the flame, it comes out stronger. Life may not be a fairy tale, but sometimes dreams do come true. Why not this one? Why not tonight?
COPYRIGHT © 2018 BY SUSAN MALLERY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. WEBSITE DESIGN & MAINTENANCE BY WEB CRAFTERS.
SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.