Digging into her bag, Lily cleared the door of the shop absently. She got out in the crisp air at the end of December, and her tongue snaked out and caught a snowflake, a habit that she had never outgrown. With small steps, she followed blindly down the street. She focused on finding room inside her handbag for a perfume bottle. She had just bought it with Ellen, her cousin by marriage, in mind.
A smile fleeted over Lily's upturned lips, and her dark blue eyes sparkled with mischief. She could just see Ellen's surprise at that gift. The weird perfume bottle, shaped like a ballerina in a twirl, had just called to Lily when she entered the shop.
She knew Ellen pretty well. Jay’s wife wasn’t the woman to go for such impracticable things. Her cousin by marriage was far from being girly even though her features and body shouted Look, here, female walking on the catwalk. Nevertheless, Ellen was practical and didn’t have an eye for the out-of-the-common knick-knacks.
Just a few steps away from the street corner, a rigid body ran into Lily, and she well-nigh pitched to the ground. Lily gasped. She panicked that her face would smash on the pavement. She would have hated starting a New Year with a broken nose or split lips, and her mother would have had a fit if Lily had appeared at their New Year’s party like that.
The shock knocked the air out of her chest, and she tried to pull air back into her deprived lungs. A drunken stork now, she flapped her arms around to keep her footing, but to no avail. The melting snow had rendered the pavement slippery despite the snowflakes floating around her. Worse, the soles and heels of her boots couldn’t purchase any traction to help her stand.
Luckily, two strong arms spared her to become acquainted with the asphalt. They grabbed her shoulders, halting her fall and steadying her on her feet.
Still, Lily groaned with dismay. All her shopping bags and even her small shoulder bag had slipped from her fingers, scattering around on the concrete splashed with fresh snow.
Fury fired her blood, and her eyes darted upward, looking directly into the angular face of the lean man, who had upset her balance. The need to shout at him was strong, but then, his pale-green, calculating gaze captured hers and snared her in his intense stare.
Her teeth snapped together, and she swallowed her angry words. Her fingers reached up, and unconsciously, she anchored herself to the man who had taken little time to assess her features thoughtfully.
Her reaction to him befuddled her. Lily shook her head off to clear it. At the same time, she swiftly raised a prayer of gratitude. At least, she hadn't sprawled on the hard pavement.
The man didn’t need much time to make up his mind. The corners of his mouth curled in a satisfied grin and Lily stared at him. He freed her shoulders. However, his fingers curled around her wrist to hold her on the spot.
He grabbed one of the bags scattered in the street, and then he snatched his cap and shoved it into the bag. The winter sun shone over his disheveled, copper hair.
The man gazed at Lily again and pulled her to him. His speed shocked her. Lily's eyes rounded, and she opened her mouth to protest.
"Please, don't fight me here," he whispered, leaning over her. "I need your help," he said with urgency in his voice. Then, he captured her mouth in a sizzling kiss that went directly to her toes and made her head spin.
She whimpered, her fingers burrowing into his shoulders to keep her balance. A scattered thought reared in her mind and told her to fight him. Yet she let herself get wrapped in the passion of his kiss.
The man brought her closer to the hard planes of his lean body. A shiver ran along her spine when her body molded against his. She knew that she must have lost her mind but forgot about fighting him back. She responded to his demanding lips with a hunger she hadn’t experienced before.
Hasty, heavy steps came around the corner, and the noise registered in her mind as something coming from afar. But then, her heart was beating too hard for her to notice that someone passed by them. She pushed the distant sound out of her mind. She melted against the man's body, her fingers grabbing the chest pleats of his thick jacket.
The guy knew how to kiss. She would give him that. Her thick lashes lowered over her eyes, and she forgot about everything else but the man whose arms chained her to him, keeping her prisoner in their enclosure.
A few heartbeats later, the man lifted his head just a fraction and stared into her wide eyes for a few seconds, before pulling back and glancing over her shoulder. The left corner of his mouth turned upward in a sarcastic grin, and scorn glimmered in his pupils.
In the distance, three men sprinted down the street. They pushed the people in their path aside, insensible at the stares they attracted their way. A woman got knocked to the ground, but the men didn’t react to her distress cry. They didn’t spare a look for her.
Lily sensed the change in the man’s stance and opened her eyes. What she read in his pupils froze her to the core, and she stepped back, trying to put some distance between the two of them.
"No, you won't, sweetie," the man shook his head, his gaze turning back to her, while his greedy hands yanked her into his hold again.
His lips lowered over hers once more, and Lily shivered, bemused of what was happening to her.
In the normal course of events, she would have fought such a brutal display of force. She wouldn’t have accepted any kind of intimacy with a man she had just met and with whom she had never interacted before.
She wasn’t prudish, but she wasn’t easy either. Not even as a schoolgirl would she have allowed a man to do to her what he wanted or when he was feeling like doing it. Looking roughly handsome and being a good kisser wouldn’t have tipped the scales in Lily’s world.
Nevertheless, she couldn’t find the strength to push the stranger away. Quite the opposite. She clung to his shoulders, and not only because she was trying to keep her feet under her.
The man broke the kiss, and his fingers touched her face. Lily lifted her lashes slowly. They seemed to weigh a tone.
The man gazed into her eyes for a few seconds and then stepped back. Lily’s eyebrows bunched together. Stormy fire glinted in the dark blue of her eyes. The corner of the man’s mouth turned up. Lily noticed that he was trying to keep his mirth at bay, and she thought that he’d better not laugh at her or she would punch him in the face to the next kingdom.
“Now don’t get upset, little girl,” he said in a gruff voice, his thumb brushing over her chin.
His words prompted Lily to arch an eyebrow, and she drew back. He towered over her, but she wasn’t tiny. The top of her head reached only up to his shoulder, but she didn't deserve that appellative. The man merely grinned, and the abrasive skin of his thumb brushed her lower lip. Her insides quivered, and she tried to hide her reaction to his touch.
“Thank you,” he murmured his gaze on her lips. “And not only for the kiss,” he smiled at her.
The force of his grin brought new tingles in her belly, and that puzzled her. She would have thought she had already reached her quota.
“What was that about?” Lily dared to ask, although she feared that her voice would tremble. Tremors still ran along her spine, lodging somewhere in the lower side of her body.
The man breathed in deeply, reflected at what he should say for a second, and then shrugged. “Just trying to save my hide,” he replied, lifting one shoulder with nonchalance.
Lily’s eyes widened, and the black of her pupils invaded the dark blue of her eyes. She was smart enough, and she had learned her lessons well. She didn’t expect love declarations out of the blue. Nevertheless, she hadn’t imagined that he would brush those hot kisses aside with so much carelessness either.
His words banked the fire in her eyes, and she tightened her fists, ready to retaliate. His blatant disrespect proved too much, coming on top of the hottest kiss she had ever shared with a man.
Flurries suddenly whirled furiously around them, and the man shook his head in disbelief, looking around. The wind slashed at his face with icy claws, and anxiety whispered in his ear that something didn’t feel quite right.
The wind hadn’t seemed so high before he literally bumped into the woman. But then, he shrugged. He couldn’t discount that a change in the weather was possible. It might have occurred while he was otherwise occupied with the willowy young woman he was still holding in his arms.
The woman packed a hell of energy in her body. He had felt it running under her skin, and that jolt of energy translated in her kisses as well. He could forgive himself for not paying attention to the changes in the air currents.
His gaze returned to the redhead before him, putting aside the feeling that something must have been wrong. The wind had merely picked up some more velocity, as the street was close enough to the lake. He was pretty sure that the area was windy even in summer.
“I didn’t mean any disrespect,” he lifted one hand to stop the woman’s imminent verbal attack. “I don’t like to lie in such matters, and that’s how it started, anyway,” he confessed. “But it wasn’t a hardship to kiss you, believe me, quite the opposite,” he grinned. “I wouldn’t mind doing it again and again,” he waggled his brows, a smile in his pupils. “And you did save me in the process,” he brushed one finger on the side of her face. “I’ll have to thank you properly for that. You can call the favor any time,” he grinned, searching her face with a greedy gaze.
Lily’s eyes rounded, and she blushed under his charming and inquisitive eyes. The corners of his mouth twitched at her reaction, but when her eyes narrowed, he took one step back, out of the fire line, bent and retrieved all her bags off the pavement in a swift move.
“What are you saying if we go somewhere and get to know each other a little better?” he proposed off-hand once he had all her things well secured in his hands.
She looked at him askance, brushing a lock of hair behind her ear. “Define that ‘to know each other better,’ she demanded in a harsh tone of voice. She had recovered already, and she promised herself not to allow him to play her as he had done before, no matter how sizzling his kisses proved to be.
“Not what you suppose, of course,” he waved her worries away. “I was thinking we would introduce each other and talk for a while. Somewhere with a cup of coffee in front of us,” he pointed out. “It’s cold out here if you haven’t noticed already,” he waved one of his hands. “And I think it’s worth learning a few things about each other.”
Lily hesitated for a moment. Her pride nudged her to turn down his invitation, but then she had to admit that she wanted to get to know him. It had been a while since she enjoyed a kiss so much, if ever. She had liked the feel of him and his taste, and she wouldn’t have minded feeling that again.
“All right, then,” she said briskly. “There’s a little thing just right around the corner, and we can buy some coffee there,” she pointed toward the direction from which he had come before bumping into her.
She stretched her hand to take the bags from him, but he shook his head, denying her silent request. He handed her the shoulder bag but held onto the others, waving his free hand in the direction of the place she was talking about.
Lily noticed that his jaw was set and imagined he wouldn’t change his mind. She gauged him for a few more seconds and then shrugged and turned around leading the way.
The man fell in step with her, biting his lower lip. She amused him with her way of checking him up out of the corner of her eye, making efforts not to be observed.
He also realized that he had barely felt the bite of the winter air since he pulled the young woman into his arms and kissed her, and that was something. He had never liked the cold and been dreaming for years to retire someplace with mild if not hot weather. A palm or a coconut tree wouldn’t be amiss either. He would enjoy the song of the waves and the cooling breeze of the sea while basking into the sun.
The evolution of the last events had put a dent in his dreams and pushed him back in his plans, but he was stubborn enough to make it happen. He had enough confidence in his skills and ambition. Besides, he didn’t think he had it in him to go through another winter, and to his bitter disappointment, the present one seemed far from being willing to take a bow and leave.
“Here it is,” Lily’s voice chimed in, waving her slender fingers toward a small door with a dark window.
The man’s surprise showed on his face, and he blinked. He would have just walked past that door if she hadn’t shown it to him.
He looked up and read the sign The Drunken Goose over the door. He grinned, shaking his head in disbelief and wondering about the person who had thought of giving that name to a coffee shop.
“Are you sure this is a coffee shop?” he turned his eyes to the young woman he had followed without qualms.
As a rule, he was wary of unknown people, and especially of women. He trusted few, and among those, fewer females. In spite of his distrustful nature, he had felt that no danger came from the young woman, his eyes assessed hungrily right then.
Lily just shrugged his words away. “It’s a pub, but we can buy coffee inside,” she replied in a matter-of-fact tone of voice and opened the door.
The man nodded but realized soon that he shouldn’t have bothered at all. The woman hadn’t sought his approval. She had already turned from him and gone inside the pub.
She had stepped over the out-of-fashion threshold, confident that he would come into the pub as well. She didn’t even waste a glance back to make sure that he followed her suit.
He strode after her at once, although a brief grimace tugged at the corners of his mouth. Coming from outside, the semi-obscurity of the room blinded him for a few moments, enough to make him feel jittery.
The day enjoyed little sun anyway, but then, he had anticipated that that would be the case for winter in Toronto. Still, the pale sun rays reflected in the banks of snow in the streets, and the bright white had made his eyes sensitive to the difference in light.
He reasoned that the pub was the best place to organize an ambush and narrowed his eyes to adjust them to the difference in light quickly so that he could react if he needed to.
Tense, his muscles in tight knots, he surveyed the surrounding area but relaxed after a few seconds. The stiffness in his shoulders eased off, and Lily’s eyebrows arched up at the subtle change in his body.
“Let’s find a table,” the man growled.
He sensed that the woman could read the fluctuations in his mood, and he didn’t feel comfortable with that. He had always avoided people who possessed such heightened empathy. They spelled danger in his line of work. However, he didn’t have a choice now. The man couldn’t find a rational explanation, but he needed her with him.
He looked around. There were plenty of tables available as the front room was empty. It was too late for breakfast and just a bit too early for the lunch crowd if the place attracted any crowd, which he doubted.
The voices of two people came from a room in the back. Screened by the wall separating the two rooms, their words sounded like gibberish.
The man grabbed Lily’s hand, and following his instinct, he led her to a corner table, up a short flight of steps. From up there, he had a good vantage point and would be able to observe every move. The position was satisfactory. No one would take him by surprise.
Lily followed him, a pensive expression on her face. She chewed her lower lip, questions rolling in her mind one after another. Her long slender fingers flexed in the man’s hand, but he didn’t let go of her, and that made her giddy although she didn’t understand why.
Something didn’t seem quite right with the copper-haired guy. However, she knew that nothing would happen to her there. Her premonitions rarely let her down. Moreover, the pub might have looked virtually empty at that hour. That didn’t mean they were alone in there.
Lily sensed that the man was troubled, but he didn’t cause trouble.
He chose a table that would have served his purposes and set her bags in a chair. Then he helped her out of her winter coat. He hooked the coat on the peg behind her seat and held the chair for her.
His manners pleased and surprised Lily, and she smiled at him.
The man hooked his jacket next to hers, but closer to him. He could reach the pockets if he needed. He sat in the chair on her right, and his alert eyes swept the room.
Lily followed his gaze and asked without looking at him, “Is everything all right? Who do you expect to jump out of the shadows? Are we going to be under attack? Something’s bothering you. I can feel it,” she said, her tone filled with ill-concealed amusement. The cadence of her questions was meant to claw at the armor the man displayed with every sweep of his eyes and every contained gesture.
The man turned to her and stared at her without blinking. Her questions had annoyed him, and the laughter in her voice didn’t sit well with him either. Lily felt his hard eyes on her, so she looked back at him and held his gaze with smiling eyes.
“I’m Mark,” he said suddenly, although his hard expression didn’t change.
“That’s good to know,” she nodded. “You took a weight off my heart. I don’t usually let strangers kiss me, you know,” she continued on a conversational tone of voice, although laughter bubbled in her gaze.
“That sounds like a good policy,” Mark nodded, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “As I don’t usually kiss unknown women either, would you mind letting me know your name?” he inquired, tilting his head to the right and watching her intently.
She leaned back and folded her hands on the edge of the scarred unpolished wooden table. She seemed to think his request over, gazing steadily in his eyes. Mark lifted his left eyebrow, and impatience simmered in his eyes.
“You didn’t look like you were in a hurry to know my name earlier,” she remarked with studied indifference. “When you grabbed and kissed me, I mean,” she thought to specify.
“That was an out-of-the-ordinary situation,” Mark muttered, a frown tucked between his eyebrows. He didn’t feel like explaining to her what had led to those kisses.
“How come?” she questioned him, not showing any anxiety at the change in his mood.
She sensed that her interrogation bothered Mark, but she felt entitled to know what had happened in the street and what had prompted his behavior. She sensed that the man was on the verge of losing his temper, but she didn’t give a fig about that. He might not like having his actions questioned that way, but then, his moods didn’t bother her, and if push came to shove, she was more than willing to do her own shoving.
His attitude hadn’t annoyed her when he feasted on her mouth even though it should have. But then, his lips had been quite compelling and skilled enough to make her forget about any caution and even long-time principles.
Nevertheless, between the end of the last kiss and the moment they got into the pub, her common sense had returned, and now she thought that she had the right to ask a few questions of her own before going any further.
Mark’s cold eyes swept over her features for a few seconds, but then he nodded.
“I will tell you as much as I can. However, I don’t see what the problem is if you tell me your name beforehand,” he pointed out, mirroring her posture.
Her lips twitched with hidden amusement, and the shadow of a smile lit her blue eyes.
“I’m Lily,” she introduced herself with a slight nod of her head, in a parody of an old-time’s greeting.
“You do look like a lily in a way,” he approved of her name. Noticing the puzzled questions in her gaze, he hurried to explain. “I’m not talking about the coloring, although your skin is fairly fair. I’m talking about your posture and moves, and… You get my point,” he concluded his explanation with a scowl and an angry wave of his fingers. He never felt comfortable talking about such things.
A soft smile climbed onto Lily’s lips, and she shook her head with amusement. “It is not necessary to overtax yourself,” she assured him. “However, I would love to understand what happened there in the street,” she stressed out, tapping her index finger onto the table to make him understand that she was talking business and wouldn’t accept anything less.
Mark opened his mouth to do just that when his eyes fell on a waitress coming directly to their table. She didn’t seem in a rush, yet he didn’t feel like starting to talk right then.
He inclined his head slightly to signal Lily that they were about to have some company, and Lily turned her eyes toward the approaching waitress, who seemed busier with chewing something than with finding out what her new clients needed.
For a moment, Lily’s shoulders tensed. She didn’t welcome the unwanted interruption, afraid that Mark would take advantage of that and forget about what he was supposed to tell her. But then, she relaxed and leaned back in her chair, folding her hands in her lap. It wasn’t as if she could force him to talk if he didn’t want to, so she had just to wait and find out if that was the case.
“Do you need a menu?” the waitress inquired with an impressive lack of interest. She didn’t even stop her chewing so that she could ask that question.
Lily frowned for a second, but then she found the waitress’s skill quite interesting, and her brows shot up her forehead. The woman had enunciated her words very clear, even though she had blown and popped the chewing-gum right in the middle of her question. That didn’t seem to impede her speech at all.
Mark didn’t show any outward reaction to the waitress’s lack of enthusiasm. He merely looked at her with cold eyes.
“I think we do. I wouldn’t dare to ask about what you would recommend to us,” he replied with clipped words. Then, he turned to Lily, an obvious sign that he had finished talking to the waitress and expected nothing else but her return with a menu.
The waitress felt slighted and narrowed her eyes to slits. Then, she stomped away, shortly returning with a menu, which she didn’t really throw it onto the table, although her move hit quite close to that.
Mark pushed an unwilling, and frosty, Thank you through tight lips and opened the menu on the corner of the table so that both Lily and he could read its content.
While the waitress shuffled her feet lazily across the floor, returning from where she had crawled out, he whispered to Lily, “Are you sure you want to drink or eat something here?”
“Don’t worry, she’s just the exception to the rule. This place is well run, and the chef knows his job. He’s the owner too, and he and I are well acquainted, you know. So, don’t worry. Just give me a sec,” she said and stood up before he could stop her.
“Where are you going? You aren’t leaving me alone here,” he hurried to jump out of his seat as well, prepared to follow her.
He couldn’t explain his anxiety. It wasn’t as if he needed her any longer, and he was a loner. Still, he didn’t want to lose sight of the willowy woman, with dark, red hair and witchy dark blue eyes.
“Don’t be silly,” she patted his arm. “I’ll be back soon. Just readying some people who could help us,” she assured him. “Believe me, it would be a pity to leave here without having the real experience of the place,” Lily smiled at him and turned around, her boots clattering on the wooden floor.
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