Sunday, May 27, 2012
Chapter - Margay Roberge
One - Beginnings
When fate arrived in Destiny Falls, Micah Sloane was elbow-deep in his brother’s Ford Tempo, trying to coax the geriatric engine back to life – with little luck. But still he tried, determined not to be brought low by four cylinders of sheer stubbornness. Intent on his task, he would have missed the arrival of fate if not for the low whistle of his brother.
“Would you look at that?”
Must be one hell of a car, Micah thought, if he were to judge by the reverent tone of his brother’s voice. Cam didn’t go all soft over just any car like some of their friends; it had to be special. Definitely not a Ford, although he liked the classic Mustangs. A Firebird was a possibility; Cam did get all sweet on them in the past. But - would that elicit such a whistle from his brother? No, that was a different kind of whistle, an I-never-saw-that-here-before kind of whistle. Whatever the case, it was a newcomer to Destiny Falls.
When he didn’t react quick enough, his brother backhanded him on the shoulder. Hard. “Hey!” Micah yelled, returning the favor without looking up. “What’s with you?”
“Look at that.”
Before Micah could, his senses pricked up – and not by the urgent undertone in his brother’s voice. No, it was something else entirely, something that tickled his nose with awareness before it flared in the back of his throat and shot through his body like a skyrocket. He gripped the frame of the car to steady himself under the onslaught of foreign sensations that wracked his body. His nose twitched as he sniffed the air, testing the truth of his other sense, his special sense. Yes, it was there, in the air that gently wafted over him. He tilted his head, enough to catch a glimpse of –
A vision in blue jeans and a pink-and-white polo shirt, exiting Cam‘s new dream machine in front of the family‘s general store. Tall, the way he liked them, with a form filled out in all the right places. Also the way he liked them. And long hair, pulled back in a thick braid the color of caramel – a fact that made his mouth water in anticipation.
Oh, yes. Fate had arrived in Destiny Falls.
In a black Hummer.
“Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?” Cam asked.
Micah glanced Cam’s way to gauge the direction of his gaze as he withdrew from beneath the car hood. He was relieved – though he didn’t know why – to discover his brother still ogling the Hummer. Not exactly his kind of car, but it must be nice if it overruled the sight of a beautiful woman for someone as girl-crazy as Cam. No competition there. Good. But then he shook his head at his own foolishness. Seriously, Micah, you don’t even know her name yet and you’re already getting territorial? Much too early in the game for staking out your territory.
Folding his arms across his abs in a self-protective gesture, he sifted through the fog in his brain for a way to divert his attention from his disturbing thoughts. A wicked smile toyed with the corners of his lips when it came to him.
“Close your mouth, Cam,” he said. “You’re embarrassing yourself. I think you‘re starting to drool a little, man.”
Cam’s mouth snapped shut as he looked away from the Hummer. He even wiped at the corner of his mouth to check the validity of his brother’s claim.
Micah couldn’t contain his mirth.
“You think it‘s funny?” Cam backhanded Micah’s shoulder. “Do you?”
“Hilarious. The way you wiped your mouth – classic. Ow! It was all in good fun.”
“If we’re gonna talk about drool, maybe we should talk about what came out of your mouth when you first saw her.”
Cam nodded in the direction of the vision still standing beside the Hummer, her pose indicative of conversation with the driver. Once again, Micah’s gaze was drawn to her, to the perfection of the body showcased in form fitting…He shook his head to clear it of lascivious thoughts.
“Nice to know you noticed a woman there, Cam,” he said. “I was beginning to worry about you.”
Cam didn’t respond to the jibe, much to Micah’s disappointment. His attention was focused on the new arrivals now, rather than their mode of transportation. “I wonder who they are,” he mused. He shot a glance over his shoulder at Micah and took a step forward with a nod in the direction of the Hummer. “Maybe we should go find out? They could be lost. I mean, who comes to Destiny Falls on purpose? In a Hummer?”
With a shake of his head, Micah grabbed Cam by the arm to stop him. “Not that way.” he said, pulling him toward the back of the sprawling old farmhouse that comprised the family store. A difficult task considering Cam’s obvious reluctance to leave their spot in the side yard, which offered a good vantage point to watch the comings and goings of the customers in the parking lot in front of the store. “You know we’ll find out more through Raven.”
Cam nodded in acquiescence. If you wanted to know anything about anything, Raven Sloane was the girl for the job.
* * * *
A slight shift in the wind was her only indication of something out of the ordinary. So slight, in fact, it was near indiscernible. A whisper of air across her cheek, fanning over the skin in a manner that scarce ruffled the loose tendril resting there. Nor did it elicit a reaction from the people who milled about in front of the country store, she noticed upon casting a surreptitious glance their way. Oh, no, only she would notice something monumental had happened. Shiloh Beck. The sensitive.
Lifting a hand to her right cheek under the guise of brushing the hair from her face, Shiloh scanned the surrounding area with a critical eye. The place had its charm with the abundant woodlands as far as the eye could see in either direction, the “highway” cutting a swathe through it and running parallel to a river that snaked behind the house – er, store. Quaint. A welcoming sight with the porch wrapped around it like a warm embrace, dotted with strategically placed loveseats and rockers. Intentional? It worked.
But that wasn’t the origin of the shift. No. Neither were any of the people who lingered on the porch with tall glasses of some iced beverage, chatting. Had the shift occurred there, they wouldn’t be so casual about it. No, it was coming from somewhere else. Away from the house – store.
Her gaze zeroed in on an impressive shade tree in the right side yard as two figures disappeared around the corner of the building. She had a brief vision of two tall men in ripped jeans and tee shirts – ebony hair streaming out behind them – before they were gone completely. One of them, perhaps? Or both?
The wind settled into the packed dirt of the parking lot with the strangers’ retreat. As if in confirmation of her unspoken question. Curious. She had no further chance for contemplation as her attention was drawn back to the Hummer – ostentatious car – by the rude question from her companion, “You gonna stand there all day or what? We don’t have a lot of time before dark.”
With a roll of her eyes, Shiloh moved away from the Hummer, mumbling, “I’m going.” She shut the door on any possible reply and ambled toward the store entrance. Along the way, she looked about for the mystery men on the off chance they might make a reappearance. Who were they? she wondered as she pushed open the door which gave off a little tinkling sound from the bell attached to its top. Nice touch.
All thoughts of the mystery men flew out of her head as she paused on the threshold of the store and tried to take in the magnitude of the sight laid out before her. Nothing she’d ever seen before compared to the chaos and grandeur of the artfully displayed wares, the rainbow of colors – and the smell!
If she didn’t know better, she’d swear she’d stepped into a bakery rather than a store as the aroma of baking bread, apple pies and pumpkin muffins tickled her nose in greeting. And something else, scents she couldn’t recognize but were exotic-smelling, and flowers – roses. Oh, how she loved roses, but – where were they? She didn’t see any bouquets about. Perhaps they were deeper in the store, she decided as she took a tentative step into the wonderful room. Maybe next to that exotic smell. What was it? Some sort of incense?
She jumped as the door closed behind her with a slap and another tinkling of the bell. Her cheeks heated with embarrassment. Damn it, did she always have to act so gauche? Like she’d never been anywhere. Well, she hadn’t, but still.
Flattening a hand over her racing heart, Shiloh cast a quick look about to see if anyone had noticed her folly. Her gaze came to a rest upon the face of the most beautiful woman Shiloh had ever seen before. And yes, she was smiling. A gentle smile, almost – knowing. Not a hint of condescension anywhere on the rose-hued lips or the almost russet skin. Native American? In this part of the state? She’d always thought they were only on the coast, down on the Cape and islands. Curious.
Before she could marvel for long, the woman spoke, her voice like music on a soft breeze. “Don’t be embarrassed. Everyone has that reaction.” She held out a hand with long, delicate fingers. An artist’s hand or a pianist’s. “I’m Raven. Welcome to the Sloane Country Store.”
Making a detour around an aisle of penny candy to her right, her every movement tentative, Shiloh reached across the counter to shake the offered hand. Not a blemish marred the skin over the high cheekbones, straight nose, and gently sloping forehead. Her eyes were a brown so deep they bordered on black. And her hair! Not a kink or a curl in sight, Shiloh noted, unlike her own unruly mess – which she had to keep back in a tight braid or suffer the consequences. Unlike Miss Perfect who probably braided hers by choice to showcase its ebony sheen. She gave herself a mental kick as she released the woman’s hand. After all, it wasn’t Raven’s fault she was born beautiful, unlike others.
“And you are?” Raven prompted, disrupting the awkward silence with her musical voice.
“Oh! Shiloh, Shiloh Beck.” She paused to inhale a shaky breath – and try to bring order to her disjointed mind. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. So rude. I bet you get it all the time, huh?”
Raven flicked away the question with a wave of her hand and a puffed-out breath. “I don’t pay a lot of attention,” she said. “Besides, it’s mostly locals who come in here. Not a lot of tourists – especially ones who drive something like that.” She nodded her head toward the Hummer parked out front.
Shiloh grimaced as she followed her gaze. “Yeah, pretty out there, huh?” She turned away from it in time to catch a glimmer of something familiar in an adjoining room to her left. Familiar? How could that be? She’d never been to this place before.
“Not your style?”
“Not my choice.”
“Oh,” Raven said in a knowing manner. “Boyfriend likes the showy cars?”
“Not a boyfriend. A…friend.” Shiloh could’ve kicked herself when she noticed the flicker of interest in Raven’s eyes. Too much information. Not supposed to get too personal. Do what you came in here for and leave. But how?
“Is there something I can help you with?” Raven asked peered closer at Shiloh. “You look a little lost.”
“Um, yeah, I don‘t get out much so I don‘t do a lot of this.” She waved a hand about her in indication of shopping, which caused the woman – Raven – to raise a brow in wonder. Not good. Need to distract her away from personal information. “I have a list.” Shiloh reached into the front right pocket of her jeans and pulled out a folded square of paper. “But I’m not sure where to start looking.”
“No problem.” Raven flashed a smile before she turned her head toward the adjoining room, the same one in which Shiloh had caught sight of something oddly familiar to her, and called, “Ava! Come out here for a sec, will you?” When five feet of sheer energy and long pigtails came to a halt at the end of the counter, Raven cast Ava a tolerant look as she emitted a long-suffering sigh. “I need you to help our new friend here find some stuff in the store,” she said, her voice mirroring her expression. “Can you do it without causing too much trouble?”
The girl frowned, her irritation obvious in the way her brows met over her nose. “I don’t cause trouble.”
“Tell it to the display of kachinas I had to rescue this morning. One more encounter with you and they will be rag dolls.” Raven waved the girl forward, frowning as she swept too close to a rack of bandanas. “She has a list,” Raven said when the girl stood in front of her, separated by the counter. “Take your time and show her where things are, okay?”
Rolling her eyes, Ava announced, “I stopped being a baby when I turned twelve last month, so you can stop talking to me like one.”
“I’m not talking to you like a baby,” Raven argued. “I’m talking to you like the force of nature that wants to cut loose in my store.”
“Our store. We all own it, Mom said so.”
“Well, there won’t be much to own if you don’t tread carefully inside it. Understand?”
Ava released a sigh to go along with the roll of her eyes. Taking Shiloh by the hand, she started to lead her down a random aisle, saying, “I’m Ava, by the way. If someone wasn’t so rude” – she directed the last two words over a shoulder at her sister although she didn’t look at her – “she would’ve told you.”
Shiloh split a glance between the sisters. Were they always like this? She bit down on her lower lip to hold back her uncertainty. Bickering like enemies in front of customers! How could Ava stand it? To live in such conflict with a blood relative – unthinkable. And yet, the girl didn’t seem bothered by it. In fact, she smiled as she led Shiloh away from the counter, toward the other side of the store. Amazing.
Unable to contain her curiosity for long, Shiloh waited until they were a safe distance away from the counter before asking, “Do you always talk to each other like that?” She half-turned at the end of the aisle to cast a skittish glance back to Raven, who was, as she feared and suspected, watching them.
Ava snickered and swished the air with a hand in a dismissive gesture beyond her years, somehow. “Oh, that’s nothing. The wolf’s bark is sharper than it’s bite,” she said, her attention already focused on the list Shiloh still held.
A strange breeze fluttered by Shiloh’s cheek at the word. Wolf. The same type of breeze that had greeted her when she first stepped out of the Hummer. But her reaction to it differed; rather than a vague curiosity about its cause, this time she stood taller, alert, as it chased a chill down her spine. She cast a furtive glance about her. The chill increased; a shiver rippled down her spine despite her attempt at holding it back. And yet, the atmosphere about her was electric, charged with ions not unlike those following a lightning strike.
In a desperate attempt to control her emotions, Shiloh folded her arms over her midriff, her fists knotting up in the cottony fabric of her shirt. She scarce registered the sound of paper crinkling in her hand with the gesture as she focused her attention on the girl standing before her with an expectant, somewhat unsure, look upon her cherubic face. “D-don’t you mean dog?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
Ava favored her with an odd little smile, as if she were privy to some inside joke. “Oh, yeah. Dog.” She chuckled and once again reached for the list. “Can I see what you’ve got there?” she asked, almost as an after-thought. She pulled the list from Shiloh’s unresisting hand without waiting for a response and set about finding everything it contained.
All Shiloh could do was follow Ava about the store like a faithful puppy on an invisible leash, her mind still lost in the sensation she was being watched – and not by the beautiful woman behind the counter.
* * * *
“Don’t be so obvious. What’s wrong with you?” Micah demanded in a low voice, backhanding Cam when he leaned around the edge of the archway into the main room of the store. Again. His swat did little to curb his brother’s attempt to get a better look at the woman as she moved out of sight, so he grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and yanked him back. Hard.
“Hey! Easy on the neck, man.”
“Serves you right for acting like a virgin,” Micah said, unsympathetically. Still, he eased the pressure on Cam’s shirt, but didn’t release it. “It’s worse than when you first saw the Hummer.”
“Yeah, ’cause I can’t do it in the open ’cause you’re all hot for her.”
“I’m not hot for her.”
“Who’s hot for who?”
At the question, spoken a little too loud for their liking under the circumstances, Micah and Cam turned to confront the intruder, their brother Grayson, the youngest of the boys at twenty-four. Although he sometimes acted older than Micah and Cam combined, which would put him at fifty-three. As Grayson started to walk into the main room, oblivious to the drama playing out there, they grabbed him and pulled him to the side of the archway where they hovered.
“Will you be quiet?” Cam ordered. “You’re gonna blow everything.”
“No one’s hot for anyone,” Micah said at the same time.
“Blow what? What’re you guys up to?” Grayson asked, glancing from one to the other in confusion.
“Nothing,” Micah insisted. “Just checking out the tourist.”
“Nothing, my butt,” Cam argued. “You should’ve seen him ogling her in the parking lot. Like mating time at the zoo.”
“Better than mating time at the car lot.”
“Hey!” Cam punched Micah in the shoulder with a little too much force to be playful.
“Can you two stop?” Grayson asked with a shake of his head. “Honestly, I wonder sometimes how you guys can be the oldest when you act like little kids.”
Their argument was cut short by a hurling bottle of whiteout, from the vicinity of the store counter. As it glanced off his shoulder and landed on the floor at his feet, Micah shot an accusing look at the pitcher, who gave him a menacing one. The urge to fight dissipated instantly, replaced by chagrin.
Damn, Raven was getting more like their mother every day, able to quell any argument with those killer glances. He’d have to work harder to circumvent them in the future. Bad enough his mother and their live-in aunt had the power to move him with a look. He’d be damned if his sister could, too.
Micah returned his attention to the stranger as she and his other sister Ava approached the counter, arms laden with a variety of goods suitable for a hiking trip. She didn’t look like a hiker, he observed, although she was wearing the proper boots for it. Boots that looked like they just came out of the box. She was a puzzle, this mystery woman. Time to get a closer look. Too bad his progress was impeded when Cam grabbed hi by the arm, pulling him back.
“Where are you going?” Cam asked. “I thought you just wanted to look at her.”
“I did. Now I want to look at her closer.”
Micah slipped into the main room and hid behind a high shelf to watch her. His brothers followed suit, but he didn’t acknowledge them. His attention was locked on the woman.
* * * *
“Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Shiloh fidgeted with a miniature dream catcher on a rack beside the register. Here it was; the reason for her coming in here – the real reason. She had to find the right words; she couldn’t screw this up. Jon would be so mad if she messed this up. What did he tell her? What was she supposed to say?
“Uh, yeah,” she hedged as her mind went blank. Time to improvise. “My friend and I – we were interested in hiking out here, but we, uh…”
“Need a guide” Raven provided.
“Yeah.” Shiloh smiled in relief when Raven found the words she couldn’t. What was wrong with her? It was hiking – he’d promised. So why did it feel like she was doing something wrong? Shut it off, Shiloh, she cautioned herself as her special senses kicked in. Just shut it down now. “Do you have any? Guides, I mean.”
“Can I take her?” Ava asked, bouncing in place at the prospect.
“No!” four voices answered at once as three men emerged from an aisle to Shiloh’s left, their voices blending in protest with Raven‘s.
All coherent thoughts fled Shiloh’s mind when she glanced in the direction of the other voices – and her gaze collided with that of a man who was the perfect male counterpart to Raven. The main difference between them was his extra height – he had at least a foot on her – and the raw masculinity that rippled off him like a heat wave.
Did any man have the right to be so attractive? And why did he look at her like she was the main course at a gourmet restaurant – and he hadn’t eaten in days? The thought set her back a pace, literally. She bumped into a wooden barrel filled with super balls. As she reached out to grasp it, whether to balance it or herself she wasn’t certain, her gaze followed her action, snapping the strange link between them. Well, maybe not snapping, she mentally rectified. She continued to feel his magnetic pull, this time through her heart. So more like an interruption. Who was he? And why did he have this effect on her?
Was it exclusive to her or did he have this effect on the others? A glance at their faces provided the answer. They were all staring at her. All of them. Each with varying degrees of expectancy on their faces. But of what?
Good lord, what had she walked into?
She returned her gaze to him, even as she tried to mentally shake away her awareness of him. And failed. It was a living thing, writhing in an exotic dance between them, twisting about their bodies to link them with an invisible cord. It even had a heartbeat – or was it hers, its rhythm heightened by her elevated awareness?
Oh, lord, she felt sick. She clutched her stomach as if to press the sensation back into the deepest pits of her stomach. Not now, she thought, this can’t happen now. This is the worst time ever for those senses to kick in. The absolute worst time. She didn’t want to feel – his awareness. No. She wouldn’t. Period. Oh, no…
“Well, speak of the devil!” Raven said. A little too brightly, Shiloh thought, as if attempting to ease some tension. “These are my brothers. Micah in front, Cam to the right, and Grayson on the left, but everyone calls him Gray. Nobody knows the terrain around here like they do. You couldn’t ask for a better set of guides.”
Focusing her gaze on Raven – get it together, Shy, she cautioned herself – Shiloh asked, “Will I need all three?” Damn, was that wispy voice hers? Might as well shout to the world, I’m in lust with you!
She flinched, startled, when he answered the question before his sister could. “We travel in packs here,” he said in a voice as musical as his sister’s. But where hers was akin to a low soprano, his was more like a baritone. Deep, but not overly so – enough to beat an answering rhythm in her soul like a drum. “It’s always better to travel in numbers out there. If anything happens, there’s more of us to help.”
“Oh.” She nodded her acquiescence. How could she argue, after all? She’d never gone hiking, so she didn’t know the rules. In fact, she still didn’t know what she was doing out here. She came because Jon insisted. He had yet to tell her why. She pushed away the sour sensation the thought boiled in her stomach. Jon had been acting real strange for the past four months. This was one more example of his erratic behavior. Leaving in the middle of the night, not telling anyone where they were going, not allowing her to call anyone once they were out on the road. Yeah, real strange.
“Okay with you?” he – Micah – asked, piercing her with a look that reached too deep into her soul.
No, not again. I won’t allow you to invade my senses that way. Shiloh let her eyes flutter shut for a moment. Just take a deep breath and relax. There, that’s it. Composed, she opened her eyes and forced a smile onto uncooperative lips. “Ah, yeah. Sure. That makes sense.”
“Not much of a hiker, are you?” Raven asked in a sympathetic tone, drawing Shiloh’s attention away from her brother.
“First time, actually.”
Reaching across the counter to give Shiloh’s hand a pat, Raven said, “Well, don’t you worry. My brothers’ll take good care of you. If they don’t, they’ll have to deal with me, and nobody wants that.”
With her first genuine smile since he entered the room, Shiloh murmured, “Thank you, for everything.”
“Not a problem. I packed everything for you in the backpack as I rang it up, so you don’t have to worry about it.” Even as she spoke, Raven lifted the camping backpack over the counter, surprise flickering over her face when Micah took it from her before Shiloh could. She recovered quickly, saying, “Okay, have fun. And if you don’t, you come back and tell me and I’ll take care of these bozos for you.”
Before Shiloh could do much more than smile, Micah held his hand out to her. To shake. Good Lord, did she have to touch him? You can do this, Shiloh. She surreptitiously wiped her hand on her shirt before offering it to him. She had to rethink that assertion when the touch of his palm against hers near brought her to her knees. And although she recovered quickly, her folly didn’t escape his notice; it was there, in the flicker of something in his eyes and in the extra pressure he applied to her hand despite the little blue spark that flared between them when their skin first touched. He knows.
“My sister didn’t finish the introductions,” Micah said, still clasping her hand. “You are?”
With an odd half-smile – what was he thinking, she wondered – he released her hand after giving it a quick squeeze. “Well, then, Shiloh Beck. Shall we go?” Gesturing toward the parking lot, he said, “Your friend looks a little anxious.”
Following his gaze, Shiloh cringed before she could contain her response. “Yeah, he really wants to get going,” she muttered. “Before dark, you know?’
Eager to set off herself, Shiloh whirled about and dashed out of the store, not hesitating to ascertain that the Sloane brothers followed. She didn’t care if they did or didn’t. She needed to get out of that oppressive atmosphere before it brought her to her knees.