~ ~ ~
After tonight’s date, Sue Sullivan was certain that bad boys, like wild animals, were best viewed at a distance. Preferably from behind bars.
She stripped out of her wrinkled dress where her date Eddie’s questing hands had left their mark. It was bad enough that he’d pawed at her. It was even worse that he’d been sure she’d enjoyed it, all the way to the point where she’d nearly run from his car to get behind the solid wood of her front door.
Sue shuddered and washed away the remains of her bad date in her deep clawfoot tub. It was the only saving grace of this rundown farmhouse she’d inherited. Well, that, and the seven-and-a-half foot tall stone sculpture of a naked man that stood proudly in her living room.
Despite how out of place the monument was amongst the peeling paint and creaky floorboards, she had to admit Mr. Dalton Thatcher was a tasty bit of eye candy.
The rest of the farmhouse had a mile-long list of serious repairs needed—a list she’d unfortunately also inherited. Still, there was something comforting about knowing that this home had stood for over a hundred years, sheltering generation after generation. Just because the roof leaked now didn’t mean it always would. And as creaky and sagging as the floors were, she was so used to the sounds the house made, she often had trouble sleeping anywhere else.
There was charm and history here, somewhere behind the crooked walls, faulty plumbing and ancient wiring. When she was done renovating, the previous beauty of the old farmhouse would once again be restored.
Sue forced herself out of the warm water and into a bathrobe. Cold drafts licked around her bare ankles, hurrying her steps as she went to settle in front of the fire downstairs with a glass of wine and her laptop.
The computer wasn’t nearly the kind of company she’d hoped for tonight, but at least it kept her lap warm, if nothing else.
She logged into the chat room she frequented, and immediately, a video image of Charlotte Tanni popped up on her screen requesting a chat.
Charlotte’s hair was cobalt blue with blazing orange streaks. She wore enough jewelry to strain the tendons in her slender neck, but Sue guessed that was a professional hazard. As a jewelry artist specializing in mixed-media creations, Charlotte was always trying out her wares to make sure they stood up to the test of daily use before she sold each new line.
Tonight, every one of her fourteen ear piercings sported a different style of earring. Her neck was draped with enough chain, cord and leather to be considered an homage to Mr. T. Her wrists were adorned with at least a dozen bracelets, and each of her fingers sparkled with no fewer than two rings. It was a wonder the woman could still type.
Sue accepted the video chat and braced herself.
“You’re home early,” said Charlotte. “Bad date, huh? I told you he wasn’t good enough for you, but did you listen? No. Of course, not. You never listen. Here I am, your assigned mentor and guardian in your new life as a curator, and you don’t even have the sense to listen to a word I say.”
“Perhaps because there are so many of them to choose from,” said Sue.
“Ha ha. Very funny. You’re like some kind of freakin’ comedian or something. So go ahead, make me laugh. Tell me just how bad it was. Go ahead, tell me.”
“Horrible,” Sue admitted. “Eddie was all over me, pawing at me. Which was bad enough, but since he’s a mechanic, the grease imbedded in his fingerprints left stains on my black dress.”
“Which black dress? You have three.”
“I had four. Now I have three.”
“You need to stop it with the bad boys. I keep telling you this, but you never listen. What part of mentordon’t you get?”
“You’re not even old enough to drink legally. Why in the world would they have assigned you as my mentor?”
“For your information, I’m twenty-three. And when it comes to curator years, I’m way older than you. Accept it. I’m your Yoda.”
“My uncle’s will gave me no choice but to accept your interference in my life. But you’re only my mentor when it comes to…that.” Sue’s gaze slipped past her screen to the statue watching her.
It really was a beautiful piece of art. Dense, sinewy muscles hugged tight to a large, sturdy frame of bones, all covered by smooth, taut skin. She swore she could even see each individual hair along his forearms, as if the sculptor had chiseled them one at a time.
His face was a study of masculine angles, but his expression perplexed her. The statues she’d seen before always seemed stoic, relaxed.
Mr. Thatcher’s expression was anything but.
He seemed fierce. Perhaps frustrated. Maybe a little sad. There was no peace in his face anywhere, and Sue had often stroked his cheek as if she could magically help him find some.
Of course it never made the statue feel better, but it certainly gave her fingers a little tactile thrill every time she touched him.
She could have had an even bigger thrill if she’d let her fingers stray lower. As it was, she’d had to cover his…endowments so as not to be constantly distracted by them. A trip to the craft store had earned her the largest leaf they had. Between that and a sturdy strip of tape, she’d covered Mr. Thatcher enough to give her no improper reason to stare.
Charlotte’s chrome-colored fingernail tapped on her desk. “He’s a man, Sue. Not a thing. You need to stop pretending otherwise.”
“It is a chunk of stone, carved by a skilled hand. Nothing more. And no set of children’s tales are going to change my mind or the laws of physics.”
“You’re going to hurt his feelings.”
“Stone has no feelings.”
Charlotte sighed in frustration. “Have you read the manual I sent you yet?”
“The one telling me all the rules about how to behave when the statue comes to life? No, sorry. I’ve been too busy trying to find a life out here in the Middle of Nowhere, Nebraska.”
“It’s important, Sue. You need to know the rules. What if your stoneman were to come to life right now? What would you do?”
“Assume Eddie drugged my wine so he could get under my skirt.”
“You have to take this seriously. It’s part of the job.”
“My only job is at the law firm.”
“What would your uncle say?” asked Charlotte.
A streak of sadness wove through Sue. “Uncle Herman is gone. He was a sweet man to leave me his entire estate, but just because he believed some crazy story doesn’t mean I should, too.”
“You promised. When you signed the papers, you promised to take care of his house and take over his duties as curator. Part of that is reading the damn file I sent you. I really don’t think it’s too much to ask. And even if it is, so what? It’s not like you have anything better to do tonight.”
“Ouch,” said Sue. “That was a low blow.”
“So was what you said about Dalton not having feelings. You may not care about these men, but I do. I bet you haven’t even looked him up in the archives to see why he’s standing in your living room, have you? Well, I have, and he was a good man. Noble, even. He was from humble beginnings, but he worked hard and built that farmhouse you’re living in with his own two hands, and he did it so his wife-to-be would have a place to call home. He had to fight and work for everything he had—the way real men did back in the day. I can’t believe you won’t even find the time to learn about the man who put a roof over your head.”
“I’ve been a little busy trying to keep said roof from caving in on my head. Did you know that everyone around here thinks this place is haunted? No one wants to come do the repairs I need done.”
“They must all sense Dalton’s spirit.”
Sue couldn’t help but snort. “Please.”
“I’m serious. You may not have seen Dalton turn to flesh, but I’m sure the folks around there remember him making an appearance. Even if, like you, they’re too skeptical to consider something beyond what they can see. At least their heads aren’t so far up their asses that they can’t look around.”
“I believe in logic. I believe in art so beautiful it defies description. I do not, however, believe that a block of stone can animate. That is why I never should have been chosen for this job. It’s ridiculous.”
“You’ll believe everything when it happens. Let’s just hope that by then you’ve read the rules and it’s not too late.”
“I’m fairly certain I’ll be fine. As long as I don’t accept dates from any more bad boys.”
Charlotte let out a sad sigh. “I hope so. I’d hate to lose you the way we did Theresa.”
A little tremor of unease shook just beneath Sue’s skin. “Who’s Theresa?”
“She was a skeptic, too. Didn’t believe her stoneman would animate. One night he did. She freaked. Got in his way and tried to stop him from leaving. I think she was more worried about what the neighbors would think about a strange naked man strolling out of her house than she was about her own safety. Sadly, she hadn’t read the rules, either. She didn’t know that standing between a stoneman and the objective he’s ordered to accomplish could kill her.”
“Her neck was crushed. Best guess was he picked her up and flung her aside so he could pass.”
“So, what you’re saying is that some murderer is walking around free because this poor woman’s death was blamed on a statue? That’s insane.”
“Anthony has big hands. There was no mistaking what happened. The cops could find no leads, so the case is still considered unsolved. We curators know the truth, though.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. This is silly. I’m going to bed.”
Charlotte leaned toward the camera, making the pendants around her neck jingle like a giant ring of keys. “Read the manual, Sue. I mean it. Don’t be an idiot.”
“The only idiotic thing I’ve done recently is to think I could cure my boredom in this town by dating a bad boy. Lesson learned.”
“You have my number, right? I’m only a few hours’ drive away. If you need me, call, okay?”
“I’m not going to need you, but thank you for the offer.”
Charlotte’s slender shoulders lifted on a heavy sigh. “I worry about you. Your whole life has been uprooted. You had to find a new job, move across the country. I know you loved your uncle, but the transition can’t be easy. You need to let me help you.”
Sue’s heart warmed, and she let it come through in her smile. “You’re sweet. It’s why I put up with your nonsense. Now go play with your blowtorch or whatever it is you do for fun.”
“Night, Sue. RTFM.” Read the fucking manual.
“Fine. I will. It’ll be worth it just to get you off my back.”
Sue disconnected the chat and printed out the stupid file Charlotte had sent her weeks ago, right after Sue had moved in. She refilled her glass and curled up under a heavy blanket on the couch.
From here she had a fantastic view of the fire, as well as the statue flanking it. The golden glow flickered across his glossy contours, making him even more beautiful than he was in daylight.
She wasn’t sure how that was possible, but the proof—all seven-and-a-half feet of it—was right there.
She stared at him for a long time, wondering who he’d been. The carving at the base stated his name. Dalton Thatcher, 1832-1856. Below that was a single name scrawled in curling script. She assumed it was the sculptor, Pyrenia.
There were no visible tool marks. If not for the fact that the statue obviously had to be cut from stone, Sue would have thought it had been molded from clay and smoothed to perfection by skilled hands.
Talk about a labor of love. She could just imagine how much fun it would be to run her hands over a form like that, shaping each intriguing detail to match her deepest fantasies.
Another draft blew through the room, making the leaf over Mr. Thatcher’s impressive endowments lift for a second. That second was long enough for her to get a glimpse of his masculine glory and make her wish she could find a good man nearby.
Sue really missed sex.
She could try to pretend that her social life had taken a turn for the worse since moving to a town one-tenth the size she was used to, but the sad truth was, she had no more dates before than she did now. She wasn’t flashy enough to catch the eye of most men, and the ones who did look were often married men suffering from a midlife crisis.
The farmhouse lights flickered. Another draft swept through, making the fire spark and flare brighter. A moment later, there was a hard knock at her front door.
Sue cinched the tie on her robe tighter and peered through the front window.
Eddie stood there, head bowed apologetically. His black leather jacket gleamed under her porch light, showing off a pair of wide shoulders that had sucked her into her bad decision to accept a date with him in the first place.
Sue put on her stern face and opened the door just enough to let him see her glare. “What do you want?”
The smell of booze wafted through the opening. “I want to apologize. I shouldn’t have groped you like that.”
“No, you shouldn’t have.”
“I feel really bad about it. Can I come in so we can talk?”
“I’m not dressed. You should just go. Apology accepted.”
“I’m the only mechanic around. A fancy girl like you isn’t going to change her own oil. It’s a small town. We’re bound to run into each other. I don’t want it to be awkward. Please, it’ll only take a second.”
It was the earnest look of contrition on his face that won her over. “Okay, but just for a second.”
She opened the door wider to let him in. He passed her, and she shut the cold air out behind him. Not that it made much difference as drafty as the house was.
Eddie scrubbed a hand over his head and gave her a sheepish grin. “This isn’t at all the kind of place I expected you to live in.”
“It’s not my usual taste, but I’m learning to love it. I don’t suppose you know any handymen who aren’t afraid of ghosts, do you?”
He frowned. “Ghosts?”
“Yes. Apparently no one wants to work on the house because they think it’s haunted.”
“Not haunted,” he said, nodding his head toward the statue. “It’s that guy. People around here swear they’ve seen him over the years, walking around town.”
“Yeah, well those are the kinds of stories we grow up with around here. Dalton’s like our own headless horseman.”
“Isn’t there anyone who isn’t afraid of him?”
Eddie stepped closer. “I’m not. Maybe I can help you fix the place up.”
“You’d do that?” she asked.
“Sure. For a girl like you, I’d do just about anything.”
Maybe Eddie wasn’t as bad a boy as she’d first thought.
She couldn’t help the smile of relief that touched her mouth. “I can pay, of course.”
He put his hands on her shoulders and closed the distance between them. “Baby, I’d never take your cash. But there are things you do have that I want.”
Sue’s instincts kicked in. She tried to shrug him off, but his hold on her was too tight. “You should go.”
He backed her up until the drafty wall hit her butt. “I think I should stay. Tomorrow we can talk about repairs. Tonight we’re not going to do much talking at all.”
He lowered his head to kiss her.
“No!” Sue shoved against him as hard as she could. She turned her face away, straining her neck to get out of the path of his mouth.
In an instant, he turned feral. His grip tightened until it was painful, and he shook her hard enough her head bounced against the wall. Dust rained down on them, along with small chunks of plaster.
His eyes lit with a kind of dark excitement, and she knew she was in trouble—the kind she wasn’t equipped to handle alone and unarmed.
There were no neighbors within screaming distance. Her phone was on the other side of the room. It might as well have been miles away. In the last few seconds of him manhandling her, it was clear that she was physically outmatched.
The only chance she had was to outsmart him.
“A friend of mine is on the way over,” she lied.
“Bullshit. You’re not dressed for company. It’s just you and me, baby.”
“I don’t want this. I want you to go. Now.”
“No, you want me. I saw it in your eyes all night.” His flammable breath hit her dead on, making her gag.
Sue clawed at his arms, but his leather protected him. “Leave. Now. Or I call the police.”
He laughed. “Baby, by the time the cops get all the way out here, we’ll be done. You know you want this. Besides, who do you think the cops in this town will believe? A man they’ve known all their life or some prissy city girl who just wandered in?”
“No!” she screamed. “The answer is no!”
He looked down at her, his eyes empty. “I didn’t ask.”
Fear coalesced in her gut like an icy tornado. Her lungs seized. Her blood froze solid.
He shoved her face to the side and started kissing her neck while he groped her breasts. Sue pushed as hard as she could, working to put just enough room between them so that she could kick him in the balls.
Nothing worked. He was too strong, too determined. She had no weapons, no way to call for help. Screaming would only sap her strength, and likely excite him further.
She knew what was going to happen. She could see it play out through the cracks in the denial hardening over her.
Eddie was going to rape her.
Sue’s head was pinned in place. Dalton’s statue filled her vision. She saw him waver within her tears. The firelight shifted across his body, giving him the illusion of motion.
She reached behind her on the wall, searching for some kind of weapon. All she could find was a single framed black-and-white photo of the farmhouse when it had been new and shiny.
Without remorse, Sue pulled the historic photo from the nail and smashed it over Eddie’s head.
Glass spilled down over both of them, slicing shallow cuts wherever it passed. He lifted his head and gave her a look that promised revenge.
“Nice try, but a few little scratches are all part of the fun,” he said. “You should use your fingernails next. I dig that.”
His knee shoved between her thighs. Terror gripped her in its frigid, bony hands, stealing the last wisp of her breath. Her vision started to sparkle as she struggled to get enough oxygen.
She must have passed out or something, because the next thing she knew, she was dreaming. Dalton’s body started to move. He stepped down off the stone platform and, with a bellow of rage, charged.
Frustration coursed through Dalton as he stood frozen, forced to watch the lovely Miss Sullivan try desperately to fend off her attacker. His curse held him immobile unless and until her safety was at risk. It didn’t matter that he could see her fate coming for her. It didn’t matter that he knew exactly how disastrous a decision it had been for her to let that good-for-nothing horse’s ass in the door.
All that mattered were the rules. His contract forbade him from interfering unless his curator was in immediate danger.
As she was now.
Energy raced over his body, trickling in like warm rain. He willed the process to hurry the hell up, before it was too late. The chilly stiffness that was his constant companion melted away, and his limbs became fluid and mobile once again. Every time it happened—every time his stone form was made flesh—he could hardly believe he’d ever felt so good. So alive.
The instant he was free from his stone prison, able to move, he did.
He grabbed her attacker by the back of his neck and squeezed hard enough to gain the man’s attention. Once he had that, the man tried to take a swing.
Dalton let him.
The man’s fist hit Dalton’s jaw, and the sound of finger bones cracking was unmistakable. Before the leather-clad no-good had finished squealing in pain like a piglet, Dalton picked him up and flung him out through the front door, onto his car.
The hood of the car crumpled under the man’s impact. He lay still, unmoving.
Dalton turned to face his curator.
Fear and tears stained her pretty face. He’d spent hours staring at her, watching her move through the room that served as his permanent home. With her arrival, some of the boredom he faced had lifted for the first time in decades, leaving him feeling almost lucky.
What man got to view such a beautiful sight each day? What man got to watch a woman like her move and smell her skin? What man was blessed with the sound of her voice as she sang a tune while she worked in the kitchen?
He knew such luxury wouldn’t last. Miss Sullivan wasn’t cut out for the job of curator—she didn’t even believe he was a real man—but he was determined to enjoy her presence in his life for as long as it lasted.
There were no guarantees that his next curator would be as kind and lovely as she was. Not all stonemen were so lucky.
Miss Sullivan’s hair had been pinned up for her bath. He’d been able to smell the scent of vanilla and lavender clinging to her as she’d come down the stairs. It was a scent he’d learned to love within days of her arrival.
Her skin had been pink and dewy from the bath, and the fine, dark hairs at the nape of her neck had curled into damp ringlets. All he’d been able to think about at the time was how much he wanted to nuzzle that skin and find out just how sweet she would taste.
The fight had pulled her hair free of its moorings, letting it cascade over her shoulders in a tangled brown wave. Dalton wanted to touch it so badly he had to curl his fingers into a fist to keep from doing just that.
In his stone form he could see, hear, smell and feel, but his sense of touch was so rarely stimulated.
Except when she stroked his cheek.
He ached for those moments when her fingertips would trail across his flesh and give him the heat of her body. It reminded him of a glimpse of sunlight in the middle of winter, precious for its fleeting nature. As that warmth lingered along the surface of his stone form, he could almost remember what it was like to be a real man. The feeling was both glorious and sad because he knew it would end all too soon.
She stared up at him now, disbelief plain in her warm brown eyes. Her robe tie had come loose enough that he could see a pale line of smooth skin running down between her breasts. Curled up on the floor like she was, all it would take was one stout draft for him to see just how pretty she was below the tie of her robe.
Dalton’s mouth watered.
He’d been subjected to so much naked flesh and hedonism he thought nothing could arouse him anymore.
He’d been wrong.
Disbelief strained her tone. “You’re…real.”
“Of course I am. Aren’t you my curator?”
“Um. Yes. But…”
“Then why do you sound so surprised? Your friend told you I was alive. Your life was at risk. It was my duty to act.” He crouched in front of her, moving slowly so he wouldn’t give her more of a fright.
A fake green leaf fell to the floor between his feet—the one she’d taped over him to protect his modesty. She didn’t know that after all these decades, nudity was so common for him he hardly thought about it.
Miss Sullivan, however, did. Her eyes widened and her face flushed.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, reaching to help her up. “Do I need to call a doctor?”
She blinked a few times, staring at his outstretched hand like she didn’t know what to do with it.
Maybe her noggin had gotten rattled harder than he thought. Maybe that’s why he hadn’t yet turned back to stone the way he would once the danger had passed.
Fearing the worst, Dalton lifted her onto the couch, being careful not to untie her robe the rest of the way. No telling what he’d do if that happened.
Lose his head. Settle it between her thighs for a long, slow feast.
He could imagine how much she’d hate that on the heels of her jackass date’s advances.
Time to lock his desires away, where they wouldn’t cause her any distress.
Once she was safely on the couch, he searched for injury. His fingers moved carefully, like they would over the wounded leg of a skittish colt. His search moved on slowly, but all he found were a few shallow scratches on her limbs and a tender spot on the back of her head.
“I think I have a concussion,” she said.
He hid the spike of worry her words gave him and forced his tone to come out slow and casual. “That is serious. I should get you to a doctor.”
“You can’t take me anywhere. You’re only in my head. Proof Eddie scrambled my brains.”
“Your brains are fine, miss. So is the rest of you.” Very fine, he noticed as he tucked a blanket over her bare legs in an effort to be an honorable man and stop leering.
Her lips parted as if she were about to say something. No words came out, but Dalton’s entire focus narrowed down to those two plump lips. With her head angled up toward him as it was, he could almost imagine that she was silently begging for a kiss.
His blood heated and thrummed through his limbs. The hot proof of life beating through him was a precious thing to be savored. With Miss Sullivan here to make his blood burn a little hotter, the sheer joy of being flesh was even sweeter.
How long would he have in his human form? Long enough to remember what it felt like to be a real man?
She reached up and touched his cheek, just as she had so many times before. The impact of her skin on his hit him like a speeding train, knocking the wind from his lungs.
He could feel the faint tremor running through her fingertips. They were chilled from her fright, and all he could think about was giving her his warmth the way she had given hers to him so many times.
Dalton covered her hand so she wouldn’t pull away too soon.
“I’m imagining this, aren’t I?” she asked. “Dreaming?”
“You’re awake and this is all real,” he assured her.
“You really are alive?”
“I am. Sorry if I scared you.”
She shook her head slightly, making one of her hairpins slide down on the silky strands. “Thanks for getting rid of Eddie.”
“Protection is one of the few benefits you curators have. And it was my pleasure.” He gave her a single nod, his fingers automatically going to the brim of a hat he now never wore.
She shivered and tugged her hand away. “How can I repay you?”
Touch me. “No need. It’s part of my contract.”
From outside came the noise of a loud car revving to life. Eddie was leaving.
That familiar cold tingling formed at the base of Dalton’s spine, warning him that it was time to return to his base. The compulsion was hard to fight, and he didn’t want to solidify wherever he stood, making it hard for Miss Sullivan to explain his presence to company. Not to mention the fact that he’d be nearly impossible for her to move. The danger had passed. It was better if he did what he knew was demanded of him and left her in peace.
“I have to go now,” he said. “But if you need me, I’ll be right here for you.”
As that tingling turned to pressure, Dalton pressed a kiss against her forehead just to see what it would feel like to have his lips graze her skin.
Smooth. Warm. Silky. Oh, so sweet.
He took that feeling with him as he stepped onto the stone base. A moment later, his world turned cold.
He could still see Miss Sullivan lying on the couch, but she was once again out of reach.
Dalton was alone again, inside his stone prison.