Tashi Holland took a deep breath of the summer air as she exited one of her favorite shops at Stone Crest Shopping Mall Outlets. Bags in hand, she strolled along the walkway, wheeling her way through the throng of residents and tourists who frequented this delightful small town nestled in the foothills of the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire.
She headed for one of the many gazebos in the plaza and, setting her bags on a stone bench, she pulled her camera from her backpack and began clicking away at the breathtaking views of the shimmering waters of Crystal Lake and the green majestic mountains in the background.
Granite Falls was a long way from New York City, the place she’d gone to study photography, and even farther from Ohio—the place where she was born and raised, but never felt any real connection to. Granite Falls wasn’t a bad town for settling down and starting over, but it was remote and lonely. Lonelier, because she hadn’t made any friends and had spent the last few months trying to make sense of the events that had changed her life a year and a half ago.
Sometimes it felt like yesterday, and other times it felt like a lifetime. And then there were times when it felt as if it never even happened. She’d listened to the news and searched the Internet day and night for weeks, then months, trying to find evidence that her nightmares weren’t just some figment of her imagination.
But there was nothing. Never anything—except for one fact.
Tashi sighed and, putting her camera away, she sat on the bench and folded her arms across the stone tabletop and indulged in her favorite pastime. Watching people mulling about and speculating about their lives had helped to keep her mind off her own lifeless existence.
Who was she, anyway? She was a girl with a name, and only a name. One she couldn’t use. She couldn’t open a bank account or use her credit cards. Her driver’s license was useless since she couldn’t rent or purchase a car, or even book a hotel room for a night.
She had the cell phone the FBI agent who’d rescued her had given her—her only communication to the world beyond Granite Falls’ border—but she had no one to call, except the closest pizza parlor and Mountainview Café for occasional deliveries during the past cold winter nights. She kept her phone charged and protected like it was an infant, hoping and praying each day would be the one she would receive that one call she lived for—the call that would give her back her life.
Maybe she would never get her life back. Maybe they thought she’d died during the shootout in that house in New York City, fifteen months ago.
But then again, who were they?
She had no family. She’d never met her father. Her mother died when she was four, and then her uncle who’d raised her suddenly and unexpectedly lost his life to pancreatic cancer almost two years ago. She’d been alone and scared in the craziest city in the world until Scottie showed up. He’d seemed real and charming and had treated her like a princess until…
Tashi covered her face with her hands as visions of that night stormed into the forefront of her mind. Those visions never surfaced gently. They always came at her like a silent freight train speeding around a bend. She only knew it was there after it hit her.
What if Scottie was real, but the man who’d claimed he’d come to rescue her along with the others who were posing as guards and parents were just actors his real parents had hired to get rid of her? After all, she was a nobody, and Scottie was the heir to some multi-million-dollar corporation. Maybe they thought she wasn’t good enough for their son. Tashi had watched enough movies to know that rich people could get away with almost anything. What if they were all fakes? Except…
She wrapped her arms around her middle as the pain seared through her. The one thing about that night that wasn’t fake was the fact that she’d killed a man. She’d climbed undetected into the back seat, pointed a gun at the back of his head and pulled the trigger. Twice. Then she’d watched, numb from head to toe, as he slumped against the steering wheel. It was the blare of the horn that had propelled her into action. She’d pushed the dead man out of the car, and driven off.
His death was the only event that had made the news. It was described as a drug deal gone wrong. He’d left behind a wife and three young children. There were no suspects and last she’d read, the case had been closed.
What if killing the driver was the only real event about that night? What if Scottie’s parents were using that incriminating fact as a means to keep her away from him? If the man who’d claimed to be an FBI agent had made it out alive, where was he? He’d promised to find her and explain everything to her. What was ‘everything’? What did he need to explain?
Tashi didn’t know what to believe anymore. And here she was in a strange town where the agent had sent her in search of a man who was supposed to protect her. A man without a face and a name. Tashi scanned the crowds as she’d done countless times in the past months, hoping beyond hope that her savior would see her, recognize her, and help her.
He could be anybody, even that giant of a man with his arm around the petite woman as they pushed a set of twins in a double stroller. He reminded her of the FBI agent—large, dark, and handsome. The couple nodded and smiled at her as they walked past.
Tashi smiled back. She felt as if she’s seen them somewhere before, but then she quickly averted her eyes as the woman said something to the man, and he turned and gave her another smile.
“She said you’re very beautiful, and I agreed,” the man said over his shoulder.
“Thank you. And so is she.” Tashi’s smile deepened, as the couple disappeared into the crowd.
One thing she could say about this town was that the majority of people were nice and friendly. They probably didn’t think the same of her since she never made any attempts to engage in conversation, nor did she respond to personal questions about herself—legitimate questions people ask when they were interested in someone.
Not knowing whom she could trust, she trusted no one, not even Mindy, her garrulous neighbor, whose kids she’d babysat on a few occasions.
Tashi gathered her bags and left the gazebo. It was laundry day, and she didn’t have a washer and dryer in her one-bedroom apartment—an apartment in the not-so-nice side of town. But it was the only place where the landlord would allow her to pay cash—no questions asked.
The FBI agent had given her a bag of cash and she’d carved out a hole in the back wall of her bedroom closet and hidden the bag inside it. It wasn’t like she could take the money down to the local bank and make a deposit. Her closet was the safest place she could think of to hide it. She’d bought a piece of plywood, painted it white and leaned it up against the wall to hide the hole. Every time she left her apartment, Tashi worried about someone breaking in. But so far so good.
The car she’d driven to Granite Falls, and the gun with which she’d killed the man had become real estate for fish in the deepest parts of the Hudson and Aiken Rivers, respectively. She had enough money to last her a decade, if she spent it wisely. Hopefully, before it ran out, she’d have some answers to her past and be able to live a normal life.
Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she’d had a light breakfast. Tashi smiled at the idea of enjoying a juicy, smoked ham sandwich from Mountainview Café, just two blocks over from the outlets. She would grocery shop tomorrow after her kickboxing class. On that thought, Tashi headed for the café.
Having no job, and no people to visit, she’d learned to spread out her outdoor excursions over several days, just to have a reason to leave her apartment, and keep herself from going crazy. It had been hard during the cold long winter months. Sometimes she didn’t know which was worse—sitting in her apartment reading, or watching TV and snow fall through her window, or braving the freezing temperatures and trekking through snow banks to do her laundry and groceries. On milder days, she’d walk six blocks to the public library, curl up in front of a warm fire, and read. A few times, she’d even fallen asleep in one of the oversized comfortable chairs, only to wake up to face the long walk back and the destitution and isolation of her apartment.
Tashi prayed that something would change before winter came around again. She didn’t think she could survive another six months of cold in this lonely town. She’d thought of leaving, but that promise from the FBI agent to find her and explain everything had kept her grounded. She didn’t want to miss him when and if he ever came looking for her.
An hour later, Tashi placed some money next to her empty plate and grabbed her bags from the floor. As she stood up and spun around, she collided, head-on with a solid wall of hard muscle. She immediately felt strong arms close around her.
Was that thunder? Was this an earthquake?
Tashi stiffened as a flicker of fear rushed through her. Her face was pressed tightly against a hard expanse of human flesh that smelled so good. A man was holding her. A strange man.
You’re a witness. They’ll be looking for you. Don’t trust anyone.
She panicked, her heart thundering as she fought against him. “No! No! Let me go!”
“Hey, take it easy. I was only trying to catch you before you fell flat on your pretty little face.”
The man abruptly released her. Then he bent down and retrieved her bags that had fallen to the floor. He straightened up and handed them to her.
So it wasn’t thunder. Tashi tilted her head back to gaze into a pair of the bluest, most intimate eyes she had ever seen.
Her heart did a double take and something hot sizzled through her stomach. More adrenaline rushed through her as she took a good look at him—from his waist-length wavy black hair to the tips of his black leather shoes. He wore designer jeans and a gray shirt. Or maybe they wore his tall, hard, sexy frame.
The food stains on the front of his shirt caused Tashi to look behind him where he’d parked a baby stroller. A little girl, who looked about two years old, was fast asleep inside it. Tashi took a long, deep breath as her panic subdued. He couldn’t be one of the mob’s men. He didn’t look the type. They wouldn’t be running around after her with a baby in tow. And how would they have found her, anyway?
“I’m—I’m sorry,” she stuttered. “I really should look where I’m going.”
“Don’t apologize,” he said in a deep, rumbling voice. “I’m the one who sneaked up on you. I hope I didn’t hurt you.” He gave her body a bold raking gaze, then his soft blue eyes came back to her face, and that something hot sizzled through the core of Tashi’s body again. It was nothing like she’d experienced before.
Their eyes locked for tense moments as if they were both waiting for the other to make the next move.
“No. I’m fine.” Tashi licked her lips that had suddenly become parched. She tugged her eyes from his, only to stare at his wide and generous mouth with lips that reminded her of blooming rosebuds. They were so pink and succulent.
She studied his face. It was passionate, beautiful, and irresistible, down to the narrow, hollow grove etched into the taut skin under his straight nose. His features were sculptured so perfectly, so symmetrically, that he was almost too beautiful for a man. Italian? Greek? Tashi took another look at the adorable baby-girl sleeping in the carriage.
He’s married! Not that it really mattered. She wasn’t looking for a husband. Heck, she wasn’t even looking for a man. Well, she was, but she didn’t know who that man was. She didn’t know if he was supposed to be black or white, old or young, rich or poor… All she knew was that he should be single and his name began with an A. She didn’t even know if the A stood for a first or last name.
“I—I have to go,” she said in an awkward, tremulous voice.
He opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but instead, he gave her a sensuous stare that made her heart turn over in response. Close Encounter of the Magnetic Kind, Tashi thought on a raspy breath as she hurried away. What a man! God, she didn’t realize they made them like that. His appeal was extremely unsettling. She’d never been this affected by a man before. It was scary and exciting at the same time.
When she reached the sidewalk, Tashi looked back at the café to find him standing at the wall of glass in the front, looking at her. He smiled, and waved. She smiled, and waved back. His smile turned to a charming grin and it was then that Tashi felt as if she’d seen him before. It was the second time today that she’d run into slightly familiar faces.
For some reason, she didn’t feel threatened by the man who was now watching her, especially when Miss Felicia, one of the owners of the café, came up and hugged him before bending over to pay attention to the child sleeping in the stroller. She was probably his mother-in-law, Tashi thought, since Miss Felicia was black, the man was white, and the baby had olive-toned skin, an indication that she was biracial or multiracial.
No, Tashi thought walking away, this man wasn’t after her. Nevertheless, she decided not to head home, just in case he was tempted to follow her. She crossed the street and entered the supermarket. She’d do her laundry tomorrow. She didn’t have her list, so it took longer than expected to get her shopping done.
With two bags filled with groceries, and two filled with additions to her new wardrobe, she exited the automatic sliding doors of the supermarket and froze. The tall handsome man was standing near the entrance, talking on his cell, his back to her. He must have heard her gasp, because he turned around and immediately ended his conversation. His dark shades obscured his eyes, hiding his expression from her. For all she knew, he could have been talking to the men who were after her, letting his boss know that he’d found her.
Real fear gripped Tashi this time. Scottie had been charming and sweet, just like this man, but according to the FBI agent, he’d been hired to befriend her and trap her.
Her bags slid from her hands. She heard glass crunching, and then red liquid leaked around her sandals. Blood. Blood splattered on the windshield, on the dashboard, and ran down the back of his fat neck, staining the collar of his white shirt.
Tashi’s heart thundered and her stomach clenched tightly. Dear God. No. She started to run, but didn’t get far. Her eyes closed in defeat as he caught her and spun her around. “How did you find me?”
“Who are you running from? Why are you so paranoid?”
She opened her eyes and stared at him. He’d removed his shades and his blue eyes pierced through her as if he were trying to read her soul. “Why are you following me?”
“I’m not following you. I swear I’m not following you. I wouldn’t do that. Stalking is illegal in this town.” He smiled, and the afternoon sun illuminated his soft blue eyes. “I came to the market to get some pull-ups for Tiffany. Her mother didn’t pack enough this morning.”
Tashi’s breath came out hard and rapid. Of course. He wasn’t one of them. He was married. He had a little girl.
She felt so weak. She was so tired. Tired of hiding. Tired of the unknown. She just wanted a life. She wanted to feel safe and secure, just for one moment. Tashi gave in to the overwhelming emotions that had been building up for fifteen months. She was only human, after all. She fell weakly against the strong, hard chest. The hot tears ran in torrents down her cheeks, dampening his shirt. She felt his arms close around her. His fingers tangled in her hair as he pressed her face into his chest.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he whispered gently in a deep voice as he held her, his hands soothing and comforting as he caressed her back and shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay...”
They stood holding onto each other in the parking lot with curious people watching and the warm July sun beating down on them.
After a while, he put his hand under her chin and lifted her face to his. “It’s gonna be okay,” he reiterated, gazing into her eyes. He backtracked a few steps with her, bent down, picked up her backpack and shopping bags, and handed them to her. “Your groceries are ruined.” He bent down and began to scoop up as much as he could of the mess of food from the ground.
Tashi slid one strap of her backpack over her arm and bent down to help him. As they carried the soggy paper bags with ruined groceries over to the trashcan and deposited them inside, Tashi felt an unexpected warmth from his tenderness. His genuine concern for her—a stranger—was touching.
“If you come inside with me, I’ll replace your groceries,” he said.
“You don’t have to do that.” She could have salvaged most of the items and washed off the spaghetti sauce once she got home, but she was too tired to bother. “It’s my fault for being paranoid.”
“Why do you take on so much blame?” he asked. “In the café, you blamed yourself and now… I snuck up on you there, and I scared you just now. It’s not all your fault, you know.”
A heaviness settled in Tashi’s stomach. But it was. If I hadn’t been so naïve that nice FBI agent would be alive today, and that driver too—even though he was a bad man. It was her fault.
“At least let me reimburse you.” He pulled his wallet from his back pocket.
“No. It wasn’t that much. I’m fine.” She hoped her camera was fine. It was expensive and she didn’t want to have to replace it. At least her phone was tucked safely inside the pocket of her dress. She would die if it was ever lost, damaged, or stolen.
The man’s eyes continued to bore into hers as he replaced his wallet. “Are you in some kind of trouble?” His voice was deep and rich, and it made her feel safe.
Tashi needed that voice at night as she lay in bed trembling and frightened, whispering that everything would be all right. She needed that voice to bring her out of the nightmares that continually plagued her sleep. She swallowed and shook her head, then pressed her hands against her temples. “No. I’m just tired. It’s been a long day.”
“It’s only noon,” he pointed out in a patient tone.
She tried to smile, but the corners of her mouth just trembled. “Where’s your little girl—Tif—Tiffany, right?” she asked, noticing what she supposed was green dried baby food in the tresses of his long black hair. She envied the woman who had this gentle, loving man to comfort and protect her. She wished she had someone like him to lean on. To trust.
“She’s with her grandmother,” he answered, offering her a smile that made her knees weak, not from fear or heartache this time, but attraction. “Come back to the café with me. Have a smoothie and some apple pie. It’ll calm your nerves, make you feel better. I promise.”
Tashi shook her head. “The apple pie is delicious. I usually have it for desert.” Usually, she thought in wonder. She hadn’t ordered it today, and if she had, she would still have been sitting at her table when this stranger walked in. She would not have stood up and bumped into him. “I just ate and I’m really full.”
“Maybe another time then?” he asked, on a warm smile.
“I’m sorry for crying all over you,” Tashi said, willing herself not to fall victim to his charm. The lingering smell of green beans and applesauce on his shirt made him even more irresistible. He was somebody’s dad—the one thing she never had growing up.
“Why did you cry all over me?”
She hesitated before responding. “It’s just that, when I saw you standing there talking on the phone, and then when you turned around, I panicked. I thought you were—” She stopped, and dropped her gaze.
“You thought I was someone else. The person you are running away from?”
“I’m not running from anyone.” Tashi’s defenses instantly returned. She didn’t know this man. He was nice, but he had his own family to take care of. If she were his wife, she wouldn’t appreciate him paying so much attention to another woman—especially one who in spite of the mental brakes she was trying to apply found herself highly attracted to him. She stepped back and glanced up at him. “I have to go.” She hooked the other strap of her backpack over her shoulder.
“Where? Where do you have to go?” he asked, the beginning of a new smile tipping the corners of his sexy mouth.
“Bye.” She turned and walked away, clutching her two garment bags in her hand.
“I’m Adam. Do you live around here?” he called after her.
Tashi stopped in her tracks. Adam. His name was Adam. His name began with an
Her mind rewound fifteen months to the night in New York and the split second just before the first round of shots blasted around her: “When you get to Granite Falls, look for A—” and just before that, “I’ll send word to my friend. He is to give you the protection of his name and family by making you his temporary bride.”
Tashi did not dare turn around. It was too good to be true. He couldn’t be that friend. The agent hadn’t said anything about him having a child, and she was certain that if Adam was already married, the agent would not have asked that he marry her. What if he’d gotten married in the fifteen months she’d been wasting away in this town? Well, if he was that man, he could still give her protection, just not as his wife. “Yes,” she said in a voice squeaky with hope. “I live around here.”
“What’s your name?”
“Tashi. Tashi—” She hesitated, then decided to go for it. “Tashi Holland.”
She waited for some indication of recognition. A “My goodness, I’ve been looking for you for months,” or something along those lines. When none came, Tashi continued on her way.
“Tashi Holland.” Adam whispered her name as he watched her walk through the parking lot, her long jean dress flapping loosely around her ankles. When she exited the lot, Adam realized that she didn’t own a car. The thought that she couldn’t afford a car upset him. How many other basic necessities of life—things people like him took for granted—did she live without?
He was tempted to follow her, even though he’d told her he hadn’t been following her. That was then. This was now—now that he knew she was afraid of something or someone, the urge to run after her and hold her again mounted by the second. Twice in one day, within the hour, he’d held her against him, pressed her cheek close to his heart—his heart that was now beating madly out of control.
Adam pressed his palm into his chest where her cheek had lain. His shirt was damp from her tears. His skin tingled from her heat. He fisted his hand as if he could capture her sadness and make it his own.
“What frightens you, Tashi? Who scares you? An obsessive boyfriend? An abusive husband?” he asked out loud as he watched her cross the street and walk west on Beacon Avenue, pass Mountainview Café, toward Union Street.
Soon she would be out of sight, but positively not out of mind, he thought as he recalled her eyes—wide sapphire pools of mystery and magic, bright open windows to her timid soul. His pulse quickened as he remembered the rich golden glow and enthusing aroma of ginger scenting her soft auburn curls, and the sensuous bouquet of jasmine and vanilla emanating from her smooth silky skin.
Exotic. Sweet. Enticing. Lei era la spezia e il sapore al suo stufato—yes, the spice and the flavor to his stew, indeed. The kind of woman a man wished he could bump into again and again—all pun intended.
Adam’s excitement waned when she made a right turn onto Union Street—the low-income part of town, littered with rundown multi-family houses where people existed from paycheck to paycheck. His heart squeezed mercilessly. A woman like Tashi didn’t belong in that kind of neighborhood. She belonged in a palace surrounded by servants eager to grant her simplest request.
As her diminishing figure disappeared from his view, Adam walked into the supermarket. His concern for the girl sprouted wings and his protective instincts toward any damsel in distress bulldozed through the barrier he’d erected several years ago. It ripped through him like a fist smashing through the surge of a waterfall.
Tashi was in trouble. Not the kind that went away with a threatening phone call or a letter from an attorney. She was in deep. The girl was a bundle of nerves, and seemingly as defenseless as an alley cat trapped with its back against the wall.
Much like Claire, sans the entourage of negative vibes.
As he pulled the box of disposable diapers from the shelf and headed to the checkout, Adam tried to put all thoughts of Tashi Holland out of his mind. He told himself that she was not his concern. He berated himself for asking her name and if she lived in the vicinity. Why couldn’t he have left well enough alone?
It wasn’t that he was opposed to helping damsels in distress. It was just that damsels in distress were his weakness.
He’d discovered his Achilles’ heel at age twenty-one when he’d rescued Claire, a damsel in distress from an abusive relationship. A practicing yogi and meditation guru since the age of twelve, he should have known that a woman with that kind of baggage and high levels of toxins circling her orbit would tip his Libra scales way out of equilibrium.
Perhaps the challenge of teaching her to trust again, to show her that not all men were cruel, and most emphatically the fact that she was the first woman he’d made love with had clouded his mind, made him think he was in love with her, and pushed him to propose. It could also have been his father’s frequent referral to the fact that since Adam was his only heir, it was his duty to carry on the Andreas bloodline.
Or perhaps it was that longing in his heart to share his life with someone special, to create his own home with a wife and children that was filled with joy, happiness, laughter, and respect—much like the one he’d grown up in. Whatever it was that had pushed him to ask, Claire had accepted his proposal, and had seemed excited about marrying him in the months they’d spent planning the elaborate wedding of the decade.
Then she’d broken his heart.
Eventually, his heart had healed and had forgotten the ache of rejection. A true believer in love and Happy Ever After, he’d opened up to another damsel in distress. He never got as far as the altar with Denise, and he couldn’t say that his heart had been broken the second time around—just a little hurt and somewhat disappointed at failing again.
That kind of consecutive rejection could wreak havoc on a man’s confidence, not to mention his ego—even if that man practiced yoga and meditation on a daily basis. While yoga and meditation were efficient in helping him regain and maintain balance in his inner universe, they, however, were ineffective when it came to matters of the heart and soul.
The heart and soul, he’d discovered, were restless teammates—forever on perpetual journeys to find their one true love—the ultimate mate to complete them. Twice burned, Adam had learned that the best way to deal with his heart and soul was not to engage them, to keep them away from things that affected them most.
For him, that thing was a woman in distress, since the moment he thought he had to rescue a woman was the moment he began falling for her.
After his emotional disasters with Claire and Denise, he’d made a conscious effort to only pursue independent women who didn’t need to be rescued, women who wanted a career more than they wanted love and a family, those who bowed out as graciously as they bowed into their affairs with him. To be fair, he was always mindful to let them know right up front that there was no permanency in a relationship with him. Consequently, he was known as “Temporary Adam” to some, and “The Temporary Tycoon” to others.
Adam had been initially surprised that there were actual women out there who didn’t see marriage and children as the prime reason for their existence, that it wasn’t a goal they needed to attain to feel complete and valued by the opposite sex, or by society. What many women really wanted had changed in recent decades. Some of them just wanted to have fun.
Adam appreciated their contemporary philosophies, and while the opposite was true for him, temporary was working out just fine. The heart couldn’t always get what it wanted, and since he’d conditioned his not to fall in love, it seemed to have ceased its endless quest.
The safest way to keep temporary permanent was to stay away from damsels in distress. That meant no opening of Pandora’s box—well, in this case, Tashi’s box—for a quick and curious peek inside.
By the time he walked back to Mountainview Café and handed the box of diapers to Felicia, Adam had succeeded in putting all thoughts of Tashi Holland out of his mind.
At least that's what he thought.