Authors: Eden Ashe
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
To Heather and Wendy, the best sisters in the world. Here’s to many, MANY more years of spontaneous dancing in random places. I love you.
As always, a huge thanks to my girls, Tink and the Maddog, for picking up the slack around the house and just generally being awesome. Mary, again, for everything. And to my editor, Corinne: You. Are. Amazing. Thank you.
“Excuse me, sir, but I’m leaving for the night.”
Nathan Alexander glanced up from the file when his office light switched on. Frustration pounded in his head as he tried to focus on the woman filling up the doorway, an odd large silver plant in her sturdy arms. “What?”
Maggie James, assistant extraordinaire, shifted her considerable size further into the room, her direct look stern enough to make him squirm. While he had no idea how old she was, Nathan no longer denied she terrified the hell out of him. The woman was built like a linebacker, with not a single soft spot in her physique or personality. She plopped the flowerpot onto his desk.
Nathan was smart enough to keep his eyes on her face when she crossed her arms over her ample bosom. He was a man after all, but the last time his normal reflexes had dropped his gaze for the barest of seconds, he’d been slapped in the back of the head hard enough to make his ears ring.
He had to admit there were days he worked harder than others to remember why he kept her.
“You can’t keep doing this to yourself, Mr. Alexander.” She let out an annoyed
sound, and with a shake of her head, she started around the room, straightening whatever didn’t meet her OCD tendencies. Considering he hadn’t touched a thing other than his desk and his files since the last time she’d cleaned, he watched her in vague amusement when she pointed at him and continued, “You’re not a young man, anymore.”
Nathan pushed his executive chair back, untangling his long frame from the uncomfortable position and raised his arms in a bone-popping stretch. He was thirty-four. Not exactly an old man. “Keep sweet talking me, Ms. James, and you won’t see your next raise for another year.”
The battle-ax walked around his desk to gather discarded coffee cups. “You make that threat weekly, sir.” She juggled the ceramic cups into one arm, then grabbed him by the tie and pulled with her free hand, bringing him to his feet. “You need to shower. You have dinner with Rhiannon in an hour.”
“That’s tonight?” He let out a frustrated sound and dragged a hand down his face. “I’m going to need a drink. Or maybe five.”
She nodded, and gave him a shove toward his executive bathroom. “Already ordered you an extra strong pot of coffee. It will be here when you get out of the shower.” She sent a disdainful, pitying look, toward the plants in various stages of dead and dying, scattered around his large office. “Poor things. Why your dotty aunt insists on sending them, I will never understand. You don’t appreciate them.” Sighing, she plucked the hand-written note out of his newest exotic gift and rested it on his desk. “Don’t forget to call her when you’re done here for the night.”
Nathan nodded as he shut the bathroom door behind him. He stripped out of the suit he’d had on for ten hours, and since it didn’t look like he was going to have time to workout at the ninth-floor gym, he dropped to the floor and did a quick cycle of one hundred push-ups and sit-ups.
Because sleeping—or not, depending on what he had coming up—at work was common for him. He had a closet built off the bathroom with an entire wardrobe, everything he needed from suits to tuxedos to workout clothes, to jeans and sweatshirts. The closet was a necessity. It could be days before he made it to his penthouse.
He sneered. The penthouse was another necessity. Despite the fact he ran a nonprofit and was expected to forgo a large salary, he wasn’t expected to be destitute. And by non-destitute, it meant throwing lavish parties in his home to the high society standards of his wealthiest donors.
Nathan pulled a suit out of the closet without looking. It could have been ten years old, or it could have been brand new. He never paid enough attention to notice. Maggie made a comment once, when he’d first hired her and put her in charge of the credit card he used solely for his suits, that a few of them were worth more than what she’d made in the last year. Nathan had come close to drinking himself comatose that night, and she’d never mentioned it again or allowed him to see a single receipt or statement.
He’d grown up on a steady diet of stale bread, moldy cheese and the back of his father’s hand, while his mother had busted her ass working two back-breaking labor jobs. Knowing the price of one suit could have fed her for months was sickening.
Once he was dressed, Nathan shoved his fingers through his damp hair and stepped out of his bathroom. There was a fresh steaming pot of coffee on his desk, next to whatever exotic plant his batty Aunt Mellie had sent him this time.
Not in a hurry to leave, he poured himself a cup of coffee and grabbed the note from his aunt. He had no doubt she knew what date it was, and the mythical flower was supposed to cheer him up. He snorted. It was going to take more than a pretty silver and white plant to get him through this dinner. While he and Rhiannon had broken off the engagement more than two months ago, tonight would have been their wedding night.
Apparently, since he’d been the one to call things off, it translated to taking her for dinner and listening to his failures for two hours while stone-cold sober.
Leaning against the floor-to-ceiling window with his back to the Chicago skyline, Nathan ripped open the note card his aunt had sent with the flower.
Some things broken were never meant to be whole. And sometimes, taking care of something else, puts the pieces back together. Tonight, your life begins again. Take her home with you. Cherish her, and she’ll love you forever.
Don’t screw this one up.
Nathan stared at the handwritten note for a long moment, then let out a frustrated snort and tossed it into the trash. Great. Aunt Mellie thought his destiny was a plant. Maybe it was time to see about having her mental stability checked out.
He reached over to flick off his desk lamp and noticed the exotic plant was starting to bloom. His eyes narrowed and he straightened, watching the long, striking petals unfold, stretching into the steam of the coffee sitting next to it. When it was completely unfurled, he realized something was inside. He turned the lamp on and leaned forward, squinting as he tried to figure out what he was looking at. It was almost like…
This was a first. Sure his Aunt Mellie had spiked the note with something to make him hallucinate, Nathan shook his head. He reached a finger out, ready to poke whatever was perched in the center to see if it moved, when the thing took flight.
Nathan stumbled, landing hard in his executive chair, as what looked like part butterfly, part dragonfly fluttered directly in front of his face. He blinked rapidly, but the longer he stared, the clearer the image of the creature became.
Christ Jesus, he was looking at a fairy. Not the fat, ugly, terrifying kind of ancient myths, but a tiny, beautiful fairy not even big as his thumb. Silver hair hung in waves down her back and around her wings, while tiny scraps of see-through silver covered the important parts of her ridiculously small body.
She dove toward him, jabbing him in the nose with her finger. At least he thought it was her finger, it could have been her fist. Either way, her face was one of pure, mutinous, furious female.
After five years with Rhiannon, it was a look he knew quite well.
He started to raise his hand until he saw her flinch away, and he realized how big his hand must seem to her. He lowered it, and shook his head again, trying to convince himself he was hallucinating. Maybe saying the words would help. “You’re not real.”
She started chattering at him, her hands flying in emphasis to whatever she was telling him. She finally threw her small hands in the air and distinctively pointed at him, before turning around and pointing at the flower.
“I don’t know what you’re saying.” He gave up trying to understand her. You would think someone who was clearly a figment of his imagination would have better charade skills. He glanced down at his watch. “It doesn’t matter. You’re not real, and I have to go.”
Scribbling a note to Maggie to schedule him a check for a full neurological workup, he shot the fairy one last look and headed for the door.
* * * *
Katenia of the Lillie Valley clenched her fists, tapping her foot on an imaginary floor. With a sound of pure frustration, she shot in front of him. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him, willing the stubborn beast of a male to understand she needed to go home. When he ignored her and side-stepped around her, heading for the door again, unbidden tears filled her eyes. She squeezed them shut before they could leak out, and focused all of her magic into her vocal cords. “Where am I?” she yelled.
Hope fluttered in her chest when he stopped walking, and slowly turned his head to look at her out of piercing, sapphire eyes. Dark eyebrows pulled into a frown, and if he wasn’t the size of the mythical giants of lore, she’d have thought him handsome.
The giant of a human stared at her for a long moment, then dragged a hand down his face. He took a deep breath. “Let’s just say you are real. Where is your home?”
The tears she’d been trying to keep inside burst free. “I don’t know. I’ve never been anywhere else.”
He let out a growling sound that came with so much force, she shot backward before she could adjust her wing speed to hold her still.
“You’re telling me you have no idea where your home is?”
She bobbed her head in a nod, though she was leery of the look on his face. The valley elder had looked the same whenever she’d threaten to beat her for getting too close to the edge of their garden.
Katenia sniffled. “I don’t know how I got here.” She wiped her eyes, then flew toward him, hovering right in front of his face. “Please, will you help me?” she asked, still using magic to amplify her voice.
His jaw tightened until a muscle in his cheek started to twitch. “No.” He shook his head as he moved around her. “No, because you are only a figment of my imagination. Maggie spiked my coffee or Aunt Mellie poisoned my note. I don’t know, but fairies do
Her wings drooped, until she was eye-level with his stubbled chin. “I could say the same thing about giants like you,” she snapped, fluttering her wings faster to keep herself airborne.
Amusement flickered over his face. “Giant?”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Giant, human, same thing. Will you help me?”
He raised his hands slowly and scrubbed them over his eyes. He blinked rapidly a half a dozen times. She counted another five times before he looked at her again and sighed. “You’re still here.”