Authors: Julia Sparks
Here he turned with a smooth flourish in the direction of a tall wooden easel that sat directly behind the settee; making a broad, graceful gesture in the direction of a large portrait that occupied that post.
Following the direction of his gesture, Joanna took in her breath as she once again came face to face with a pair of striking dark eyes; this set belonging to what appeared to be a wolf of the wild.
Jet ebony and savage in its beauty, this creature of nature boasted a sharp defined face covered with thick, dark fur; along with a pair of razor sharp fangs that nearly jumped off the page in their sharpness and detail.
The head portrayed at the center of the painting seemed larger than that which would belong to a standard wolf of the forest; overall, though, she described the painting as “beautiful. Like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
“I feel as if I know him,” she said aloud, shifting her gaze to the portrait’s artist; a man who now regarded her with a gaze of pure intensity.
“Perhaps you do,” he told her, voice barely above a whisper.
The two continued to talk for well over an hour, discussing both their mutual love for animals and the upcoming exhibit show that would benefit the shelter. Joanna saw additional examples of Rafe’s artwork, all of which she found beautiful and captivating in equal measure. And Rafe sat transfixed as Joanna shared stories of some of the animal rescues she had performed as a shelter volunteer.
“You amaze me, Joanna,” he told her at one point, moving a bit closer to her on the settee as he stared deep into her eyes, “I already knew from reading your articles that you were brilliant and hilarious—two qualities I happen to love in a woman. I never realized the heart that goes in to everything you do—or the personal, very emotional approach that you would take to this story. I had no idea that your dedication to the animals we’re trying to save would equal, perhaps even surpass my own.” He paused here, adding as he charmed her with a dazzling, white toothed smile, “Looks like I most definitely picked the right person, Joanna.”
Joanna arched her eyebrows.
“You mean the right person to do the article,” she clarified, averting her gaze in the direction of the painting they were currently perusing; an arty, fine detailed representation of a scarlet furred fox running wild through an emerald leaved woodland clearing.
Rafe said nothing, only continue to probe her with a penetrating stare that seemed intense and rather personal in nature.
“Should I take a wild guess and say that this dude is flirting with me?” she mused in silence, adding with the slight shake of her head, “That’s ridiculous, of course. He has a gorgeous fiancée; and even if he was interested, which he’s totally not, I do not mess around with attached men. I have been cheated on myself, and I know how much it hurts. I won’t do it. Period.”
Even so, she had to admit that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so strongly attracted to a man. He had to be the most gorgeous man she ever had seen; and far more importantly, he had a true love and genuine respect for nature that more than matched her own.
“Maybe we can be friends,” she mused silently, adding as she forced herself to break the gaze that seemed to hold their emotions captive. “Of course, I don’t often feel this compelling, almost urgent need to tackle and make mad, passionate love to members of my coffee klatch, my feminist empowerment group, my stich and bitch sewing circle, or any of the other people I generally consider friends.”
“Should I prepare the guest room for our new friend here?”
Joanna froze seconds later, as her heated meditation was disrupted by the sound of a soft feminine voice; one that, despite its dulcet notes, seemed hard and cutting in tone,
“Should I ready a room for this lady?”
Now standing before them with her hands planted on what Joanna considered annoyingly narrow hips, Ariel March pierced them with an acid stare as she added, “Or will she be leaving soon?”
“I must say it, darling,” he told Ariel, tone low and grave, “You are being incredibly rude. Even for you.”
Eager to diffuse this tense situation, Joanna popped up from the settee beneath them and said, “Hints are available free of charge, so I’ll be pleased to take one. I thank you both for your time, and hope that you’ll enjoy the story—it should appear in the paper two days before the art show. And, of course, I hope to see you both at the show and thank you very much for your support of the shelter.”
She took in her breath as, in the span of a few seconds, Rafe arrived at her side in a single smooth flourish; taking her hand in his as he pressed two warm lips firm against her cheek.
“Thank you, Joanna,” he told her, once again pinning her with that hot, intense look that threatened to drive her insane. “You are an amazing woman, and it’s been wonderful talking to you. I sincerely hope that we meet again soon.”
Slipping her hand from his grasp, Joanna avoided his gaze as she walked with swift strides in the direction of the entryway.
“I’ll see you both at the show,” she repeated over her shoulder. “It’s been a great afternoon. Thank you—both.”
Moments later Rafe stood once again at the center of his entryway; again facing the woman who shared his home—and why, he was no longer certain.
“Ariel, what is wrong with you? Why are you so hard and hateful to everyone these days, myself included?” he demanded of her now, making a broad gesture between them. “When we met three years ago, you were joyful and vital. We used to run the forest side by side, stopping only to make love and share the beauty of nature. We were two of a kind, we ran as one…”
“And then what happened?” Ariel interrupted, wide eyes flashing as her manicured fingers seemed to curve and clench in a claw like formation, “The moment you discovered that there was another way, that we could live in another form, you took us away from our element. Now we live in this stifling, suffocating house, where we spend our time running some ridiculous winery, instead of running wild through the beauty of the forest—in our true and original form.”
Rafe had heard enough.
“That ridiculous winery pays for every bauble and stitch of clothes you wear,” he reminded her, making a broad gesture in the direction of the shiny dress of scarlet silk that adorned her petite body—along with the set of sparkling rubies that set off this frock to beautiful effect. “Not to mention the roof that stands over your head, every day and every night.”
He jumped as his fiancée met these words with a sharp, caustic guffaw.
“Well as far as I’m concerned you can have these clothes and baubles—along with this diamond ring that, if you must know the truth, no longer means a blasted thing to me!” she bellowed, ripping her engagement ring from her finger and tossing it in the face of a stunned Rafe. "I'm leaving this house. I’m leaving our business. I’m leaving you!”
Without awaiting a response, an incensed Ariel let loose with a low, savage growl that seemed to reveal her true nature.
“I’m going back to the forest,” she bellowed over her shoulder, racing for the door with feverish strides as she added, “Back where you and I both belong.”
Midnight. Joanna sat alone in a small, sparsely furnished corner office at Paws for Effect animal shelter; head bowed low over her trusty laptop as she composed a story based on today’s interview with billionaire artist/humanitarian Rafe Cole.
Sure, she could have waited until tomorrow or even the next day to compose this story, still filing it well before deadline. She could have stayed home tonight to catch a movie on TV, or perhaps catch up on her reading. Somehow, though, she truly felt the need to be in her natural element tonight; spending time with the animals she truly adored, and focusing her mind on their care.
With this in mind, she’d volunteered to work the night shift at the animal shelter; her only assistant a bored college kid putting in hours for a required internship. Yet even as she strove to concentrate on the feeding, bathing and bedding of the 25 dogs and cats currently residing at the shelter, she still found her wayward thoughts wandering in the direction of the man she’d interviewed earlier that day. In her mind’s eye she envisioned the intense masculine beauty of Rafe Cole; a radiance expressed through hair and eyes that reflected the hue of midnight, skin as bronzed as the moon itself, and a tall, strong muscled physique that mirrored the strength of nature itself.
Yet as much as his looks attracted and intrigued her, it was his strong dedication to the cause of animals that truly touched her heart; and, or so she suspected, that made it impossible for her to forget him.
“Oh, but I have to,” she mused with a sigh, hitting the save button on her computer before shutting its lid with a loud click. “He’s taken. And if Ms. Warmth and Congeniality ever decides to leave him, then I’m sure that a long line of irritatingly stunning super models will be lining up outside the door of that irritatingly humongous home, just to take her place. I have to put that man out of my mind. Now, if not sooner.”
“Joanna, I need you.”
Although her heart did quicken a bit at these potentially provocative words, Joanna immediately realized that the thin, pitchy voice that delivered these words could not possibly belong to the man who ruled her fevered thoughts.
“Sure Eugene,” she raised her head to fix the shelter intern with a polite, abiding smile. “What can I do to help you?”
Her beam faded as she saw that Eugene’s eyes had widened to insane proportions; his thin lips trembling as he gestured in the direction of the screened porch that lined the shelter’s southern border.
“We have a wild animal of some sort on our property. It’s been out there howling for at least an hour, making a racket like nothing I’ve ever heard,” he told her, opening the drawer of a nearby desk to withdraw a plain tope bag. “I’m grabbing our crisis bag in case we need it—the one with the net and the tranquilizer gun—but I’d also like you to back me up while I investigate this thing.”
Soon Joanna found herself ‘backing up’ her co-worker in a most unusual manner; standing face to face with the afore mentioned mysterious creature, while Eugene cowered at her back—trembling outright as he just barely squeaked out the words, “What the heck is that thing?”
Joanna admitted that she herself had no answer to this question; indeed, the magnificent creature before her was like no other she’d seen.
Although likening a wolf in face and form, the animal before her had a size that well exceeded any common wolf of the forest; its height, in fact, equaled that of a horse as it knelt on all fours before her—a very furry horse with long ears and visible fangs.
“Criminy,” she breathed, wide eyes scanning the creature’s lean, angular body as it regarded her with equal interest.
Finally her eyes collided with his, and she took in her breath as she immediately recognized the wide, dark gems that seared her own with a warmth and depth that immediately relaxed her nerves—even as it aroused her keen curiosity. Where had she seen those eyes? Or, for that matter, that captivating face?
“What should we do with it?” she heard Eugene say, even as her gaze remained focused on the object of their curiosity. “I’ve got the gun loaded.”
“Don’t you dare,” Joanna snapped, stepping away from her gaping colleague as she reached her hand forward to stroke the fur of the creature before her; one who pitched his head back and purred in response. “This creature may look unusual to be sure, but also very gentle—he’s not doing a thing to threaten us, and doesn’t seem hurt or hungry. So I suggest we leave him alone.”
Eugene thought a moment, then shrugged.
“Well, to paraphrase what they said in the movie Jaws, we’d need a bigger cage,” he told her, laughing uproariously at his own attempt at humor as he turned for the shelter.
Paying no heed to his weak joke, Joanna focused instead on the beautiful creature before her; grinning in spite of herself as he parted his lips to grace her with a kind—if markedly fanged—smile.
The vision of this mysterious beam haunted her dreams that night, and her addled psyche the next morning; as she arrived at the newspaper office to receive an urgent phone message from Rafe Cole. Apparently he needed to see her at his home as soon as possible, to relate some new information to her that might be pertinent to her story.
“I wonder if this has anything to do with the creature I saw last night,” she mused, grabbing the message and heading in the general direction of the newspaper parking lot. “One who, if I really think about it, bears a strong resemblance to the creature portrayed in the painting he showed me yesterday.”
Soon Joanna stood once again in the lavish sitting room of Casa Cole; though this time she received a far friendlier greeting than the day before—and from a man who looked positively delicious in a tight leather pantsuit that flattered and showcased his every bulging muscle.
“Hi Rafe,” she greeted him, adding as she engaged him in a warm handshake, “So I understand you have some new information for me today?”