Sloan inhaled the clean, damp air as the door closed. Throwing back his head, he closed his eyes. A woman. Les…Alessa Lombard—his roommate was a woman.
Her image swam in his mind’s eye. And not just any woman. With her long chestnut hair, brown eyes, strong nose and full pink lips, she was a beautiful woman.
One who didn’t have a wedding band on her finger.
She’d be the perfect candidate to fall in love with if she wasn’t his new roomie. He knew how uncomfortable it was to stay with a woman when the romance soured. A groan vibrated up his throat, and he opened his eyes to scan the hallway. Nothing moved in the space between the plain white plaster walls. Good, no audience.
Maybe he could find another place to stay. He wasn’t that particular—a bed-and-breakfast, a hotel, even a refrigerator- sized cardboard box would be enough so long as it kept out the rain. Anyplace else would do, because even if he didn’t enter- tain romantic notions about Alessa Lombard, a female room- mate might hinder his eðorts to fall in love again.
And he needed to fall in love again, needed to banish all trace of Claire. His heart thudded heavily in his chest. He tightened his grip on his shoulder strap until his hand trem- bled, and the brim of his Stetson crumpled in his other hand. Once he fell in love again, he’d forget Claire’s lilac-scented sham- poo, her citrusy soap and those scarlet wisps of fabric drying over the shower-curtain rod.
He forced air into his lungs, catching a whið of orange blossoms. Claire’s scent. Claire. Swallowing the lump lodged in his throat, he shook his head. Get gone, woman!
The mantra broke her grip on his thoughts, but she’d be back. She always came back. He slapped the brim of his hat against his thigh before rolling his tight shoulders.
He had to fall in love again, and there was no better place than here in Amores. The magical Italian city devoted solely to love. Romantic love. Passionate love. If he couldn’t find love here…
Don’t even think it!
Four failed engagements didn’t mean anything; women always fell for his charm and wit. Anger crowded his thoughts. Claire had loved his potential and what it could do for her. Sloan clamped down on his thoughts again and forced his jaw to relax. He’d find another woman here, one who knew the true meaning of love.
And speaking of candidates, he had one waiting.
His cowboy boots tapped softly against the worn marble floor as he walked down the hall. The aroma of paper, chalk and books permeated the air. Did every school on the planet smell the same? The pressure in his chest eased. He’d liked teaching while he was earning his master’s degree in mathe- matics. Of course, he’d liked the challenge of working for the hedge funds, too. Don’t go there. He boxed up the thought.
That life was far, far away now.
He stopped short just over the threshold. Alessa leaned against the fresco on the wall. Her eyes were closed, and she clutched her chest. Red flashed between her fingers, and the shaft of an arrow quivered where it protruded from between her breasts.
“Christmas cookies!” In one motion, he dropped his hat, shrugged oð his bag and ran to grab her shoulders. He carefully avoided the arrow’s shaft while keeping her upright. What had they taught him in first-aid class? Don’t panic! Too late. His heart drummed so loudly his eyes moved to the beat. “You’ve been shot!”
Under his hold, her shoulders shook. Her full lips began to tremble; then she grinned, revealing a designer smile.
Why was she laughing? Was she in shock?
Her eyes opened, exposing the humor swimming in their dark-chocolate depths.
“It’s not a real arrow.”
“Not a real arrow.” He repeated her words, yet his brain refused to process them. Something else was pushing them out. Soft, warm flesh pressed against his palms. A woman’s flesh. Tingles raced up his arms, ignited a fire in his gut and arrowed directly to his groin. Reindeer droppings! He’d never reacted this quickly to a woman. At least not one fully clothed. His thumbs settled in the dip of her collar bone. What was he sup- posed to be doing?
“Well, it is a real arrow. But it’s not dangerous. See?” She pulled it away from her chest and flashed the blunt rubber tip at him. Laughter bubbled out of the slender column of her white throat.
What would it be like to lick her exposed skin? To kiss a path along her jaw until he sampled her lips. Sloan blinked. What had just happened? Sure, she was beautiful, but he’d acted like a felon who’d just been granted a conjugal visit after fifteen years in the pen.
“What in Charles Dickens is going on?”
She clamped her free hand over her mouth. Tears streamed from the corners of her eyes before she doubled over and unleashed the full measure of her mirth.
“Christmas cookies,” she snickered. “Charles Dickens.”
“You can blame my sister-in-law.” Sloan crossed his arms over his chest. “She insisted on the no-swearing rule.”
Which was all fine and dandy in Holly, where the rest of his family lived. But it was downright sissified in the real world. Especially when he was aroused and the object of his lust thought it was funny.
Alessa swallowed her last chuckle.
“Cute.” He winced. The female equivalent of let’s just be
friends and the verbal shafting of I don’t love you that way. Guess he didn’t have to worry about a romance leaving him homeless.
He bent to pick up his Stetson. Of course, he did love a challenge. What would it take to turn the glow of friendship to the fire of desire?
“But you may want to come up with something more Val- entine’s Day, like ‘splintered arrows’ or ‘broken bows.’ That way, folks will know you’re a resident.” Alessa Lombard stepped on the hat’s brim, pinning it to the floor.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Sloan reached for her trim, jean- encased calf. Should he lift her foot for her? His hand curled into a fist. Touching probably wasn’t the best course of action. For all he knew, contact with the teacher of love archery was what had brought the tsunami of lust crashing down on him.
“Look, I’m sorry you were scared.”
He raked his hand through his hair, felt the burn along his scalp as a few curls came free. And the day just kept getting better. First, he was a sissy, and now, he’s a coward. He crouched by his hat, waiting for his chance to grab it. He’d had enough humiliation stuðng for a month of holidays.
“I wasn’t scared. I was concerned.” There was a difference. A big diðerence. “An appropriate response, given that you had an arrow sticking out of your chest.”
“I am truly sorry that, for even one moment, you believed I had suðered an injury.” Balancing on the balls of her feet, she dropped down next to him. Her warm hand closed over his, and her thumb stroked his fingers. She had nice hands, long, tapered fingers. He pictured them nimbly undoing the button of his jeans, slowly lowering the zipper and dipping—
No. No. No!
He yanked his hand free and overbalanced. His butt landed on the cold marble, and the impact rattled up his spine and out his head. Yeah, he was making real headway dispelling
that bad first impression. He rubbed his hand on his pant leg. The thoughts still lingered.
Why hadn’t anyone warned him that Amores’s citizens had an erotic potion infused in their skin?
Her brow furrowed. She looked at her hand then at him. Confusion clouded her brown eyes before she blinked it away.
“Psyche shot the practice arrow—not to harm me, you un- derstand. More as a reminder that the gods have provenance over love.”
Gods. Plural. He mentally shifted gears. The fact that more than one god might have meddled in his life probably ex- plained his broken engagements.
He glanced around the room. Large windows filtered the afternoon sunshine into the class. Under them were glass cases filled with bows—some were more than six feet tall, like him, while others wouldn’t even span the distance between his wrist and elbow. Gold-tipped spears with ebony poles stood in an urn in the corner by the blackboard. A case at the back of the room held bayonet-tipped rifles. With all these weapons, he understood how love could hurt so much.
“I guess this place puts the amor in armory.” He smiled at her.
She frowned at him.
“The R is at the end of amore, not at the beginning.” Great, now he was a dunce, too. Maybe American humor
didn’t translate into Italian. He jerked. But he hadn’t been speak- ing Italian.
“You’re speaking English!”
“Ah, you forget. Love is a universal language.” She winked at him before tossing her chestnut ponytail over her shoulder. “You’ll be able to talk to and understand everyone, and vice versa, while you’re in Amores.”
“Good to know.” Especially as he had to teach classes and had fudged a little on his resume. “I’m afraid my Italian is a bit rusty.”
Pushing on her knees, she rose to her feet then offered him a hand up.
“Perhaps we could start over. My name is Alessa Lom- bard, professor of the Bow’s Arts here at Cupid University. On behalf of the board and the city council, welcome to Amores.”
Sloan stared at her hand, dangling mere inches from his nose. He shouldn’t take it. Any more doses of her skin, and he might actually act on those erotic thoughts. He slipped his palm against hers and braced himself for the sensual overload.
Except for a mild humming in his gut, his thoughts remained pure—if soot-stained snow was pure. Still, there weren’t any new naughty images bouncing around his head. Instead, his brain recorded the callus on her middle finger and the one on her thumb. Yet her hands were still soft, still feminine.
Perhaps he was building up an immunity to her passion potion.
“Sloan Dugan, recently of Holly, Arizona, and temporary accounting professor.” He tugged his hand free and wiped it on his pants before flattening his palm on the floor. No point taking any chances. His heated flesh cooled as he pushed to his feet, dragging his bag with him. The feel of her lingered.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Dugan.” She plucked his hat oð the floor and brushed at the tread marks on the brim. “What have you been told about Amores?”
A pop quiz? Now? Well, he was in school. Unfortunately, he’d always developed a crush on his teachers. Perhaps a little distance would help. Clearing his throat, he retreated to the first row of desks and hoisted his bag onto the marble surface. What had she asked? Amores.
“Um, I know that it’s the physical manifestation of love on Earth.”
“Not just love—passionate love between sexual partners.” Red tinged her olive-toned skin, and she brushed harder at his hat.
His favorite hat. If she kept that up, she’d wear the felt clean
away. Clean. Images of her in a bath, wearing nothing but wa- ter, soap bubbles, and his hands intruded. His legs twitched. No way was he moving closer to her, not for a hat, not for all the eggnog at Christmas. Maybe it wasn’t her touch. Maybe it was her breath. Hadn’t she just mentioned passion and sex?
“Um, Sloan. Call me…” For a good time. He scrubbed his hand down his face. Focus, man. “Sloan.” Thank Kris Kringle that thought had connected. Now, what had she been saying? “Right. Amores is everything Valentine’s Day.”
“It’s a little more than that.”
Setting his hat on the desk, she glanced up, looking first at him then at the fresco on the wall. Glancing right, he followed her line of sight. A woman with butterfly wings waved at him from the painting. Holy nutcrackers! He stumbled a few paces before getting his feet under him.
“She moved!” He pointed to the illustration of the woman, who was now blowing kisses at him. “The painting. It…It…”
He rubbed his eyes. Maybe this was a side eðect of travel- ing here.
“Psyche and Cupid can inhabit any depiction of themselves.” Alessa blew a kiss back at the fresco. “It’s their way of making sure we’re spreading the love so the Earth doesn’t die.”
“Yeah. Okay.” He glanced over his shoulder. A tapestry on the wall fluttered before the threaded face winked at him. Get a grip, Dugan. Was this really so diðerent from flying rein- deer and animals talking at midnight on Christmas Eve? He shook out his hands. He’d have to remember to check the bathrooms before using the facilities. “I, uh, did read about them—Cupid and Psyche, I mean—before I came.”
“I’m not sure what it’s like in the Christmas village, but here, the myths change according to popular beliefs.”
“Holly.” Sloan turned back to face Alessa. “We’re one of many Christmas villages that act as way stations for Santa’s big night. And we have changing myths, too. Sometimes, we even have a sleigh propelled by a jet engine instead of reindeer.”
He didn’t know who it depressed more, him or his fam- ily’s herd.
“It is rather disconcerting when things change so drasti- cally.” Sighing, she tugged the hem of her T-shirt over her hips. “You should know that the gods have acquired telepathy. Psy- che, Cupid and their daughter Voluptas can read your thoughts and magnify those feelings.”
He spun on his heel and faced the tapestry. The gods were in his head? They must have caused the erotic thoughts. Was that a sign telling him to romance Alessa?
The fabric didn’t twitch or raise an eyebrow. He squeezed his eyes shut. Maybe if he asked mentally he’d get an answer.
— Do you want me to court Alessa?
He opened one eye then the other. The fabric face hadn’t changed.
“Are you sure they can hear our thoughts?”
“Not all of them, just the ones relating to passion and de- sire.”
Fabric rustled behind him. Steel plated his ribs, and he labored for breath. She was coming closer; he could feel her body heat and the warm floral scent emanating from her skin. Sweat beaded his upper lip. Could falling in love again really be so easy?
After six months of charming Claire, entrancing her with his wit and enticing her with his success, he had finally gotten one date, then another. Then the Dugan Curse had kicked in and…
He rubbed his temples. Maybe love was only easy because he was here. In Amores. Maybe it wasn’t love at all but lust. Love could just be a made-up construct pulled out of the col- lective human consciousness. He resisted the urge to tug on the tight fabric cradling his erection. The lust was real enough.
Alessa sat down on the desk next to him. The smiley faces on her tennis shoes took turns grinning up at him with each swing of her feet.
“While your rocket Santa sleigh probably comes from movies, the gods’ telepathy derives from the erotic literature market. And it must be pretty big, because the gods are more powerful than they’ve been in centuries.”
“Sugar cookies!” He plowed his hand through his hair. How was a man supposed to know if the thoughts were his or some gods’ manipulation? He would not be someone’s toy. Not again.
“If that’s a euphemism for a shorter word beginning with an S and rhyming with hit, then I agree.”
“How do you live here?” How could he stay? Every time he saw a picture of Cupid or Psyche, they could be planting come-hither thoughts about the butcher, the baker or the can- dlestick maker. That couldn’t lead him to real love, could it?
“Very carefully.” She nudged his shoulder. “I’m telling you this because they know about your broken engagements. You’re probably a challenge to them. And they can’t resist a challenge. Whichever god finds you a mate will have bragging rights for a decade.”
He straightened, breaking contact with her just as the Alessa in his thoughts traced his happy trail almost to the end.
“Uh.” The images faded. Either the gods were toying with him, or he was getting better control over his thoughts. Some- how, he suspected the former more than the later. “Is that why I was hired? Because of my broken engagements?’
He’d only disclosed it because he’d hoped to win the posi- tion. But if that information had put a target on his back, maybe he should have been more careful about what he’d wished for. He could live with another six months of whispers, innuendo and pity.
Sticking his hands in his pockets, he jingled the handful of euros.
But he wanted to fall in love.
Sure, he did. Yet, falling in love and being the prey in a
game for a bunch of immortals were two completely diðerent things.
“I’m sure that’s not the case.” Alessa moved her hands behind her back, but not before he saw her middle finger shift over her index one.
“Did you just cross your fingers?”
She blushed. How far down her body did the redness travel? What would it take to find out? Damn. He was doing it again. Or the gods were doing it to him. A headache pulsed at the base of his skull.
“Maybe.” Jumping off the desktop, she strode over to him. “I think your marital status may have swung the board’s vote in your favor. But they wouldn’t have hired you if your skills didn’t fill a void at the university. No one here can teach ac- counting or e-commerce. Thanks to commercialization, our time exposed to outsiders expands every year. We need to learn to keep our village from drawing too much attention.”
“That’s something.” Talk about a stripped bone thrown to a mongrel dog. But he’d take it. His pride had been AWOL since the Claire meltdown.
When Alessa was about two feet away, Sloan sidled to the right. Distance seemed to be the safest bet with her and her gods. Feigning interest in the spears, he moved, placing the desk between them.
“So, how did you get stuck with me?”
“I didn’t get stuck with you. I volunteered.”
She ran her fingers along the strap of the book bag resting
on the teacher’s desk. The hair on his arms stirred. She’d been staring at him the whole time, but now she looked away. Had his experience with Claire made him extra suspicious, or was she hiding something?
“Why? Are you interested in opening up a website?”
“No.” Licking her lips, she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear before unbuckling her bag. The flap slapped the top as she opened and closed it. “You just broke up with your fiancée. I don’t think you should be hounded into a relationship unless you’re ready.”
Now his hair stood at attention. Why would a woman who taught at Cupid University seem distrustful of love? He rubbed his arms. More than challenges, he loved mysteries.
And Alessa Lombard was a mystery in a gorgeous package.
He searched his thoughts. Yep, that was him thinking and not the gods putting ideas in his head.
“How would that work, exactly?”
The muscles of her neck worked as she swallowed. When she dragged in a deep breath, the letters on her shirt danced over her pert breasts.
“I’ll tell my sister that I’m…interested…in you.” Her fin- gers tightened on the strap until it folded in half. “Word would get around, and some of the more rabid believers in love and desire would leave you alone.”
Irritation danced over his skin. Okay, he might not have six- pack abs or be as good-looking as his brothers, but there was no call to act like being attracted to him was the same as being oðered a blindfold and a last cigarette.
The euros bit into his palm. What would she do if he took her up on her oðer? Or, gods forbid, touched her? Wouldn’t it be fun to find out how far she’d go to keep up the pretense? Would she hold his hand in public? Kiss him? Caress him?
His blood heated. No way! He pounded the notion out of his head. He’d just left one relationship built on lies. He didn’t plan to start a fake one based on the same shaky foundation.
“That sounds like a plot of a chic- flick. A bad chick-flick.” Which said a lot, since none of his exes had dragged him to a good one in the last fifteen years. Dropping the coins, he crossed his arms across his chest. “I came to Amores to fall in love. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.”
Color fled her cheeks, and her brown eyes blazed with fear.
“But you just broke up with someone. I thought you wanted to see what true love looked like, not find it for yourself!”
He set his jaw. “And just what is wrong with me that makes you think I’m not worthy of love?”
Her mouth opened then closed.
“You! Nothing is wrong with you. I—”
Knocking cut oð her words. Sloan whirled around before
retreating. A woman stood in the doorway. Sugar cookies! Was it the gods messing with his mind, or could he really see her nipples through the gauzy material of her gown?
Catching his eye, she ran her hand down her side, stop- ping on her thigh. Her bare thigh. The creamy expanse was exposed by the large slit in her dress.
He didn’t need to be a god to read her thoughts.
“Ah, Alessa, I thought I heard you talking.” She licked her lips while her gaze skimmed down his chest and settled on his groin. “And who is this?”
Sloan’s mouth went dry, and his muscles coiled. Talk about a miscalculation. He’d come here to find love, but in Amores, love stalked people, shot them with arrows, then bagged and tagged ‘em.