Welcome to Widow, Wisconsin, small-town U.S.A. Brice escaped as soon as he graduated and never looked back. But when his mother becomes ill, he’s forced to return. Luckily, or not, Brice’s college roommate has a job lined up for him — to turn a piece of forested land into a playground for the rich. The problem? Part of the property belongs to reclusive artist Serene Fremont…and she’s not willing to sell it. Brice is confident he can still do his job. No woman has ever been able to resist his charm. How difficult could it be to seduce Serene out of her property?
Neither Serene nor Brice are ready for the intense physical attraction between them. Brice doesn’t believe in mixing business with pleasure. Serene is afraid of having her heart broken. And Brice isn’t the only one interested in Serene. Someone is stalking her, hurting her pets and destroying her property. Can Brice protect someone who doesn’t want to be protected?
And what happens when the seducer unwittingly becomes the seduced?
Company: Ellora’s Cave Publishing
Serene paused mid-stride, listening. Something or someone fled through the fringe of her woods, heedless of the noise it made, snapping branches and crashing through the thick underbrush. Serene’s footfalls were considerably more quiet. She followed the sounds, keeping to the trees’ shadows until she could identify what crossed through her woods.
The trophy buck abruptly staggered before her, tongue lolling, sides heaving. White showed at the corner of its eyes. An arrow shaft was buried deep into the animal, just behind its forearm.
Serene’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t allow hunters on her land although the deer showed evidence of having run a long way. Most likely it was wounded on the public property surrounding hers and had fled here for safety. The animal took a few faltering steps then collapsed and lay too still.
She had mended many wounded animals before. This one was beyond repair. When she was younger, she would have wasted tears over the deer’s death, maybe even driven it to the University of Wisconsin’s Madison vet clinic. Tonight, she would simply keep vigil beside it. She settled herself on a fallen log, just out of the clearing where the deer had fallen. If no one claimed it within an hour, she would take it herself. She hated seeing anything go to waste. Judging by the size of the antlers, though, she guessed someone would be searching for it shortly.
In less than an hour Serene’s suspicions were confirmed. She heard the quiet sound of human footsteps, the crunch of dead leaves underfoot, silence as the hunter searched for signs of blood and bits of hair to track. Serene knew hunters’ habits all too well. She had spent many hours watching them unobserved. It was a game to her. Sometimes when they trespassed upon her land she confronted them. Other times she simply took their tree stands. In all the circumstances, however, she made their hunt incredibly unsuccessful. Usually that was enough to drive them away.
The hunter she now observed was more careful with his movements than many, although she could still distinguish the sound of his footfalls from the normal woodland noises.
The man laid his bow cautiously upon the ground and knelt beside the buck. Pulling free a knife, he prepared to field dress his game. His clothes were camouflaged, but Serene’s keen eye would have been able to pick him out of the landscape wherever he chose to hide. Some things just didn’t belong. And in her woods it was man.
At least he was not wasting the animal. She scared away the thrill seekers, the ones who came in the dark of night with their off-road trucks and ATVs, and either ran down her game or wounded them with bad shots. Those truly lost she was more sympathetic to.
Her clothing was camouflaged, not purchased at a store as her trespasser’s obviously had, but hand-sewn. Her lip curled. She should drive him away. What could a man dressed in brand-spanking-new hunting clothes truly know about hunting? But he had followed his deer a long ways. That spoke volumes about his integrity. She waited.
The hunter finished dressing his game and wiped his knife clean against the grass.
She should leave him to his business. He was quick and thorough. He’d be gone in a few minutes. But the mischievous side of her couldn’t resist teasing him. She rattled the leaves and grunted like a bear. The hunter paused, listening. Snuffling loudly, she deliberately cracked a few rotten limbs.
“Who’s there?” the hunter called, reclaiming his knife.
She made a loud popping noise in imitation of an irritated bear snapping its teeth.
The hunter remained motionless.
Serene was both impressed and disappointed. Bigger men had run from less. She cracked a few more branches.
The hunter slowly pulled an arrow from his quiver and set it on his bow.
That was another surprise for Serene. Either the hunter was very brave or too stupid to realize that a misplaced shot with a bow would really anger a bear. She, however, was not foolish enough to risk getting shot.
She stepped out of the woods. “You are trespassing.”
Startled, he dropped his bow and glanced around. Seeing her standing at the fringes of the tree line, he met her gaze. “You don’t look like an angry she-bear.” Irritation tinged his voice, but the corners of his lips were desperately trying not to quirk.
Serene froze. His eyes were a dark green, the tint of pine boughs. There was no fear nor derision in his gaze, only surprise, curiosity, maybe even a bit of amusement. Such a penetrating look, as if he could see through her to her core. She shook her head. No one could see her carefully protected heart. His hair was the color of a newborn fawn or a ripe chestnut, a rich brown with reddish tints. At the moment it was unkempt, as if the wind had run breathy fingers through it. His cheeks were ruddy, also wind-rouged. It wasn’t right for a man to possess such intense color tones.
She didn’t know how to answer his gentle ribbing so she remained mute, feeling heat creep to her cheeks.
“I apologize. I came only to retrieve my deer.” As if to further flaunt his masculinity in her eyes, his voice matched his frame, deep, with a full-bodied timbre. He spoke slowly, as if to a frightened animal, or perhaps that was his normal tone, to enunciate each word and let it flow off those generous lips.
“You trespass,” Serene repeated.
“Would you have preferred I let it go to waste?”
Had she not spoken again, Brice would have thought her a product of his imagination. Standing at the edges of the evergreens, her body half hidden by the boughs, she didn’t seem quite mortal. She was long and willowy, her hair hidden beneath a brown knit cap. Her face was suntanned with strong, almost sharp features, a pointy chin, angular cheekbones, a jaw now set in an angry line. But her lips were large and full and her eyes… Her eyes convinced him that she was but a wood sprite—brilliant blue, piercing with intensity as she scrutinized him. In the twilight, she was exotically beautiful. Her lips pursed as if she would speak, then she abruptly turned and fled.
Fled was perhaps an inappropriate word. Vanished was more like it. One moment she stood beneath the black pines’ canopies, the next she was simply gone. He blinked. “Wait!”
His voice echoed. As if taunting, an owl hooted in response. He looked amongst the boughs where she had stood, but there were no footprints, not even a broken branch. Although it had been a long time since he had hunted, he was an experienced woodsman. He should be able to find some evidence of her passing. It was as if she had never been there at all. Shaking his head, he fetched his deer, and began the long trek back to his truck.