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Buttercup Baby

Buttercup Baby

Chapter 1       

This is it? Ariel peeked over the edge of the crib at the sleeping infant. The boy was small and ordinary for what he represented--Oberon's grandson. Odd that the King of the Fae should have a completely mortal grandson. Odder still that he had any children at all. They did not exist among the Fae as the Fae could not procreate among themselves and only a few half-breeds lived outside the magical realm, the result of Fae/mortal unions, such as Oberon's son, Robin Goodfellow.

Ariel snorted in disgust. That Robin would trade his magic and immortality to marry a mortal only reaffirmed the Queen of the Fae, Titania's assertion that he didn't belong with the Fae. And proved once again how foolish Ariel had been in impulsively defending Robin to Titania when he had first arrived in their magical realm.

As a result, Ariel was not only banned from Titania's court for eternity, but she had been removed from her position as Queen of the Pillywiggins--the flower faeries. It wasn't fair. Ariel had served Titania faithfully for centuries. She didn't deserve to be cast away so callously.

All her life she'd felt needed...necessary. Though six other women made up the royal court, Titania had often called on Ariel and her pillywiggins to complete numerous tasks. After all, they made up the largest section of the Fae. Now Loralei, her second in command, led the pillywiggins and Ariel had nothing.

Since her abrupt dismissal, she had wandered aimlessly through the magical realm, bereft. With no one needing her, she felt lost, abandoned. Where was her purpose now? What was she to do for the rest of eternity?

Fortunately Oberon had taken pity on her and given Ariel the assignment of checking on Robin's first child. She could report that the baby was healthy and had the look of his father and grandfather. The infant released a soft breath and Ariel paused. He did have a certain appeal, his black hair tousled and tiny fists clenched. His pudgy pink flesh begged to be touched.

Extending her finger, Ariel brushed the baby's cheek. His skin was soft, like that of a rose petal, and his sweet scent teased her senses. Like a flower, but none that she could name. And she knew them all. Interesting...this tiny mortal.

She rested her arms on the side of the crib and studied him as he squirmed into a new position. Part of her ached to hold him close, to place kisses on his tender skin. Why? The Fae had no use for children. Why did she feel this strange attraction?

She reached down and gathered the baby, cuddling him to her chest. He emitted one cry, then snuggled against her, his fist clutching her long hair, almost as if he belonged there. Ariel cradled his head in her palm and nuzzled his face. So soft, so dependent. So needy.

The ever-present ache in her heart eased as she held the baby. A longing she didn't completely understand filled her.

She wanted a child.

"He should be waking up from his afternoon nap soon," a voice outside the bedroom said.

Ariel quickly placed the infant back in his bed, then turned to the dresser and shrank to her original faery size, ducking behind the lamp as the door opened. Three mortals entered the room. She recognized one of them--Robin Goodfellow's mortal wife, Kate. The other two were strangers and Ariel studied them with interest.

The man and woman shared similar facial features--high cheekbones, a sculpted nose, and full lips. The woman joined Kate in cooing over the baby while Ariel watched the man. Though he was a mortal, she found him appealing. He was tall and well-built, a man obviously used to work, with a broad muscular chest even a heavy shirt could not disguise. His hair shone with the dark color of tree bark and layered back along his head, stopping just above his collar.

Ariel blinked. She wanted to touch his hair, to see if it truly felt as soft and clean as it looked. She shook her head. What was wrong with her? First, a longing for a child and now for a mortal man. Had despair driven her insane?

He tried to appear disinterested, his arms crossed as he leaned against the doorway, his expression bored. But his deep brown eyes followed the women's actions closely. Not so disinterested after all. He had a pleasant appearance as if he smiled a lot. Perhaps he did, for the corner of his lips rose as the women exclaimed over the baby's cuteness.

"Isn't he adorable, Rand?" The other woman glanced over her shoulder at him.

He shrugged. "If you've seen one baby, you've seen them all."

The woman shook her head. "Men." She grinned at Kate. "He's perfect, Kate, and already the spitting image of his father. The ladies will have to watch out when he grows up."

Kate laughed. "I'm not looking that far ahead at the moment." She caressed the sleeping infant's back. "I guess he's not ready to wake up yet. I picked up some photos yesterday. Would you like to see them?"

"Of course." The women turned toward the doorway. "Coming, brother?"

"Go ahead," he said. He stepped aside for them to leave, then by the door frame for several long moments after they left and Ariel frowned. What was he doing?

She crept out from behind the lamp to the edge of the dresser. The disinterested expression left Rand's face and was replaced by a gentleness that tugged at Ariel. She saw little of that among the Fae.

A slight whimper emerged from the crib and Rand moved to the bed. "Now you wake up," he murmured, laughter in his voice. He picked up the baby, supporting the child's head in one hand and body in the other with practiced ease. As the infant awakened to reveal bright green eyes, Rand smiled. "And how are you, young master Goodfellow?"

Rand suddenly grimaced. "Wet." He glanced toward the doorway, then placed the baby on a nearby raised table. "I'll let them look at their pictures." He moved swiftly, undressing then redressing the child, his broad hands efficient yet gentle.

Ariel sighed. A sudden ache built in her chest, a longing she had never experienced before. If a man could be so tender and caring with an infant, could he also be as considerate with a lover?

Ariel had not experienced much tenderness in the magical realm...and she wanted it. Would having a child fulfill that need?

Lifting the baby again, Rand held him against his shoulder and stroked the tiny head. "Time to see your momma." He smiled softly as they left the room.

Resisting the urge to follow, Ariel leaned against a white container that smelled of the infant's unique scent. The ache in her chest intensified. She wanted a baby. Not Robin and Kate's, but one of her own...to cuddle, to care for, to raise. Then she would be needed, then she would have a purpose to her life again.

But the only way to create a baby was to mate with a mortal. The Fae could not impregnate each other. Fae men had often mated with mortal women, which sometimes resulted in children born to those women. Yet Ariel had never heard of a Fae woman giving birth even after trysts with mortal men.

She frowned, recalling a mention of babies many centuries ago. What was it? After several minutes, she shook her head. No matter. If it had been important, she would've remembered.

There had been no pregnant Fae because they could control whether they conceived or not with their magic. Had no other faery ever wanted to be a mother? Ariel hesitated, remembering Titania's hatred of the half-breed Fae. If Ariel did have a child, she would have to keep it far from the Queen of the Fae.

She sighed. Since she was banned from court for eternity, keeping her distance would not be a problem. The magical realm was large enough for her to make a life with her baby far from the royal court.

But first she would have to find a man to be the father. Other mortals she'd met in the past had been crude and rough. She did not want that...for herself or for her child. She needed someone kind and gentle, but intelligent and hardworking.

She smiled. Of course--Rand. He appeared healthy and was quite pleasant in appearance. Very pleasant indeed.

But she knew little of his character save that he was gentle with babies. Before she made her final decision, she needed to know more about him. But how?

Ariel kicked at the container in frustration, only to have it waver, then crash to the dresser, coating her with a fine white substance. She sneezed several times, swiping at her gown in a futile attempt to dislodge the stuff. Enough of this.

With a swish of magic, she transported herself outside the house. Ariel glanced around. No one in sight. She changed her clothes to resemble those of the women inside--blue, heavy coverings on her legs called jeans and a ribbed sweater, then assumed mortal size.

Glancing at her reflection in a car window, she grimaced. She looked mortal enough in these strange tight-fitting clothes. But could she pass as one of them?

A cold wind blew past her and she wrapped her arms around herself. Even with the afternoon sun, the chill was noticeable. The tall ash trees along the walk were dark and bare, with a few brown leaves dangling helplessly from stripped branches. The mortal season of winter was approaching--a terrible period of cold and snow. She had experienced it once and vowed never again. The eternal warmth in the magical realm was far better.

Ariel paused. Before she returned home, she needed to meet Rand and find out if he had all the qualities she wanted for her child. To do that, she needed to get inside the house...as a mortal. But how?

The baby. She smiled as the answer came swiftly. Rand and his sister had come to see the baby. Ariel had been sent to do the same. Only now she would approach through the front entrance.

She reached the heavy wooden door and rapped twice before it opened. Kate smiled at her, a question in her eyes. "Yes?"

"I'm Ariel. I've come to see the baby."

A slight frown creased Kate's face. "Do I know you?"

"No." Ariel hesitated. Kate knew of the Fae but Ariel was unsure how much to reveal. "I know Robin."

"Robin?" Wariness entered Kate's expression. "How do you know him?

"I know his father better." Ariel met Kate's gaze and smiled when awareness dawned in the woman's eyes.

"Oh." Kate held open the door. "Come in." As she turned toward a large room, she glanced back at Ariel. "Oberon sent you?"

"The child is his grandson."

Kate smiled. "So he is."

As they entered the main room, the other woman looked up from cooing at the infant in her arms, but Ariel focused only on Rand, standing by the fireplace. He turned to meet her gaze, and a tingle spread through her body. Ariel drew in a deep breath. Was he the one?

"Ariel, this is my friend, Stephanie Thayer and her brother, Rand. Steph, Rand, this is a friend of Robin's, Ariel...LeFay." Kate gave Ariel an impish smile as she created the surname and motioned her forward.

Stephanie looked up from her position in a large chair. "Did you come to hold this fella, too?"

Remembering the baby's softness, Ariel nodded. She'd had to release him too soon before. She settled in a nearby chair and cuddled the infant close when Stephanie placed him in her arms. "Have you given him a name?" Ariel asked Kate.

"Brandon." Kate stood beside them, her expression worried until Ariel settled back, the baby cradled against her arm.

"He's very much like his father," Ariel said. She could easily picture the infant being her own with his dark curly hair and blue eyes. Her chest grew tight, her breath catching in her throat. For a brief moment, moisture threatened her eyes.

Ariel blinked. Tears? Impossible. The Fae did not cry.

But she could not deny the onslaught of emotion that washed over her. She wanted a baby. Her own baby. Perhaps then this unbearable loneliness would fade.

Glancing up, she found Rand gazing at her and she gave him her most brilliant smile. His eyes widened, then a slow smile crept across his lips--lips of such sensual fullness that Ariel instantly decided she would taste them even if he was not the one to father her child.

"Do you like children?" she asked.

He crossed the room to stand before her, so tall she had to tilt her head back to meet his gaze. "As long as they're someone else's."

Stephanie laughed. "We have so many nieces and nephews that it feels like we've always had children."

"Are you good to them?" Somehow Ariel had to determine if he met all the necessary requirements.

Rand shrugged. "Okay, I guess."

"Don't let him fool you." Stephanie grinned at Ariel. "They all adore him. He's their favorite play toy."

This sounded good so far, though she was not completely certain about "play toy." But to ask would give away her unfamiliarity with this realm. "I see."

Brandon stirred, crinkling his face as if to erupt. Kate reached for him at once. "Time to eat."

Standing, Ariel relinquished her chair to Kate. The woman sat and nestled against the back, then raised her sweater and brought the infant to her breast. He suckled with fierce tugs, his tiny fists resting against her skin.

Warmth swept through Ariel. To have that kind of closeness...to give of herself...

"I think we ought to be going," Rand said behind Ariel.

She turned into him and stumbled, but he caught her arms in a firm but gentle hold. Mischief lit his eyes. "All right?"

"Yes." Ariel hated to look away. Men did not normally look at her with warmth and a sense of fun. "I...I should go, too." Though Rand appealed to her, she still was not certain that he fulfilled all her requirements for a mortal father. How could she learn more?

"Thanks for coming. Forgive me if I don't show you out." Kate smiled at them. "I'll be sure to tell Robin you stopped by."

"Don't worry, Kate." Stephanie embraced the woman and baby. "You both look great. Tell Robin I said to take good care of you."

"Oh, he's doing that." Kate beamed with happiness, an expression that lingered with Ariel as she walked to the door.

Such wide variances in emotion rarely appeared among the Fae. Especially happiness. She frowned. Had she ever been that happy? Content perhaps, satisfied with her place of honor in the court, but radiant like Kate? No.

Oddly enough, she wanted to experience that.

"Have you known Robin long?" Stephanie asked, falling in step beside Ariel.

""Over two hun--" Ariel caught herself. "Yes, a very long time."

They paused on the sidewalk beside a parked brown truck. "Where's your car?" Rand asked, searching the road. No other vehicle sat within a block.

"I...I walked." Ariel grinned. With some magical help.

"Do you live near here?"

He actually appeared interested in her answer. Ariel's pulse skipped a beat. "No, I'm visiting this area."

"Been here long?"

"Just today."

"Then you haven't seen the sights yet?" Stephanie's eyes lit up. "Well, we have to show you." She glanced at her brother. "Right, Rand?"

"I...ah...sure." Though his voice remained pleasant, Rand aimed a dark glance at Stephanie before he opened the door to the truck, but she only grinned in reply.

Ariel beamed. This was exactly what she wanted--more time with Rand.

When he motioned her forward, she climbed into the vehicle, strange tremors in her belly. She had seen these metal transports--cars and trucks--but had never ridden in one before. This would be an adventure.

Rand closed the door after Stephanie slid in beside Ariel, then went around and took a seat behind the large wheel in the front. Ariel's throat tightened as he closed his door. Though she could see out the clear glass before her, she felt trapped. A painful ache crept along her bones--a reaction to the vehicle's iron. Was learning more about Rand worth this?

"Are you all right?" His deep voice cut through her rising panic.

"I...I..." She turned to look at him, her eyes wide.

He touched her arm, concern in his eyes. "Ariel?"

His fingers blazed an imprint into her skin, shooting fire through her blood. Ariel exhaled slowly.  Yes, this man could very well be worth some momentary discomfort. She forced a smile. "I've never been in a vehicle like this before."

His face lit up with satisfaction as he started the vehicle and sent it into motion. "Yep, a 1958 Ford.  She's a classic."

"Don't encourage him," Stephanie added dryly.

Confused, Ariel glanced at the woman. "I don't understand."

"You'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about this truck." Mischief danced in Stephanie's eyes as she glanced at her brother. When he ignored her, she turned her attention back to Ariel.  "What would you like to see?"

Ariel blinked. When she had come to this city, she hadn't planned to stay. "What is there to see?"

"Lots of things--museums, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, Seven Falls, Garden of the Gods--"

"Garden of the Gods?" The name caught Ariel's attention. As a pillywiggins she adored gardens and flowers of all kinds, though the buttercup was her reigning flower. "Is it a large garden?"

Stephanie shook her head. "It's not really a garden at all. It's a grouping of large stones in a wide variety of shapes. They look like they're growing from the earth."

Stones? Growing from the earth? Ariel's heart skipped a beat. The Stones in the magical realm were a site of great power. "I would very much like to see that."

"I'm on it." Rand wove his vehicle between others at such quick speeds that Ariel shut her eyes, her stomach rolling with the movement. "You'll be able to see it soon."

She cracked one eye open to peer in the direction he indicated. Magnificent red rocks towered in the distance above the surrounding homes and trees. Fully alert now, she leaned forward to watch as Rand took them closer. "By the Stones," she murmured. Though very different from the ones she knew, this place held magic. She could feel it.

"They're red sandstone," Rand said. "And noted for their different shapes." He pointed to a ridge of rock. "That's called Kissing Camels."

Though Ariel had only seen a camel once in her centuries of existence, she could make out the two faces nose-to-nose. "I see them." Laughter bubbled to the surface. She had never expected to find camels among the rocks.

"You have to go to Balanced Rock, Rand." Stephanie's enthusiasm shimmered in her voice as she turned to Ariel. "It's this huge rock that looks like it should fall, but doesn't."

Ariel gasped when Rand stopped the car beside that formation. "How does it stay there?"

"It's very steady." Rand slid from the truck, then came around to help the women out. As Ariel placed her palm in his, a trickle of excitement soared through her. Was it this man or the energy surrounding this area?

He didn't release her hand even after her feet touched the ground, but stared at her, his expression curious and confused. She met his gaze, surprised by the sudden tug at her insides. What was it about this mortal?

"Come on." Stephanie waved at them, already scampering up to the base of the balanced rock.

At her call, Rand dropped Ariel's hand and stepped back, motioning for her to precede him.

A swift wave of disappointment washed over Ariel and she frowned. She was looking for a father for her child, nothing more. True, it would help to find the father attractive, but other qualities were more important. Gentleness, kindness, intelligence. Rand possessed those, but did he have the most important of all? Did he believe in the magic that flowed through her veins?

She climbed up after Stephanie to stand beside the precariously balanced rock. The magic was strong here. It filled the air and tingled beneath her feet. Ariel ran her fingers lightly over the pitted surface. These were not the Stones of the magical realm, but they contained a power of their own.

Small sparks danced from the rock to her hand and she jerked it away. Before she could step back, Rand appeared by her side. "What happened?"

She glanced up at him. "The energy here is stronger than I thought."

"Energy?" He frowned as he looked from her to the stone.

Ask him now. Ariel paused. His answer mattered. More than she wanted it to. "Do you believe in magic?"

He raised his eyebrows, then broke out in a wide grin. "I believe there are things that can't be explained away. I guess you could call that magic."

He believed. Ariel resisted the urge to dance. Instead, she took his hand and placed it against the rock with hers over it. A tremor of energy vibrated beneath their palms. "Do you feel it?"

His jaw dropped. "I do."

The pinpricks of electrical shocks surprised Rand. Who is this woman? Was the vibration beneath his palm from the rock or his reaction to her? He found himself wanting to wrap his arms around this tiny creature. He'd just met her, yet something about her intrigued him. Her tumbling black curls accented her porcelain skin and vivid blue eyes, and her smooth oval face was too lovely to be true. But it was something more than her stunning beauty and soft British accent.

She had an air of innocence yet her eyes appeared to hold the wisdom of the ages. The depth in those eyes hinted at secrets--secrets he irrationally wanted to discover.

Shaking his head, Rand pulled away from the rock and Ariel. He was losing it. After growing up with ten sisters, the last thing he needed was another woman in his life. "I need to talk to Stephanie."

Before Ariel could react, he climbed down the rock to join his sister. She met his dark look with an impish smile. "Problem?" she asked.

"Are you trying to fix me up, Steph? I'd expect that from Mom and the others, but not you."  Stephanie was as avowedly single as he.

Surprise flitted across her face. "Fix you up? No. I like her, Rand. That's all." The corner of her lips lifted. "Why? You attracted?"

"She's pretty enough." He spoke grudgingly. Yeah, pretty enough to light up any room she walked into. "But I'm not interested."

"Okay." Stephanie turned to greet Ariel as the petite woman approached. "There's a path over here, Ariel, if you want to see more."

Ariel's face glowed with her smile. "I would like that." She gave Rand a curious glance, but fell into step with Steph, leaving him to follow.

He couldn't stop watching her as she viewed the towering rocks. She acted as if they were truly magical. Rand rolled his eyes. Good thing his friend Dean hadn't heard Rand admit to a belief in magic. Dean tended to rib Rand enough about his feminine-influenced upbringing.

Still Rand couldn't have stopped his response. At that moment, he probably would've agreed with anything Ariel asked him. His chest tightened with more than a hint of panic. She was definitely dangerous. The sooner they parted company, the better.

The women stopped abruptly, their conversation dying, and he came up behind them, half expecting to see a snake in their path. Instead a large buck emerged from behind the pines.  Full-bodied, with a rack that would be the envy of any hunter, the deer didn't run, but stopped and stared at them.

Rand barely breathed. He'd never been this close to a wild deer before. The creature held its head erect with an air of majesty, its brown eyes giving the impression of intelligence.

Ariel approached the buck without any hesitation and to Rand's surprise, it didn't run, but remained in place until she stood by its head, gazing into its eyes. They appeared to be communicating by some unspoken means. Rand grimaced. Crazy thought. More likely, she was endangering herself.  The buck could gore her easily, especially with that rack.

"Be careful, Ariel." Rand moved toward her and the buck jerked to attention, then fled in one smooth leap, vanishing into the trees. By the time Rand reached Ariel's side, she'd turned to give him a wry smile.

"He wouldn't have hurt me."

"You don't know that." No one could speak with such confidence about a wild animal.

"Yes, I do." Again, the wisdom of someone much older than her apparent twenty-five years shimmered in her eyes. "He was merely examining the area. It will be an early winter this year and he expects it will be difficult to find food."

Rand didn't reply. What could he say to that? She honestly thought she could speak with the creature? Obviously, she deluded herself. Good--a solid reason why he shouldn't be attracted to her.

"Oh, no," Stephanie cried, glancing at her watch.

"What?" Rand frowned at her.

"I promised Tammy I'd watch the kids tonight." She grimaced. "And I'm supposed to be there in fifteen minutes."

"You're a glutton for punishment, Steph." She'd been surrounded by their older sisters' children most of her life, just as he had.

"I know." She gave him a wry smile. "But I lost a bet."

"Better you than me. Come on." He led the way back to the truck, not turning to see if Ariel followed. But he knew she did by the way the back of his neck tingled, as if he could feel her presence.

"I'll drop you off, Steph, then take Ariel home." Then he could be done with this insanity. He'd found plenty of women attractive in the past, but none had affected him like Ariel.

"Works for me," Stephanie said.

The women climbed into the truck as he started the engine. Tammy lived farther north, across the highway, so he had to hurry to make Stephanie's deadline. Fortunately the traffic wasn't too bad and he arrived only five minutes late.

"Have fun," he told his sister as he stopped in the driveway.

"Hey, you can help." Her face brightened. "The kids adore you."

"No, thanks. I'm meeting some guys at Smiley's after I drop off Ariel."

Stephanie rolled her eyes. "What's so great about hanging out at a bar? It's a macho thing, right?"

"Exactly." And Rand relished the macho things in life. After twenty-nine years of girls and dresses and tea parties, he needed them.

"I suppose Dean is going to be there, chugging beer and all."

"He's supposed to be." Rand darted a sideways glance at his sister. As much as she complained about his best friend, she always asked about him. "A doctor needs time to relax, too, you know."  He grinned. "Want to come along?"

"No, thanks." She slid out of the truck. "I'd rather watch kids." She paused to smile at Ariel. "I enjoyed meeting you."

Ariel nodded. "Thank you for taking me to see the stones."

"Anytime." With a cheery wave, Stephanie started up the walk.

Rand waited for her to enter the house, then pulled away. Ariel didn't move from his side despite the extra space available and he inhaled deeply, more aware of her than ever. She had a unique scent--floral, but not one he could readily identify. And he thought he'd suffered through them all with his sisters.

"Where do you live?" he asked.

"Far from here. Too far for you to drive." Amusement tinged her voice.

"Okay, then, where are you staying?"

She paused and studied him, the silence lengthening while Rand's gut knotted with apprehension. "I don't have a place here."

Well, no matter what ploy she was pulling, he wasn't taking her home with him. He didn't dare. Just the thought of her inside his house made his pulse leap. "How about I drop you at a hotel?" Any hotel. Just out of his truck, which seemed a lot smaller than it had when Stephanie was there. His sweatshirt felt tight around his neck and he tugged at the neckline. "The Holiday Inn is close."

"I would like to stay longer with you."

No way. "Sorry, I have plans tonight." He accelerated the truck and headed for the motel.

She didn't respond, but appeared lost in thought. He didn't want to know what she was thinking.  Whatever it was couldn't be good for him.

He reached the hotel in record time and pulled into a spot beside the building, his heart hammering as much from the unwanted attraction as trepidation. He went around to open the passenger door.  Ariel slid to the edge of the seat, but didn't climb down. At this height, her face was even with his, her expression yearning, her kissable lips only inches away.

Alarmed by that thought, Rand offered his hand to help her out, but she caught his shoulders and pressed her mouth to his. His first instinct to break away faded beneath the gentle pressure of her soft lips. He found himself responding, unwilling to stop. She tasted sweet, intoxicating.

Fire sparked through his blood, heading straight for his loins. He pulled her closer until her breasts molded against his chest and he nestled between her knees. Heat claimed his entire body as his desire grew. He wanted her, needed her--needed to touch her, to kiss her, to bury himself within her.

She ran her hands through his hair, igniting his senses. She moaned, her lips parting, and he delved inside to claim more of her sweetness. Lord help him, he couldn't get enough.

Cupping her rear in his hands, he pressed his erection between her legs. God, she was hot. He ached to remove the barriers between them.

The sudden sound of a car door slamming jerked Rand back to reality and he broke off the kiss in stunned surprise. What the hell just happened to him? He'd never lost it like that before. Never.

He lowered Ariel to her feet and released her at once so he could step back. He still craved her, his senses swimming from the feel of her mouth beneath his, her body meshed with his. "I'm sorry."  His words emerged husky from his thick throat. "I don't know what--"

"I know." Her kiss-swollen lips lifted in a smile. "You are the one, Rand Thayer."

Warning alarms rang in his brain. "The one?"

"Yes." She spoke with confidence. "You are the one to father my baby."

Damn. He stared at her in disbelief. All I did was kiss her.

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