She'd been working in a greenhouse and had come to assist him, her hands and face smudged with soil. He'd fallen in love on sight, but he'd needed several weeks to convince Anna of his sincerity. And after that they'd lived happily ever after.
Until he'd foolishly decided he couldn't exist without her.
Nic blotted his palms against his jeans and stared at the distant house. An upper window beckoned him. She was there. He knew it. He felt it.
He needed only a magical thought to transport himself inside that room. The bed contained a woman. He recognized the scent. Not Anna's, yet close to it.
His heart filled his throat as he sank to the edge of the bed. In the dark of the deep night he couldn't discern much, but he didn't need to see. His other senses would guide him.
With extreme gentleness he brushed his fingers over the woman's cheek. Soft, smooth, warm. Memories washed over him with such force he had to smother a groan. By the Blessed Stones, to hold Anna again, to touch her, kiss her, love her.
He found her lips and traced their contour, finding them full and slightly parted as she slept. A slight sigh escaped her and Nic smiled. His Anna. His long-lost Anna.
Placing one arm over her, he bent to taste her mouth--a mere brushing of lips that instantly ignited flames within him. He couldn’t hold back this groan. Desire, longing, love returned with an explosive power.
He kissed her again, releasing his passion, tasting the sweetness of her mouth, relishing the softness of her lips. He had missed this, missed her desperately. When she slowly responded, he drew her closer, raising one hand to cradle her head.
The moment he touched her hair, he froze and drew back. The hair beneath his palm wasn't long and straight. It was short and tight with curls. This wasn't Anna.
Who was she?
Before he could even guess, her fist found his jaw, startling him more than hurting him. He slid to the floor, but rose quickly only to be greeted by a foot sharp in his mid-section.
He doubled over. The woman had awakened...with a vengeance. Stones.
"Who the hell are you?" she demanded. As he dared to straighten, she kicked him again and he staggered backward. "And what are you doing in my room?"
Obviously he'd made a mistake.
"I'm calling security," she snapped.
Nic allowed himself a deprecating smile as he put a safe distance between them. "My apologies," he murmured.
He doubted she'd even heard him for she was busy lifting the lamp from beside the bed. He was no fool. As she rocketed it toward him with the force of a Pro Bowl quarterback, he transported himself safely outside the estate.
He must have been misdirected. That fiery woman had definitely not been who he'd expected to find. He had to investigate some more. And discover another way to meet his reincarnated Anna.
Had he been a dream?
Stacy Fielding examined her room in the morning daylight. She remembered hitting someone. The shattered remains of her lamp attested that something had happened. But what?
She'd called the estate security personnel last night but they'd reported no visitors, no breaks in the perimeter system. And no one could have disappeared as that man had done. She had to have been dreaming. With all the stress of Dianna's summer tour, Stacy shouldn't be too surprised.
But what a dream.
She went through her morning routine in a daze. She hadn't lived twenty-five years without experiencing a kiss or two, but the one in her dream put them all to shame. Talk about sensuous. Every hormone in her body had snapped awake to scream for more.
If a man existed who could kiss like that, she was ready to sign up. At least for lessons. The last thing she needed in her life--or wanted--was a man. None of them had proven to be worth the time and energy.
Except maybe Kevin. But he fell into a different category.
Stacy descended the wide staircase, absorbing the quiet of the empty house. She enjoyed it while she could. All too soon the phone would ring, the fax would spit out papers, and her computer would notify her of incoming mail.
And once her sister Dianna returned home, it would be worse.
With only six weeks left before Dianna started her summer concert tour across the United States, Stacy never lacked for things to do.
She padded into the kitchen to pour a super-size mug of coffee, then took it into her office. Staring at her desk littered with papers, the schedule tacked to the bulletin board, the overflowing inbox, she closed her eyes.
She hadn't intended it to be like this. She'd had dreams of her own once, before Dianna had sung that first fateful song and climbed the beginning steps to stardom.
Stacy sighed. With luck, Kevin would be her ticket out of this chaos.
The phone's shrill ring shattered the morning stillness and Stacy winced. It had begun.
The German-made grandfather clock in the hallway struck two before she managed to break away long enough to make a sandwich. But she'd barely spread peanut butter on the bread before the front gate's buzzer sounded.
Should she ignore it?
She couldn't. She expected a delivery of costume sketches any day now.
She pushed the intercom button. "Who is it?"
"I'm here to see Stacy Fielding. My name is Nic Stone."
Why did that name sound so familiar? Stacy straightened. Of course. "Did Brad send you?"
"Come on up to the house." She released the gate, then headed for the front door, unable to deny the thrill of anticipation. She'd been waiting far too long for this.
In a surprisingly short time, the doorbell played the beginning notes of Dianna's first hit and Stacy opened the door to examine the man before her.
He was good-looking. Far too good-looking. Blessed with Hollywood textbook features, he had dark brown hair, the color of melted chocolate and equally chocolate eyes--eyes that stared at her so intently she feared he could see into her soul. "Stacy Fielding?" His voice held a hint of accent. Irish? English?
"Yes." She hesitated to say more. Something about this man unnerved her. Was she making a mistake in seeing him? "You said Brad sent you?" she asked again. She trusted her accountant. He'd screened employees for her before.
"Yes, Brad sent me." The man's guileless gaze met hers.
"You're the new gardener?"
His smile equaled the power of a full orchestra. "Nature is my specialty."
"Good. Good." Stacy nodded as if to reassure herself then held the door open. "Come on in. You said your name was Nic? Nic Stone?"
"That's right." He stepped inside, examining the interior, yet his expression displayed only curiosity, not the mercenary furtiveness she'd learned to recognize.
"The gardens are in the back." She led him through the house to the back porch and waved her arm to encompass the extensive grounds. "You'll be caring for everything--the trees, the shrubbery, but especially the flowers."
She adored her gardens. When everything else became too much, she could always escape here for a few moments of solitude and strength. Motioning Nic to follow her along the inlaid stone path, she took him to where her flower beds lined the walkway. Brave daffodils trumpeted their bold faces into the capricious mountain springtime and tulips peeked out from the soil with more timidity.
The grass had finally greened up again and the trees were lined with buds of new leaves. Winter tended to linger in the mountains so Stacy appreciated these first signs of spring all the more.
As Nic spoke, she turned back to face him, surprised to see his expression held the same love for nature that she felt. Perhaps he would be a good gardener. Well, Brad would only send the best.
"The position includes a cottage on the grounds." A gardener for this place had a more than full-time job. "I expect a lot. These gardens are important to me."
"I promise you they will have the best of care." Nic's smile held a hint of mystery, as if he knew a secret he wouldn't share.
Stacy frowned. "And I'm warning you right now. If you think you're going to see much of my sister, you're sadly mistaken."
"Your sister?" His sudden stillness held tension. "Dianna?"
"That's right. When she's home she's usually busy with her music. She rarely spends time in the gardens."
"She's not home now?" Though Nic asked the question casually, something in his tone made her hesitate.
"She'll be back in a couple of days." Though Nic had a good three inches on her, Stacy faced him, toe-to-toe. "I'm sure Brad had you sign the confidentiality agreement. If you attempt to extort from us or use your position here in any way to exploit my sister, I'll have you prosecuted in a heartbeat. Do I make myself clear?"
He nodded. "Perfectly."
"Good." Her pulse had increased and Stacy stepped back, needing some distance between them. Men who looked like Nic Stone usually weren't gardeners. They belonged on movie screens. "I'll show you where the cottage is."
The building nestled against the brick wall on the back edge of the estate. Though small, it provided enough space for one man.
Or did it?
Once Nic followed her inside, the main room felt smaller, the air thicker. "This is it." She turned away from him to point out each of the rooms. "The kitchen is there, and there's a bedroom and bath. Utilities are covered as well."
"It is more than I expected," Nic said, his voice tugging at her like a long-forgotten memory.
"I'll let you get your bags and settle in. You have an intercom here which will contact the house. You can reach the front lawns by going around the side. You don't need to go inside." Jeez, she was rambling.
Stacy turned toward the door only to encounter his potent smile again. Smiles like that should be illegal. "I expect you to start work tomorrow."
"I'd like to walk around the grounds and get a feel for the place now, if you don't mind."
"That would be great." Stacy beamed at him. "I had to fire our last gardener for selling Dianna's underwear on the I-net and I haven't had time to tend to things myself."
"It'll be very well cared for." Again, the hint of secrets lingered in his eyes.
Stacy left, her emotions torn. This new gardener appeared to have an honest appreciation for nature, yet she couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. Or was it his thanks and the way he’d acted--as if she'd handed him the world on a plate and tossed in the moon, too?
She'd have to keep an eye on him for the next few days. Grinning, she hurried back toward the house. Not an altogether unpleasant chore.
Nic watched Stacy return to the house, unable to believe his good luck. A gardener? He could have been anything she expected him to be, but a gardener was perfect. For once, luck was on his side. What better job could there be for a member of the Fae?
Now he would be here daily, able to see his Anna...Dianna. In a short time she would be his again.
He toured the small cottage in moments, using magic to give the appearance of settling in--toiletries in the bathroom, a book...on gardening, of course...on the table in the main room, and a few clothes in the dresser and closet.
There, he was unpacked.
With a grin, Nic sprinted into the vast gardens, inhaling the crisp spring air, unable to keep the joy from his step. After all this time, he'd finally found Anna. And all he had to do in the meantime was care for the trees, bushes and flowers.
He paused to survey the expansive grounds. Magic would take care of most of it, but he could use some pillywiggins' help on the flowers. Scanning the blossoms, he watched and waited.
Soon, his patience was rewarded with a flicker of color and light, barely noticeable to the human eye. But then, he wasn't human.
"Columbine," he called. "Come here."
The dancing flicker paused, then rose to hover before his face. The tiny flower faery was clearly visible now, her long hair encircled in tiny columbines, her short gown glowing with translucent color.
"Nic?" She flew closer. "What are you doing here? I thought you were in our world painting Titania's portrait."
"I finished that. I'm living here now." He couldn't stop his broad smile. "I found Anna."
"Anna? Your wife?" A sudden breeze caught Columbine and she drifted away only to circle back and perch on a nearby tree limb. "But I thought...I thought..." Her voice lowered. "I thought she died."
"She did." Nic's smile fell. Anna had died because of his stupidity. "But she's been reborn as an immortal so now we can be together forever."
Columbine flew to his forehead and placed her tiny palm against it. "Have you been eating hollyhocks?"
"No." He shook his head and the pillywiggins zipped back to the safety of the tree. "I loved Anna so much, I couldn't bear the thought of losing her so I asked Titania to make her immortal."
Columbine's bright blue eyes widened. "And she agreed?" She abruptly tumbled from her perch and Nic caught her even before she had a chance to stop her fall.
Replacing Columbine on her seat, Nic grimaced. "Provided I paint her portrait." Titania never did anything without a price. "She claimed none of the mortal artists could get it right so that left me."
Columbine glanced up from straightening her gown. "You are an acclaimed artist, Nic."
"That was decades ago. I've been gone from the mortal realm for years. That life is over now. It ended when Anna...left me." His words emerged with a shudder, the pain still too near the surface. "I should have known it was too easy. When Titania agreed to perform the spell, she neglected to tell me everything." He paused, waiting for the constriction in his throat to ease. "I didn't know Anna would have to die until I held her body in my arms. Titania never told me Anna would have to be reborn."
"But you said she's alive, that you'd found her."
"I have." Knowing that helped push away the threatening grief. "It took me twenty-five years to paint Titania's portrait to her satisfaction but I've been searching for Anna since I returned to this world. I knew she was here somewhere, twenty and twenty-five years old, and I finally found her."
"How?" Columbine's gaze grew dreamy. "I bet you knew her on first sight."
"Absolutely." Nic would never forget seeing Anna--now known as Dianna Fielding--on the television screen. He'd searched everywhere only to have her appear before him when he least expected it. She looked the same, her straight white-blonde hair long, her blue eyes vibrant, her skin tanned and smooth, her lips wide and full. He had no doubt she was his Anna. "She's a singer now. A pop star. And she lives here." He waved his hand toward the main house. "I should have expected it. Other than her gardens, Anna always loved to sing.
"How wonderful." The faery clapped her hands. "All you have to do is introduce yourself and she'll be yours again."
Nic sighed. "It's not that easy. Titania said she won't remember our life together."
"But you can win her." Columbine performed a dizzying twirl in the air. "You're Fae. No mortal woman can resist you if you so decide."
That was true. But with luck some part of Anna would remember him, something deep in her soul would recall the love they shared. He hadn't used magic to win her love the first time and he didn't intend to use it now. Magic was for more concrete things...like tending a garden.
"And you can help, Columbine."
"Certainly." She hovered before him.
"I need you and some of the pillywiggins to make this the best garden on earth so it appears I'm doing my job as a gardener."
"You're the gardener?" Her soft giggle drifted on the air. "We'll be glad to do it. What fun." She soared away as she called to the others. "Pansy, Tulip, I need to talk to you."
Nic grinned. With their help, he'd have lots of time to woo Dianna. Provided the sister didn't get in the way.
The feeling of being watched made Nic turn and he spied Stacy in a large window of the house, her gaze aimed his direction. Probably wondering who he was talking to all by himself in the midst of the flowers. No doubt she'd suspect him of being loony.
Off to a good start I am.
With a cocky grin, he raised his hand in greeting and she immediately disappeared from sight.
Odd one, that sister. She presented a cool, organized exterior yet she had to have been the one he'd kissed last night. And he'd found definite, hot passion...and a foot in the gut. Which, come to think of it, was a lot like Anna.
Yet Stacy Fielding looked nothing like Anna except perhaps for the nose--long, slender, turned up slightly at the end. Stacy's hair was more a honey-blonde, darker than Anna's and short in tight curls all over her head. And her eyes were more gray than blue, almost frosty in fact when she'd warned him away from her sister. But her mouth was generous. She could be attractive if she smiled. Though he didn't think she did that often.
A study of contrasts was Stacy Fielding. She could make it difficult for him to get near Dianna, but not impossible. Not for him. Nic smiled again and sauntered deeper onto the estate grounds.
With magic, nothing was impossible.
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