Love’s Hiding Place
by Karly Maddison
eBook ISBN: 978-1-61926-725-1
Tour guide Stacey Lucas confides her thoughts about new love interest Aren Harinthar to the painting of the red lady hanging below the stone gargoyle in the museum. Sometimes the painting talks back. Is it her ownimagination suggesting she hears answers from the artwork, or is it something else?
The museum’s stunning new tour guide caught Aren’s attention the moment she stepped into view. And what a tour guide. Her auburn hair shone like a polished nut, storms gathered in her gray eyes and she had a figure to die for. His tongue was hanging out. Aren watched her with admiration as she led a group of tourists through his section of Rubenesque paintings, past the Orb of Isis, and below the stone carvings, one of which he was hiding in.
The people talking called her Stacey. He had not seen such a woman in many years. For a long time now he had thought all Earth females had disappeared, almost like on his own home world. But he had later come to realize the stick-thin creatures with short hair hanging off the arms of men, were in fact not young boys after all, but females. How times had changed. He’d been embarrassed by his discovery. His brother Sabe had teased him with great glee.
“I miss the age of man when women looked like women…and not young men!” Aren had mourned grumpily at the time.
“You could always time travel,” Sabe had replied.
“And risk turning inside out?” Aren had snorted at the very idea.
“I did it, and I’m okay.”
“You were sick for two years after you got back,” Aren had reminded him. Sabe hadn’t been able to argue with him. It was true.
* * * *
Stacey Lucas was so hot in her stuffy suit. Dammit, the women here looked cool as cucumbers. It had to be her weight. God knows she had tried every diet out there, but her body refused to give up a single pound. She remained stuck this way. What she hated most about her size was the lack of desirable clothing she managed to find in stores. She glanced quickly at the Rubenesque paintings and felt a stab of jealousy. Why couldn’t she have been born in those times? She felt completely undesirable in this age of stick-thin, cat-walk type models.
Huffing, she sped up as the little group swarmed around a skeletal replica of a baby T-Rex, their cameras snapping. She had told them not to take pictures in here, but nobody listened. She glared at the young women in their halter neck tops and little miniskirts. Could she wear something like that? Not likely. Even underwear was hard to find these days. She had to browse in the specialty shops. And did they make her size in sexy lace or satin with hearts and sequins? No again. She had to buy bras that looked like chest harnesses for battle weary matrons from the dark ages. Well, maybe not. Bras were a relatively new invention weren’t they? She leaned forward to examine a lady in a painting, scrutinizing her bustline.
“They didn’t have bras in your day, did they?” she spoke her thoughts aloud.
“No, they did not.”
Had somebody spoken, or was she imagining things? Startled, she looked up. The tour party was some distance away from her now. It couldn’t have been one of them. She glanced back at the painting. Either paintings had started to talk…or she was going mad. She looked up at the stone gargoyle above herself and the painting. She could have sworn it had just moved a fraction. She was feeling a little fuzzy-headed today. Must be the heat. Perhaps some unknown illness had caught up with her? Her eyes roved over the statue. The creature appeared taller and heavier than a mortal man. She found it intriguing, beautiful, captivating even. She kept her eye on it as she backed away a few paces.
* * * *
Aren watched her, excited by the attention she gave him. He sensed no fear emanate from her, only curiosity. Perhaps he shouldn’t have spoken to her. Now she would think she was going mad. But he hadn’t given it much thought at the time, it had just seemed so natural to do it. He hadn’t been able to stop himself. And she had been talking about things pertaining to her bosom, too.
Heat threaded lazily through him. Dammit, sun, go down. He was impatient to enter her world, but he had to wait until the night air relaxed and expanded the portal wide enough to safely transport his mass through to the other side. He didn’t want to get stuck again, and neither did he want to accidentally let anything else through from his or one of the other worlds. It wasn’t only lonely males from Harinthar who wanted to leap through to the Earthly plane.
He exited the statue and dashed back to his home world. Mist shifted under a dark sky as he arrived. He almost bounced out of his skin from the anticipation of his return to Earth later.
Aren’s family consisted of eleven brothers and one sister. Some of his friends grew up with no sisters at all, even the ones from the largest families. Having a living sister and mother meant he experienced some familiarity with females, for on his world they remained few and far between, so much so that females could be fussy in mate choosing and for much of the time chose only rich or titled males. If born a serf one’s luck in finding a mate was low. Aren had been lowborn, bearing no title or riches. However, despite that, he did have a very important role. He worked not only as a guardian, or sentry rather, he also worked as one of only a few Key Masters responsible for eight portals still operational on his side of the world. So although his role in his lands held importance, his marriageable status remained next to nothing.
However, he liked to think he represented a nice example of a male. He practiced kindness and manners. He could even be funny at times. His sister Fain even said he looked handsome. Would the enchantress Stacey think so, too? Humans had often viewed his kind with suspicion and hostility in the past. Some of their stone images demonstrated such negative distortions and grotesqueness in their interpretations of his kind.
Of course, he adjusted himself in preparation to go to Stacey’s world. For one thing, he made his wings invisible, and he shortened his black hair with a little magic. Earthlings weren’t used to men with lush hair falling down to their thighs. . His new hairstyle seemed spiky when he regarded himself in the mirror, yet it didn’t want to sit any other way. He laughed at his reflection as he went about shortening and blunting his incisors and talons. His green eyes looked too pale. He deepened them to a more human color.
Thunder cracked outside. Aren looked at the skyline just as a fork of lightning ripped across it. He knew exactly what time it was on his world when he could easily slip into Stacey’s with all his physical disguises intact, and that time wasn’t far away now.
* * * *
Stacey had been invited to go clubbing by some of the tour party. She tried to refuse. She hated hanging around in loud places with vain, preening people, guzzling down alcohol as if it were water in a desert. But her friends wouldn’t take no for an answer. She supposed she could make a short pretense of enjoying herself before slipping away. Perhaps that would keep them happy enough to stop hounding her. Unfortunately she knew some of the tour party from her days at university studying art history, so it wasn’t easy to just refuse to turn up.
She wondered what she should wear. Her wardrobe was sad, she acknowledged as she peered inside at the racks of clothing. Track pants and baggy T-shirts stared back at her alongside a few ugly dark suits she wore to her job at the museum. She hadn’t had the job long. Maybe if she’d had time to earn more money she could have improved her wardrobe by now. She’d never planned her wardrobe with nightclubbing in mind, only dull stuff like gardening and work.
What if she wore that old costume? It was an old fashioned lace up bodice with gathered skirts in deepest red satin with black lace trim. Of course, it was strictly for fancy-dress, but she could ham it up. Mel and Davina would laugh at her. They’d love it. It wasn’t like she had anything else. She could even go over the top and dress her hair to match.
She rummaged through her jewellery box and pulled out some fake ruby encrusted hair combs. She had wavy hair, but for tonight she decided to use her hot curlers and really dress the part. Might as well make some cork screw ringlets to match the outrageous hair combs and dress.
What about shoes? Again she was sadly lacking in that department. Most of her footwear was for work, professional and boring dark-colored flat heels that would look silly beneath her costume dress. It would have to be the red sequined sandals she had worn last year on her beach holiday. In a pinch they would pass.
Quickly she had a shower then dusted herself in sweet-smelling gardenia talcum powder, careful to avoid her naked reflection in the mirror as she went about her tasks.
Her hand fished in her drawer for one of those high lift bras to suit the dress. Dammit, she’d put on weight since she’d worn this to that Christmas fancy-dress party two years ago!
She popped the hot rollers in her hair and went downstairs in the bra and its matching panties, made a coffee and looked in her fridge. There wasn’t much to eat. Chocolate cake. Oh dear! When would she ever learn? Eat healthy tomorrow, she told herself as she licked her fingers after a sampling of the indulgent cake.
She went back upstairs and wriggled into her dress. Thank God it laced up at the front! She’d never be able to get it on otherwise. She took the rollers out and fluffed the bouncy cork screw ringlets before thrusting the twin ruby combs in at her temples. The effect was startling. She looked like one of the museum paintings. Not that any of the men she would meet tonight would care two hoots. They’d be too busy drooling over her confident and slender friends.
She sighed and filled her little red satin bag with essentials. Cherry lip gloss, a tissue, money, a few mints. She wouldn’t need those. She wouldn’t get close enough to anyone for that. Not a chance. The last time she’d gone out with friends she’d been the chubby chick who sat in the corner watching everyone else have a good time. Finally one of the guys had agreed to dance with her, but she could sense it was grudgingly offered as if one of the other girls had pestered him to do it. That had made Stacey feel even worse. Like a charity case.
Since that night, she’d avoided going out clubbing with friends. So why wasn’t she obeying her old rules tonight? She had no idea. It was madness. All the interesting detective shows she was going to have to miss on television tonight just to please some old friends.
Sighing, she switched all the lights off in her house and made her way out to the sidewalk to wait for her ride. A few moments later she was scooting in beside Mel and Davina. They guffawed with laughter.
“Ohhhh, you didn’t tell us it was a fancy-dress night!” Mel teased. “I love it!”
“You look awesome!” Davina giggled. She’d already had a few drinks, and her eyes were as merry as a Christmas elf’s. Stacey rolled her eyes, wondering what the hell she was doing going along with this. The car whipped around a few more bends and into the club’s parking lot. The three girls climbed out giggling and chattering and nearly stumbling over each other.
The club seemed to be filling up fast. I’m not dancing this time. A few young men from the tour group were already inside the joint. They gave Stacey a few loud whoops of approval as she walked in, making her cheeks turn red. What had seemed like a good idea at the time now made her feel completely stupid. She looked out of place here. People that weren’t in her little group gave her long, curious stares.
Mel and Davina pulled her over to a narrow booth near the dance floor and plonked a drink down in front of her. Stacey pretended to sip at it.
“Thanks. Why don’t you go and have fun? I’m quite happy to sit here and drink this on my own for a while.”
Her friends were impatient for action and left her without a second glance for the dance floor.
Stacey’s pulse raced in time to the beat of the contemporary dance music as her eyes surveyed her friends’ lithe bodies gyrate. In this dress she would look damned ridiculous up there doing those movements. Someone who thought they were hilarious and wanted to impress their friends would probably shout something rude like “look at the red hippo!” Shame she hadn’t considered that when she decided to wear the dress, but then she had been feeling playful and a little defiant at the time. Stacey pulled a sour face at the thought as her mind drifted away a little. She didn’t really want to be here. She clung to the back of the booth for two hours, pretending to drink the same drink over and over, while her friends kept exclaiming that she was having yet another one. Fools.
Around elevenish she noticed something had caught her friends’ attention, so she followed their line of vision. The object of their focus stood watching the women dance, near the bar. He almost made her swallow her tongue.
Oh wow! What a hunk! He was so busy watching Mel and Davina, which wasn’t any great surprise, that she allowed her hungry eyes to devour every little detail of him while he looked elsewhere. There would be time later to pretend she hardly saw him, when he looked over at her as if she wasn’t even there.
He seemed very tall, maybe the tallest guy in the club, though it was hard to tell because he leaned casually on the edge of the bar, which maybe dropped his real height by a few inches. The blue lights above the bar shimmered over his spiky hair, making it appear inky black. It reminded her of the kind of hair that positively screamed for a woman to run her hands through its unruliness and comb it down.
He possessed the face of a god—just sheer gorgeous, no other way to describe it. Her tongue grew dry in her mouth as her eyes absorbed him. She noted his skin had an olive tint. Thick, dark lashes bordered the most memorable eyes DNA had ever managed to cook up. Even from this distance she could see the stark greenness of them. And his mouth was wide and sensual, and dammit, so, so kissable her belly clenched just looking at it.
His black T-shirt stretched to capacity over lean, firm muscles that would rival any of the Greek statues in the museum. Her gaze traced hungrily back up along the strong column of his throat and wandered back to his face. Oh God! He looked straight at her. Embarrassment—and a wash of heat from something a lot more primal—poured through her at being caught so openly admiring him.
Instead of glancing away with a bored look, he flashed a smile at her, showing the most beautiful teeth she had ever seen. Her heart jolted. Why the hell was a guy like that bothering to smile at her? Was he vision impaired? Oh no! Now he was coming over. Her brain started to fizz in a mad panic. He’s not coming over here, you idiot, he’s going to walk right past at the last moment. When will you grow up and put childish fantasies away, Stacey? Why was she holding her breath then? Why was her heart racing out of control?
He moved right up to her booth. She waited for him to signal some blonde celebrity-type siren from across the room and lean forward and say something cheeky as hell to her like, do you mind if my girlfriend sits here…she’s feeling a bit tired?”
Yeah, that’s the way it always went down. Except, Mr. Drop-Dead Gorgeous, aka everything-in-a-skirt-wants-to-take-me-home-tonight, was sitting down…at her booth…across from her! She watched in disbelief as he folded his tall form into the booth opposite her. He wants an introduction to Mel and Davina. A spurt of anger washed over her. Just wait and see…any minute now. She narrowed her eyes and prepared for the blow.
“Hi,” he said softly, his voice deep and warm and rumbling over her fractured nerve endings like velvet dragging over cut glass. Good grief…what kind of accent was that! Her eyes widened as her brain tried to work out how to function again.
“Er…hi,” she answered, still not quite believing he meant her. Was there someone perched behind her? She glanced over her shoulder, but there was only the wall behind her.
“Would you like to dance with me?” he asked. Stacey nearly fell out of the booth. Come on! You want to dance with me? Is this some joke?
She glanced over the dance floor, looking for his laughing mates. “See if you can get the chubby chick in the Halloween outfit to dance with you” kind of mates. They had to be out there somewhere. She scanned twice, but her search came up blank. It was a little overwhelming to think all the effort she had made with her hair and dress had impressed such a handsome man. She stared into his heavenly eyes, wondering if he might be vision impaired.
“Lost your contacts?” she asked.
“Contaaacts?” He stretched the word out and gave her a strange look. For half a heartbeat he even looked hurt. Ohhh, you got it bad, Stacey. Don’t be fooled by gorgeousness now. It’s a terrible trap. The spider and the fly. You’re the fly, deary. If he’s not here for a laugh, it’s gotta be something else. He’s probably a petty con artist about to spin you some sob story in return for your cash. Around the museum she’d heard countless stories like that. “I’m on holiday here and my wallet and passport were stolen today, and I’m just asking nice looking people if they could help me out.”
* * * *
Well, Aren thought, if only this were simpler. His enchantress was staring at him as if he were a vulture that wanted one of her bones, when in fact it was him who wanted to give her one of his…the fleshy one. Oh, Aren, stop thinking with your hormones, he told himself. You’ll get nowhere fast. Dammit, her friends had noticed him now and were making a beeline back to the booth. He gave them an annoyed glance. They looked like pubescent boys and they reeked of alcohol and cheap perfume. He tried to school his face into a polite look of interest, but it was hard. He was only interested in Stacey. Sadly he would have to play along with these buffoons for a while though. No matter what time period he’d come visiting Earth in the past, these types were always around in some form or another.
The two women were all over him as soon as they sat down. He could barely stand it—hands, breasts and legs trying to twine with his in a fleshy tangle. Stacey’s eyes had faded away as if she was thinking about something else. His heart sank as one of her friends explored his abs with a bold hand while the other one pinched his biceps like she was examining produce at a market. He had to steel his self-control not to shake them off. Now Stacey was thinking he’d lost interest. He could see the bored look in her eyes as he racked his brains for a way to regain her attention.