Original Paperback
February 2004

 

MASTER OF ECSTACY

"Mackenzie Vampires" series, Book 1

October 2011
Digital Re-issue

Read an Excerpt

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MEET THE MASTER OF ECSTASY

He is everything dark, dangerous, and delicious. And for five hundred years, his sensual power has grown. He calls to all that is wild and elemental in a woman. Warrior, Highlander, vampire, he has returned to his ancestral castle in 1785 Scotland to fulfill a duty.

HAPPINESS IS HER BUSINESS

In a distant future, she works for Ecstasy Inc. to make people happy using only the most modern techniques and her own power. Sensual solutions to unhappiness are forbidden by company policy. She has traveled back to 1785 Scotland to prove that she can make anyone happy. She hasn't counted on a centuries-old vampire for a client.

He believes that sexual pleasure is the key to happiness. She thinks that Ecstasy Inc. has all the answers. Neither one considers love as part of the mix. They're about to discover how wrong they can be.

 



 
READ AN EXCERPT

PROLOGUE

S+E=X. Seduction plus evil equals x-citement. A winning formula. Her formula.

Sparkle Stardust had been perfecting her sex and sin act for over a thousand years. A cosmic troublemaker who specialized in creating sexual havoc wherever she went, she was the best at what she did. And what she did was cause sexual trouble. Lots and lots of delicious trouble.

She sat down in the center of the castle’s courtyard, wrapped her fluffy white tail around her, and stared up at the tower while feline irritation narrowed her orange eyes. With a small paw, she smoothed down a few errant hairs sticking up on her face and wished she could do the same for her temper. Sparkle was one pissed kitty.

Where the hell was Ganymede? He’d called for her help, asked her to take the form of a white cat... Why white? She hated white. It made her look fat. Besides, it was a symbol of good. She hated good. Why couldn’t she be black, a true expression of her inner being? And what was with the cat thing? She’d wanted to be in her sexy human form when she met Ganymede again.

Her irritation eased as she thought of Ganymede, of how he’d looked when she’d last seen him. He’d been all golden-haired beauty, a living breathing invitation to erotic adventure. They’d spent a month exploring every sexual excess, and then he’d left. She’d known it would happen, expected it, but still it had sort of hurt. No other being had ever made her feel regret. Only Ganymede. That was the one reason she’d answered his call. For old times sake.

Sparkle scanned her surroundings. Nightfall, Scottish Highlands, 1785, old and crumbly castle, quiet looking. There didn’t seem to be anything big going down. But whatever was happening must be huge, because Ganymede was the most powerful cosmic troublemaker in the universe. She couldn’t imagine him needing help.

Hmm. She sensed a sort of mini-happening in one of those tower rooms. A woman. And she was... Sparkle concentrated. The woman was thinking about sex. Just ordinary ho-hum sex. Forget it. Sparkle was looking for something she could sink her teeth into. Figuratively speaking, of course. But wait...

Now the woman was thinking really dumb thoughts like: nothing could make her get involved in a sexual situation while she was in this castle.

Nothing? Sparkle wrapped her tail more tightly around her and almost purred with the endless possibilities for irresistible sexual “situations.” This woman would be her first work in progress.

Things were looking up.

Suddenly, her thoughts scattered. A presence touched her that was so powerful, so sexual, it made her whiskers twitch. If she’d been in human form, a lot of other things would have been twitching.

Not Ganymede. This was a sensual presence like none she had ever experienced. It was every dark night filled with the soft moans of erotic fulfillment, every male body slick with sweat as it drove into the female beneath it, every kinky dream of leather, chains, and sex toys.

Sparkle smiled. Or as close as she could get to a smile with her little cat mouth. The being was male, he was in that tower, and she could feel the heated flow of his sensual power.

Yummy. A sexual challenge. Her territory.

Now what would it take to hook Ms. No-sex-for-me up with all that hot male potential? Sparkle could already feel her creative juices stirring.

Yep, Mr. I-bring-the-heat could just move over, because Sparkle Stardust was in the house.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Darach MacKenzie watched the white cat from his tower window and smiled. The slide of his lips across his fangs stirred the familiar hungers: for nourishment, for sexual pleasure. The two needs seemed always entwined. He pushed aside both. He must first know what threatened him. His smile widened, a savage baring of his teeth. He suspected his smile would not be a comforting thing to see.

“Something passing strange creeps in on wee cat paws.” His murmur was soft, thoughtful, and meant for no human ears.

His smile faded as he raked his fingers through his hair then allowed the strands to settle across his shoulders again. Ganymede had brought another of his kind to aid him. It would do him no good because even their combined powers would not make Darach abandon his duty.

“’Tis a mighty nuisance ye’ll be.” He frowned. He knew not what Ganymede and the cat were, but he’d felt their power, a power that was not human. “Mayhap I should know what ye’re thinking.”

He focused his mind on the cat and slipped into her thoughts. It was no hard thing to do. Not only did she do nothing to keep him out, she seemed almost to welcome him.

As his thoughts touched hers, he widened his eyes. He found no plans for death and destruction, only...

Sex. Sex in all its conceivable forms. Naked bodies spread and open to every erotic act. An explosion of sensual stimuli, darkness, heat, and insatiable sexual hunger.

Darach stepped away from the window and turned back to his room. She was a strange helpmate for Ganymede, but one that Darach could understand. Both he and the creature masquerading as a cat appreciated the joy of all that was sexual. And with his heightened senses, all that was sexual was a wondrous experience. Darach had lost many of his human characteristics when he became vampire, but he had compensated. His smile returned as his gaze touched his bed with its massive posts hewn from native wood, its silken coverings, and its memories. Aye, he had compensated.

He strode to the door then paused. Closing his eyes, he willed his return to human form, breathing out sharply at the smooth disappearance of his fangs like the sheathing of a cat’s claws.

Absently, he put his hand over his heart. Even after a hundred years, his heart’s beating amazed him.

With his eyes still closed, he searched for her, the woman he had sensed but a short time ago. She was there in the room beneath his, all warm female, a temptation to the sensual hunter in him. He had meant to feed this night, but it would do no harm to amuse himself first.

He would meet her, then go down with her to the meal Ganymede had prepared for his guests. It would give him a chance to measure the danger from Ganymede and the cat while they were together. Ganymede would do nothing while all his guests were gathered around him for fear of upsetting them.

His guests. Darach had heard Ganymede speaking to them, people from far distant times who had paid Ganymede for the pleasure of staying in this castle while they sought sensual enjoyment from each other. But the castle belonged to Darach’s clan, and Ganymede had not asked permission to use it. Mayhap Ganymede and his guests would experience far more than they had expected.

Darach opened his eyes, settled his plaid across his shoulders, and opened the door. Humor touched him, blunting the hunger still gnawing at him. Ganymede’s guests would find much to upset them with their first meal. The vile odor drifting from the castle’s kitchen suggested a witch’s brew. Darach wondered idly if he would find all of them changed to toads after eating. It would certainly solve his problem. With that cheerful thought, he strode from his room and closed the door behind him.

As he moved silently down the winding stone steps, he wondered about the woman. Was she young or old? Would she meet him with heated welcome or cool disdain? He could touch her thoughts, but he chose instead to savor this small mystery. Though it mattered not. If he wanted her, she would be his. It was always so. He did not question why, only enjoyed what the fates brought him.

Darach reached the bottom of the steps and stopped before her door. He knew his smile was predatory and attempted to rearrange it into something less threatening. He could not do it. Shrugging, he raised his fist to knock.

#

Blythe turned in a slow circle, studying her room and trying to ignore a sense of something drawing closer, something scary. Which was stupid because there was absolutely nothing here to threaten her. She was a twenty-fourth century kind of woman, and by 2300 scientists had determined that all ghost and ghoulie sightings had logical explanations. Besides, she’d booked this trip back to 1785 Scotland through a reputable time travel agency, and the agency’s rep, Ganymede, looked like he could take care of any problems that popped up.

The sudden pounding on her door drove all logical twenty-fourth century thoughts from her head. The tiny primitive person who skulked in a dusty corner of her mind but rarely voiced an opinion was whispering gleeful possibilities. Demon: considers you yummy take-out. Really ugly gargoyle: wants to sleep in your bed.

Calm down. She was safe behind a locked door. Besides, she’d brought her Freeze-frame. It could paralyze a bull elephant in mid-charge. She doubted any bull elephants were waiting outside her door.

Through force of habit, she tried to touch the emotions of whoever was beyond the door. Nothing. Strange. She could always read emotions. Blythe exhaled sharply. Of course, she couldn’t read a niggiwit’s emotions when she was scaring herself silly. She’d just open the door.

Right. She’d just open the door. Visions of childhood nightmares, particularly the ones involving Heeperian mega-headed spiders, kept her hand from the latch.

Blythe’s reaction bothered her. She was supposed to be the guru of emotional tranquillity. She wasn’t supposed to be moved by vague unsubstantiated feelings that had no logical foundation. But as night shadows crept across the room, she opted for a closed-door policy.

She leaned close to the massive wooden door and shouted. “Who’s there?”

“Darach MacKenzie. I dwell above ye. Mayhap we could go down to the meal together.”

A human voice. Instant voice analysis? Dark, sensual, dangerous, with an ancient dialect that seemed in tune with this castle. The very humanness of the voice should have calmed her pounding heart. It pounded harder.

“You have the room above me? That’s the tower suite. How’d you get it?” She was supposed to have had the top suite in the tower. Blythe had chosen it because she’d wanted to get as far away as possible from Textron, whose fear of heights kept him on the ground floor. But when they arrived, Ganymede had made some excuse about a mix up in reservations, so she’d ended up in this room.

“’Twas my room before ye came and will remain so after ye leave.”

Blythe bit her lip as she considered this news. He wasn’t with Ganymede’s tour group. And Ganymede hadn’t mentioned an owner in residence.
“Ye dinna wish to open the door. Do ye fear me?” His soft laughter mocked her.

“No.” Yes. She hadn’t a clue why, but her instinct’s message was clear: Do not open that door. “Uh, I’m not dressed yet. I’ll meet you in the great hall...Darach.” Blythe had no doubt she’d recognize him. A man with that dark slide of sin in his voice would stand out in any crowd. She clamped down on all thoughts of sensual and sinful. No way was she strolling down that path again. She’d learned the hard way that sex was the ultimate booby trap.

She’d just wait a few minutes and give him a head start before going down to dinner. Blythe began to turn away when the latch lifted and the door swung slowly open.

Shock held her frozen. Panicked thoughts bumped into each other as they raced terror-stricken around in her head. Demon! Gargoyle! Giant spiders! Do something!

Somewhere between the demon and do-something, a man stepped into her room. Night coated her with fear, and shadows were darker shades of black as they moved along the walls. He registered only as another shadow.

“Ye disappoint me, lass. I thought to find ye without clothing. ‘Twould have been a wondrous sight.” His amusement mocked her puny lie.

Her survival instinct kicked in. “Get out.” A weapon. Her Freeze-frame was still in her purse. Fumbling at the small table beside her, her fingers closed around a heavy vase.

“Dinna destroy the vase. ‘Twould take energy ye could well use in a more pleasurable way.” His voice was dark smoke and night secrets.

Blythe hesitated for a moment to think about the dark smoke part and was doomed. He moved close and his fingers wrapped around her hand. She released the vase.

She gazed up at the shadowed face of the man who towered over her. What were her chances in hand-to-hand combat? None. She opened her mouth to scream.

He placed a large palm over her mouth and bent down to whisper in her ear. “Ye’re safe with me. ‘Tis only that the latch was loose, and the wind blew the door open.”

Safe? She didn’t think so. The pressure of his warm skin against her lips, his scent of wild dark places and untamed male, and the silky glide of his hair over her cheek muddied her thoughts. Dangerous? You bet. How? She couldn’t decide. She’d never been good at multiple choice questions.

But she couldn’t deny that he was human, and since she’d half expected some ancient monster to leap from the darkness, his flesh and blood presence steadied her.

He seemed to sense her indecision because he took his palm from her mouth and moved further into the room. “Ye need light to chase away the night terrors.”

“Like how? I didn’t bring my Flick-flame, and I never got the hang of rubbing two stones together.” Fine, so sarcasm solved nothing. She couldn’t let him sidetrack her. “And there’s no wind.”

Her words were blown away on a sudden cold gust that whipped through the doorway.

“These are old drafty stones, and the wind slips through to play wherever it can find an opening.” He didn’t turn to look at her as one by one he lit the candles, then crouched in front of the hearth.

How had he done that? She hadn’t seen any fire-lighting devises in his hand. When did matches come into use? She couldn’t remember. Distractedly, she pushed the door closed before the wind could blow out the candles.

Her complete attention returned to the man. First impressions? Tall, muscular, and wearing some sort of native... She searched her memory of ancient clothing. A kilt. He wore a kilt with a checked pattern of dark green and blue. It didn’t quite look like the pictures she’d seen, more like one piece of cloth somehow wrapped around him.

All she could see now was the solid wall of his back and a tangle of long black hair.

She was free to run from the room, but the very fact that she could negated the need. It he meant her harm, he’d had the opportunity.

Wrapping her arms around her, she moved cautiously toward him. The fire was already blazing in the fireplace, and she spared a thought for that fact. She’d never lit a fireplace in her life, but common sense said it should take time to build to blazing status. And why hadn’t she been able to read his emotions? Blythe balanced her suspicions against her need to be warm. Warm won. She moved even closer.

“The room will be comfortable by the time ye return from the meal.” He stood, then stared into the fire. “Ye’ll want a great pile of covers to keep away the chill when morning comes and the fire dies.”

Turn around so I can see your face. She needed to put her unease to rest, give a human face to her fear.

“A man would do as well. Body heat doesna die with the morning.”

His suggestion was a rough trail of temptation, raising goose bumps that had nothing to do with the night’s chill. Remember your fear. But somehow she couldn’t whip up the panic she’d felt such a short time ago. That didn’t mean she’d heaved out her common sense along with her terror.

“The fire’s great. I don’t need anything else.” She suspected if she spent much time listening to the dark compulsion of his voice she’d be willing to explore alternate heating sources. But of course she wouldn’t, because she had work to do here, and sex wasn’t part of her job description.

“We all need something else.” With that cryptic comment, he turned.

Blythe stood riveted. If ever the term terrifying beauty had meaning, she was looking at it. In her time, body and face molders could give everyone the looks they chose. But that was only a surface thing. Cosmetic surgery couldn’t reveal inner demons.

This man’s face hid nothing. Every hard line was elemental male, a face men would fear and women would...recognize. He was the hot primitive need that lived in every woman no matter how much she denied it. Blythe’s gaze slid across his lips, so sensual that she could almost feel them softening on her mouth. She avoided his eyes. She wasn’t ready to go there yet, because like the perfect storm with its wild magnificence, she could admire his beauty while still recognizing the danger. She didn’t need any heightened sensitivity for that analysis.

“Welcome to my time. Ye have not told me your name.” He moved closer and the room warmed proportionately.

Okay, he knew about the time travel. So why was he accepting it calmly? His clothing screamed primitive. It was 1785 for heaven sake. Why didn’t he run screaming into the night or accuse her of witchcraft? She shivered. Witchcraft. The possibility of becoming a toasted crunchy wasn’t a fun thought.

“You don’t seem too upset at the time travel concept.”

“I know of things ye could never imagine. So why would I not believe ye’ve traveled through time?” He sounded sincere.

Things ye could never imagine? That was not a comforting answer.

“Ye do have a name, do ye not?” He sounded amused.

“Blythe.” She supplied her name automatically.

The long tangled glory of his hair brought the night with it. She couldn’t imagine it pulled back and tamed. Blythe knew she should look beyond his hair, beyond the hard lines of his jaw, the full temptation of his lips, to his eyes. She still wasn’t that brave yet.

“Blythe? Ye have no other name?” Again he moved closer.

“I’m Blythe number 56-2310 on my birth records. I was the fifty-sixth Blythe born in 2310. But the number is only for official identification.” He loomed over her, broad shoulders blocking out the fire’s light, moving into her personal space and bringing with him a message that confused her.

She’d spent a lifetime reading other people’s emotions and dealing with them. Blythe felt nothing from him but...power. Layers of power. Sexual power that tempted and seduced even as she flailed at it. And a darker power, the one she’d felt drawing closer, the one she’d responded to when he first knocked.

What hid behind all that power? She wondered. Did she really want to know?

“’Tis a cold name for a woman such as ye.”

The wicked slant of his lips suggested he’d like a shot at renaming her. His name would probably be something like Blythe Hot-in-bed


Time to shift his attention from her. “How about you? Who are you, Darach?” Her intuition said she’d need a few lifetimes to get an answer to that one.

“I am the MacKenzie. This castle, this land, belongs to my clan. I dinna spend much time here, but this is the home of my youth, and I return to it when I must.” He seemed distracted as he reached out to slide a strand of her hair away from her face then touched the silver Ecstasy charm at her throat.

Blythe checked to make sure the strands weren’t smoldering. The rest of her sure was. “The castle looks deserted except for our tour group. Where’s the rest of your family?”

Some emotion she couldn’t identify tightened his jaw and narrowed his lips. “They dwell...elsewhere.”

Blythe might not be able to read his emotions, but she understood perfectly that he didn’t want her to know much about him. Secrecy. Secrets often spawned stress and unhappiness. Possibilities blossomed. She smiled.

“Sounds like your life is pretty lonely.” She should be so lucky. Loneliness was a sure-fire indicator of unhappiness, and Blythe was all about curing unhappiness.

His gaze was fixed on her lips, and it was as though he’d touched them with his fingertips. She firmed them to discourage touching.

He shrugged. “I need no company but my own.” His gaze warmed on her mouth. “Ye should smile often.”

She rushed into speech before she lost her breath completely. “So I suppose the travel agency rented the castle from you.” She couldn’t help it, she backed up.

“They rented nothing from me.” A slant of his lips hinted at humor she knew wouldn’t reach his eyes, if she had the courage to look into his eyes. “I intend to discuss this with them.”

Absently, he put his hand over his heart. Maybe she should give that a try to slow down her heartbeats.

“This was my home before the castle stood, and I willna let Ganymede and his hireling drive me from it.” He leaned toward her, and she backed another step. He smiled his satisfaction.

Before the castle stood? Okay, enough. At this rate, he’d back her out the door and down the tower’s winding stone steps. She needed to think about the before-the-castle-stood thing, but she had other worries at the moment.

Blythe searched for her non-existent spine and stiffened it. A rubbery spine would not get the job done. She was letting the castle, the night, and this man play games with her mind. She needed to take control.

“I’ll just get my shawl. Remind me to ask Ganymede for some kind of lighter to start a fire so I won’t freeze to death here. An Auto-temp-regulator would’ve been nice, but I guess he didn’t think of it.” She scuttled sideways away from Darach and pretended not to notice any frightened-crab similarities.

“Autotempregulator?”

Her courage increased in direct proportion to his puzzlement. “And I didn’t see any bathroom. What do I do if I have to, you know?” She waved her hands to indicate the importance of you know. “Anyway, there’s only so much authenticity I can stand. I’ll discuss life’s little necessities with Ganymede over dinner.”

“Ye have a chamber pot beneath your bed.” Puzzlement gone, amusement back.

“Thanks. I’ll remember that.” Eeew. Could she hold it for two weeks? Worth a try.

Blythe reached for her shawl, part of the “authentic” wardrobe Ganymede had insisted everyone buy so that they would blend in with the locals. She had deviated a little from what was authentic, but hey, it was her trip.

At the same time she picked up her shawl, she scooped the Freeze-frame from her purse. A three-inch equalizer. Uh oh, no pocket. Turning her back to Darach, she dropped it down her bra and breathed a hope that she wouldn’t have to go fishing for it.

Pasting a bright smile on her face, she turned. “Okay, all ready. Let’s go.”

Blythe’s smile faded as he strode across the room, took the shawl from her nerveless fingers, and settled it across her shoulders. It was as though every one of her uncertainties about him lay across them, weighing her down with unanswered questions. Why couldn’t she read his emotions? What had he meant about being here before the castle stood? Why did he make her so uneasy? Why did he make her...? She slid her gaze the length of his hot body. Fine, so she already knew the answer to that question.

“Ye’ve traveled far, and the things ye dinna understand about this place could harm ye. ‘Tis foolish ye are to have come here. And Ganymede is not what ye think. Ye would have done better to stay safely at home with your Autotempregulator and bathroom.” He shifted a bit closer.

That was it. She refused to retreat another step. In one breath he’d threatened her and insulted her decision-making abilities. Without thinking, she met his gaze.

What a big fat mistake. He had the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. Blythe had once visited a moraine lake that had water exactly that shade, so brilliant that you forgot about its depth, about its bone-chilling iciness born of the glacier that formed it.

Blythe saw it all in his eyes. Depths she couldn’t read, didn’t think she wanted to read. And unbelievable coldness. Automatically, she reached out with her senses, searching for emotions, any emotions. Nothing. It was as though he’d closed a door in her face. He must have feelings, everyone did. Maybe he doesn’t.

Blythe looked away first. She couldn’t figure anything out on an empty stomach. “I’m hungry. Let’s go down to the great hall.” Trying for casual, she walked to the door and hoped he’d leave her room while she tried to secure the stupid latch. Again.

“Ye speak verra strangely.” He didn’t sound like he was leaving.

“I used the Language Assimilation Program to learn the most ancient dialect available. Unfortunately, the most ancient dialect was from the early twenty-first century.” She shrugged. Would he leave now?

Blythe was silently swearing at the latch in Riparian, a language with really great descriptive curses, when she felt him stop behind her. Felt him. His body, his heat, his scent that touched her with something so elemental it made her draw in a deep fortifying breath. Turning, she forgot all about the door.

“Doors never keep out those who truly wish to enter.” His soft statement stilled her, took on a meaning she didn’t want to examine.

She chose to ignore hidden meanings. “Right. This door wouldn’t keep a Kadian sand biddle out.”

“Kadian sand biddle?” He smiled. Really smiled. “This sand biddle sounds like a fearsome creature.”

Blythe had traveled the galaxy and beyond, and never, absolutely never, had she seen a smile like that: dark and wicked, with the promise of nights filled with sinful pleasure.

She blinked. What had he said? “Oh, the sand biddle.” She needed to get out of range of that smile before it took her down like a Tomar light missile. “It’s pretty harmless.” Blythe edged away from him. “It’s a small insect. Gets into your clothing, bites you, and leaves a huge purple blotch that takes a week to fade.”

Sucking in her breath to make herself as thin as possible, she slid past him and out the door without making body contact.

“Not all things that get into your clothes and bite are harmless.” She heard the laughter in his voice as he closed the door behind them and followed her down the castle’s dark steps.

Blythe didn’t worry about the door being unlatched because she’d brought the danger with her. “Things that bite?” She tried to ignore his presence behind her. Fat chance. “Don’t tell me there’re wild animals outside.” Earth in 2339 didn’t have any more wild animals.

“Outside? Mayhap ‘tis the one inside ye need worry about.”

She could almost feel his warm breath fanning her neck as he followed close behind her. Blythe shivered. She didn’t try to pin down the cause of her shiver.

“If you’re trying to scare me, forget it. I don’t scare.” Lies, lies, and more lies. He scared her. Because she didn’t understand him when she always understood people. Because she didn’t know how to deal with such a totally sexual animal.

Blythe was so busy thinking about sexual animals and unexpected bites that she missed her footing in the dark. With a squeak of alarm, she reached for the stone wall in an attempt to stop her fall.

Her hand never reached the wall. With a muffled curse, Darach wrapped his arms around her and pulled her against him. “I canna believe Ganymede has not lit the sconces so his guests might see where they step.”

“I could’ve broken my neck.” She breathed in short gasps that had nothing to do with her near disaster. Since he was on the step above her and a lot taller than her, when he’d grabbed her he’d settled his hands below her breasts instead of around her waist.

“Aye, and to waste a neck such as yours would be a terrible thing.” His soft laughter moved against her skin as he leaned down to murmur in her ear. She had the feeling he was enjoying a joke only he understood. “’Twould have ruined my whole century for such a thing to happen.”

“Century?” One word at a time seemed her limit right now.

“Hmm.” His lips touched the hollow of her neck. “Did I say century? Mayhap I meant day.” He slid his tongue over the spot his lips had touched.

Blythe’s breath caught as his touch sizzled and sparked all the way to her toes. At this moment, the creatures that growled in the night outside the castle seemed no danger at all compared to the sensual threat of the dark Highlander who stood behind her.

She was losing her perspective. This trip was not about enjoying a stranger’s mouth on her neck while she fervently hoped he’d slide his hands up to touch her breasts. What did she know about him other than he’d scared her witless? Maybe this was a nightly ritual with him: seduction on the stairs, dinner, then a good night’s sleep. She opened her mouth to express her feelings.

He released her before she said anything, and she stood, bereft, on the steps. Chill night air crept inside her open shawl and touched the spot on her neck still warm from his lips. Shaking off her inexplicable sense of loss, she continued down the steps, but this time she kept one hand on the stone wall.
“Why have ye come here? The castle offers little comfort, and ye dinna seem overly interested in the ‘sensual possibilities’ offered by those who brought ye.” His voice was cool, as though the heat of a few moments ago never existed.

Sensual possibilities? She frowned. Oh, yeah. The Cosmic Time Travel Agency had promised a sexual adventure, a romantic escape to a distant past when men were men. No kidding.

A sexual adventure was the last thing Blythe wanted. Her last foray into sexual waters had landed her in hot water with Ecstasy Inc. When she’d found out that this trip was all about erotic discovery, Blythe had told Textron she didn’t want to go. She’d asked him to choose a different tour, but he’d said it would be the perfect test to see if she could focus on the job and ignore the sensual.

Was that what the whole thing on the steps had been about? The thought made her mad, and she didn’t have a clue why. “I’m not here for a sexual holiday.” She made her voice as cool and disinterested as his. “I work for Ecstasy Incorporated, and my job is making people happy.” Absently, she fingered the Ecstasy charm that hung from a chain around her neck.

“Ye do it well, lass. I was verra happy while we stood on the steps above.” He sounded sincere.

“I don’t use sex to make people happy. Sex is short-term. I’m in the long-term happiness business.” Amazing that she could talk through clenched teeth.

“In my time, scientists have conquered disease and aging. All it takes are a few tiny body implants. I chose to have the implants put in when I was twenty-five, and I’ll stay twenty-five unless I’m killed in an accident or the victim of a crime.” She was so involved with her explanation that she barely noticed they’d reached the bottom of the steps.

She turned in time to catch his startled expression. Good. His surprise empowered her.

“This has caused unexpected problems. Earth is overpopulated, and living space is scarce and expensive. People have to work throughout their lifetime to support themselves and their families. When people can’t look forward to retirement, and they have nothing in their futures but more work for untold years, stress reaches cataclysmic proportions. Some become desperate enough to have their implants removed or even take their own lives.”

She paused only long enough to note his intent interest. “My company is dedicated to lessening the effects of stress, to bringing calm and joy into the lives of those teetering on the edge of emotional breakdowns due to overwork. Ecstasy Incorporated doesn’t offer sexual solutions, but instead depends on the talents of its well-trained Happiness staff.” Blythe frowned. She sounded like one of Ecstasy Inc.’s ads. All cold facts, but no passion. Where had her passion for the job gone?

“Ye should not dismiss the power of sexual solutions.” He didn’t smile, so she assumed he was serious.

She dismissed it. “I use a variety of methods sanctioned by the Intergalactic Association for the Relief of Stress and Depression to make people happy and productive again.” Blythe’s frown deepened. Why did she feel the need to justify her methods to this primitive who probably solved his unresolved issues by pillaging a few villages? “I can make anyone happy.” She’d never felt driven to boast about her power before. Why now? He makes you feel defensive, that’s why.

His expression suggested he doubted her boast, but he made no comment about it. “I would not wish to live in a world such as ye describe.” He guided her toward the glow of candlelight and murmur of voices coming from the great hall.

Blythe thought about that. “I guess extending people’s lifetimes indefinitely does have its down side.”

He was silent beside her.

The great hall transported her to another time and place. Okay, so she was already in another time and place. She had no idea how authentic this setup was, but it looked like a passable reenactment of a castle meal in 1785. Candle glow and the hearth fire cast a surrealistic light over the long table and the six people seated around it.

As they paused in the doorway, a man rose from the table and came toward them.

Even though she’d met Ganymede briefly when she first arrived, Blythe still widened her eyes at the total impact of him. He was huge, all mass and muscle, and he had to be close to seven feet tall with wild flame red hair and a bushy beard. His dark green and blue checked kilt completed the picture of an ancient Scottish laird.

“Hey, great to see you again, Blythe.” He was all booming good cheer, but his glance barely touched her then shifted away.

She followed his gaze down to where a white cat sat at his feet. The cat studiously ignored her in favor of Darach.

“I want to officially welcome you to Castle Ganymede. For the time you’re here, just think of me as Ganymede MacKenzie, the Scottish chieftain who’s going to make sure you have a good time. The Cosmic Time Travel Agency always delivers.” He clapped her on the shoulder and almost knocked her down.

He sounded a little too jolly, and he might be speaking to her, but now he’d fixed his gaze on Darach. She took the opportunity to look into his eyes.
And just as quickly looked down. Talk about false pretenses. He might be masquerading as a bluff good-natured Highlander, but those amber eyes said predator loud and clear. His feelings? She’d just take a peek. Blythe reached for his emotions, blinked, then backed away. Wow. Talk about aggression.
“Well, well.” Ganymede’s smile never wavered, but his eyes grew so cold it made Blythe shiver. “And you are?” His total attention was on Darach.

“Darach. And no MacKenzie bears the name Ganymede.” All of Darach’s playful sensuality had disappeared, leaving the same stranger who had scared Blythe witless. “Ye need ask permission before ye bring guests into my clan’s home.”

Ganymede raised one bushy brow. “Your clan’s home? Looked like a crumbling pile of rock to me. Said fixer-upper loud and clear. I claimed it. I restored it. It’s mine.”

“I dinna think so.” Darach’s voice was a whisper of menace.

Blythe widened her eyes as the emotion she’d looked for hit her with enough force to drive her back a step. Not the emotion she’d hoped for, though. Anger was a living breathing wall between the two men.

And the power she felt scared her. She didn’t know what was going on, didn’t want to know. Forcing her attention away from the men, she glanced down at the cat. It had deserted Ganymede and was weaving a sinuous pattern around Darach’s legs as it gazed up at him with bright interested eyes.
“At least one of us isn’t intimidated, kitty.” She smiled at the cat.

Blythe shook her head to clear it of what sounded like a light tinkle of laughter. Great. Now she was hearing things.

“I want your butt out of my castle, bud. You’ll upset my guests.” Ganymede’s voice had risen.

“Ye’ll not send me from my home. Ye’ll find another place to play your games, or I will cause ye grief.” Darach’s voice had lowered to a dangerous murmur.
“You and what army of skirt-wearing wimps?” Ganymede was almost shouting now. “Don’t count on home court advantage to help you.”

Blythe did some mental eye-rolling. She was not going to stand here and listen to this deteriorate into a shouting match. Okay, so Ganymede was doing all the shouting, but she still wanted outta here. But first she would make one attempt to defuse the situation.

“Why don’t you come with me, Darach, and have a drink to calm down. Then you and Ganymede can talk business with a little more maturity.” She reached out to tug at Darach’s arm.

Her tug was like touching a pure-power source. He looked at her, and with the same effect as if she’d been zapped by a few thousand power pulses. The sizzle and burn of his immense anger left her fingers clutching his arm, unable to release him, unable to do anything but hold his gaze.

Slowly, he relaxed and offered her a tight smile. “I might be tempted to have a wee sip, but not tonight.” His lips softened, and his eyes promised that the wee sip would be with her. Once again, he absently placed his hand over his heart. “I must return to my room, but be verra careful in this place. ‘Tis not always safe for those who do not know it.”

Puzzled, Blythe watched him stride from the great hall. She would’ve sworn his warning was aimed at Ganymede, not her. And why hadn’t he stayed to eat? Blythe didn’t for a minute think that Ganymede had intimidated him.

Once Darach had left, she turned to look at Ganymede.

His expression was thunderous, and he seemed to have forgotten her. He glared down at the white cat who was studiously avoiding his stare. “Okay, smart mouth, what do you think I should do?”

Fine, so Ganymede talked to his cat. She could live with that. Blythe glanced toward the table where everyone had stopped eating to avidly follow the exchange between Darach and Ganymede.

“It’s like this, little lady,” Without warning, Ganymede clasped her arm and propelled her toward the table. “This Darach guy is bad news. I’ll work on getting rid of him, but things like this take time."

Ganymede almost pushed her into a seat between Textron and one of the women guests. Both looked startled, but Blythe suspected that their reactions were for Ganymede, not her. She’d just bet that everyone around Ganymede spent their time wearing startled expressions.

Textron leaned toward her. “I’ve found the perfect subject for you.”

Great. Just great. The slimy worm wasn’t going to give her even one night of down time.

“Now you enjoy your meal and don’t give another thought to that blood-sucking fiend.” Seemingly satisfied that he’d offered a perfectly logical explanation for everything, Ganymede strode away with the white cat padding after him.

“Blood-sucking fiend?” Blythe gazed down at her plate of blackened meat and unidentifiable large root-like vegetable with what she suspected was a dazed expression. “What was he talking about?”

The woman leaned toward her. “I think he means that your man is a vampire.” She smiled at Blythe. “Don’t be afraid of the venison. It’s tough with a bit too much seasoning, but I suppose it’s what people eat in 1785.” She frowned. “I don’t know about the root thing. Looks weird to me.”

Blythe stared at her in wide-eyed horror. “Vampire?”

Oh boy.

 

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