“It’s clear you care about children,” the man next to her said. “I mean, considering that those books you read as a child made such an impression on you. Is that what brings you to the Fall Fête this evening?”
His question, his voice, made Willow jump again, and the wild thought occurred to her: Had he asked the question with a particular note of significance in his tone? Did he know something about why she was really here?
Now he laughed, and she found herself forgetting her anxiety for a moment as she tuned in to the sound. His voice was so…resonant, she decided. It set off a deep, subtle hum inside her, a vibration of pleasure and awareness. A sense of recognition, though of course she’d never met him before.
The phrase “DNA match” popped into her head, and she nearly laughed aloud. Now, this was interesting. She hadn’t felt this in a long, long time.
“I’m so sorry,” the man was saying, still grinning at her. “My timing is obviously off. Truly, I’m not trying to startle you every time I open my mouth.”
“And I’m not normally so jumpy.” She held out a hand and smiled. “I’m—” She paused and cleared her throat. She’d almost slipped up and told him her real name, a near-blunder that made her pulse flutter. “I’m Jasmine.”
“Jasmine,” he murmured, taking her hand. “Gorgeous name. It suits you.”
The kiss he pressed to her knuckles was brief and warm, and instantly made her blush. He gazed into her eyes, and she found herself wanting to look away—not because she didn’t enjoy the intimate contact, but because it was nearly too much.
Willow placed a lot of store in a man’s eyes. And this man’s were like the rest of him—rich and dark, a deep brown with surprising hints of amber and gold. Compelling eyes. Eyes she wanted to gaze into and get lost in.
“My friends call me Jazz,” she invented on the spot, purely to have something more to say.
“Mine call me Finn,” he said, still holding her gaze.
“It’s nice to meet you, Finn.” She felt as if her stomach were filled with champagne bubbles, fizzing and popping and dancing jubilantly.
Just then, thunder boomed outside. Here indoors, competing as it was with music and voices, it was barely audible—more of a deep vibration than a sound—but still, Willow started. She glanced toward the windows to her left, and saw they were actually a wall of French doors leading out to a grand patio. The rain seemed to be picking up again, and changing directions in the wind. She could just see it beginning to pelt the patio floor in fast, fat plops.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, a calming technique that had become as unconsciously routine to her as blinking.
“You sure you’re not always this jumpy?” Finn asked.
The question might have annoyed her, if she hadn’t been so keyed-up—and if it weren’t for his smile. It was both warm and quizzical, as if she were an interesting riddle he would love to solve.
She blew out a breath and smiled back. “I’m not sure why that one made me jump. I love thunderstorms.”
“You do?” He surprised her by taking her hand and threading his warm, strong fingers between hers. “Then come with me.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Where are we going?”
“Outside, to look at the gardens.”
She’d already looked at the gardens, pretty thoroughly, before the rains had started, before the party had been in full swing. But she pretended she didn’t know her way around. “Which way?”
He gave her hand a gentle tug. “Follow me. I’ll show you.”
Bemusedly, she set down her half-emptied cocktail glass—it was mostly water now, anyway—and allowed him to draw her out through the nearest set of French doors and onto the wide patio outside.
The noise of the fête receded when he shut the doors behind them. Out here, it was all elemental energy—wind and rain, trees waving their arms in the electric excitement of the coming storm. Though the sky was dark, the storm clouds were visibly charcoal gray against its midnight expanse. Fat raindrops were falling speedily, and a fresh, cool breeze stirred Willow’s hair about her face and shoulders.
Without thinking, she took another deep breath, let it out on a giggle, and twirled in a circle, just to feel the swirl of her dress around her legs. Her shoes, the ridiculous, strappy things she’d paid far more for than she liked admitting, were starting to hurt her feet, and she fought the urge to kick them off. This wasn’t the time or the place to go barefoot.
Instead, she danced up to the patio railing and leaned over it to feel the wind more fully. The rain was cool against her skin, which made her laugh again.
Finn moved to her side. “Aren’t you getting wet?”
She shot him a look. “The human body is sixty percent water, you know. We came from the ocean. Why would I be scared of a little rain?”
He laughed. “Okay, but aren’t you at least a little scared of being struck by lightning, leaning out like that?”
“I probably should be.” She said it to the night sky. “But I love this weather. It excites me.” She leaned back again, laughing, and turned to the dark-haired man next to her.
For some reason, the impending storm was combining with her mission—her top-secret mission, the real reason she was here tonight, which no one present knew about aside from her and Kyle—to fill her with primal energy. Another giggle bubbled out of her.
“Doesn’t it excite you?” she asked Finn, gazing up into his face.
He was staring down at her, his eyes slightly narrowed, as if assessing her or trying to decide how to answer.
After a beat, he spoke. “Much as I love a good storm,” he said slowly, almost contemplatively, “the rain, and the wind, and the thunder, don’t excite me nearly as much as you do.”
Willow blinked in surprise—but didn’t have time to respond. The next moment, she felt his strong arms go around her and pull her close. She had only a split-second to realize his dimple had popped out again as he grinned and lowered his mouth to hers.
The kiss seared her lips, as vital and elemental as the storm that thundered around them. She found herself clinging to the man’s broad shoulders for dear life, as if she might get swept away if she let go, even for a second.
And her mind—her mind was nearly blank, except for a single, clear thought: This. This one. This is what I’ve been missing.
* * *