Without thinking, he reached out and brushed away the long strand of hair that drifted across her forehead. The pad of his finger grazed over her impossibly soft, smooth skin, reminding him of spun silk, and that ball of need in his gut tightened ferociously.
A few hours ago, Zachary’s plans for the evening included some cold beers and a late-night swim in the ocean. A scream in the dark changed all of that and quickly turned his vacation into a rescue mission.
Zachary carried the unconscious woman into the living room of his beachside rental house and laid her gently on the oversized sofa. Stirring briefly, her brow furrowed as though she were dreaming, and a soft whimper escaped her lips. Recalling the sound of her cries, anger fired through him and he was furious with himself for getting out there too late.
By the time he got outside, the person who’d harmed her was disappearing around the corner. He guessed it was a mugging of some kind. The guy on the bike had a bag with him and Zach would bet a million bucks it belonged to her.
Whoever she was, she was absolutely stunning…and familiar. Even her energy signature, which was surprisingly thick for a human, pulsed with an almost recognizable hum. He attempted to sharpen his focus but found himself oddly distracted by her.
Long, thick, wavy auburn hair framed a stunningly beautiful oval face. Her large, almond-shaped eyes were the palest shade of green he’d ever seen, and in the light of the setting sun, he had noticed that they glittered with tiny flecks of gold. Her lush womanly body, that fit against his with ease, was curvy and filled out in all the right places.
She hadn’t said much, but he could tell she was American and probably here on vacation like he was. Once she woke up, he’d make sure she got back to her hotel or villa. Her friends or family were probably worried about her.
A sudden and unexpected wave of jealousy rose up when it dawned on him that she could have a husband or a boyfriend. Why wouldn’t she? The woman was simply gorgeous. Yet the notion of her being with another man bothered him. He had no idea why. It just did.
He swore under his breath when his gaze skittered over the trail of blood that trickled down her temple. She was hurt, and he was sitting here staring at her like a creep.
“Nice move, Zach,” he muttered, before rising to get a wet cloth from the kitchen. “Let the poor girl bleed to death.”
He came back and sat next to her on the edge of the couch. Gently, he brushed aside the long strands of hair that had fallen across her cheek and wiped away the blood that marred her creamy skin. He found the cut on her hairline and dabbed around it gingerly, relieved to see it had stopped bleeding. It always astonished him how much blood was produced by a cut on the head, even a small one like this.
When he wiped away the last of the blood, those big green eyes fluttered open and immediately latched onto his.
“Welcome back,” Zach said with a wide smile before tossing the cloth onto the coffee table. “How are you feeling?”
“Oh my God,” she whispered. Her eyes widened with fear and she immediately tried to scramble away from him. “You…you’re…”
“Whoa.” Zach rose to his feet, stepped back, and raised both hands in a sign of surrender. “Hang on, lady. Relax. I’m not going to hurt you. I heard you scream, and when I came outside, you were on the ground bleeding. I did see a guy racing off on his bike, and I had a choice. Chase him down or help you.” He shrugged and slipped his hands into the pockets of his cargo shorts. “Helping you took priority.”
“You helped me?” she whispered. Pushing herself to a sitting position, she wavered and her hand went to her head. Squeezing her eyes shut, she pulled her feet up onto the couch and inched into the corner. “Shit, that hurts.”
“Yeah, you took a hell of a tumble out there. I don’t think that cut on your head is gonna need stitches, but it sure did bleed a bunch. What’s your name?” Zachary sat on the coffee table and leaned his forearms on his thighs while keeping an eye on her. “If you tell me where you’re staying, I’ll be happy to take you there, or we can call—”
“No,” she blurted. She bit her lower lip, and her hand went to the silver chain around her wrist, as though she’d done it a thousand times before. “I can’t.”
“No? You can’t tell me your name, or you can’t tell me where you’re staying?” Zach tilted his head and his gut instinct went on high alert. She was in trouble. “Which is it?”
“No.” Shaking her head, she lifted one shoulder and looked at him through wide eyes. “I—I’m not staying anywhere. I was on my way to find a place to stay when that kid on the bike stole my bag.” She shut her eyes and let out a shuddering breath. “Damn it. That bag had all of my money, my identification. Everything.”
Tears filled her eyes, making them seem even greener than before. She swiped at them quickly before adjusting her top, which did little to hide her ample bosom. The silver bracelet glittered around her wrist, and he could see that there was something written on the tiny disk attached to it. Her hand settled over her chest as she stilled beneath his inspection. He squinted and leaned closer, trying not to look at her cleavage.
“May I?” Zach gestured to the bracelet she fiddled with.
As he reached over, her body tensed, and he sensed her heart beating like a jackhammer beneath the surface. He paused until she gave him a brief nod of agreement and held out her arm. Zach’s fingers brushed over her skin, and the brief whisper of flesh against flesh sent a zing straight to his crotch. Both of them stilled after the mere hint of contact, and he flicked his surprised eyes to hers. She’d felt it too. Her cheeks were pink, and he sensed her body was humming with tension.
Zachary breathed deeply as her distinctly feminine scent filled his head, enhancing the sudden and unexpected surge of desire. He couldn’t think of a time that his body had responded so strongly or so quickly to a woman—and he’d had lots of women. Holding her stare, he cradled her wrist in his hand and read out loud the name inscribed in flowing script letters on the silver disk. “Annabelle.”
“That’s me,” she murmured. “Annabelle.”
“Nice to meet you, Annabelle.” Zachary gently released her and sat up, needing to put some distance between them. He was having a hard time thinking straight because all the blood was rushing to his crotch. “You have a last name, don’t you?”
“Yes. Of course I do… It’s Johnson.” Her tongue flicked out and moistened her lower lip. “Annabelle Johnson.”
“Right.” He knew she was lying about her last name. There was too much of a pause, as though she were thinking one up as opposed to simply saying her name. She looked so scared and alone, it took all of his willpower not to gather her in his arms and comfort her. Instead, he stuck his hand out to her like some kind of dorky teenager. “Zachary McKenna.”
She looked at him for a moment, as though deciding whether or not to shake his hand. A hint of a smile played at her lips, and some of the tension eased before she finally put her hand in his. The instant her soft skin settled against his, warmth washed over him and need tightened in his gut. Zachary glanced down at their interlocked hands, and recognition flooded him. He rasped his thumb along the edge of her palm and turned it just enough so he could see her long, delicate fingers.
Clearing his throat, he quickly released her hand, the warmth of her flesh suddenly and noticeably absent. Zach’s gaze skittered over those deep auburn locks, and his muscles tensed as a vaguely familiar energy signature throbbed through the air. It was like music; a slow, light tinkling in the air that was almost unreadable but was growing louder with each passing moment.
He sharpened his focus, reaching out with his own energy. Zachary tuned in to her and, as the sound of the waves crashed in the background, he knew.
Memories of the dream realm came roaring into focus…it was her.
Annabelle was the woman from the dream realm—and his mate. Holy shit. She was here. Right here in front of him and he didn’t have the first fucking clue what he was supposed to do. How ironic. Zachary had been with countless women and was never at a loss for words. Yet here he was, with the woman he was destined to spend eternity with, and he was a tongue-tied boob.
Great. Thank God Dominic wasn’t here, because Zach would never live this down.
“Are you alright?” Her voice, soft and concerned, pulled him from his thoughts. “Zachary?”
Zach just nodded, holding her green-eyed stare, and he noticed she was fiddling with her bracelet again. He was feeling a little fidgety himself. Rising to his feet, he started to pace the room, needing to put some space between him and the woman the universe had tossed at his doorstep. Her energy signature grew stronger and whirled around him in the air, faster with each second. It was both unsettling and oddly comforting at the same time.
“So let me get this straight.” He stopped in front of the breakfast bar that separated the kitchen from the living room and folded his arms over his chest. “You came to Mexico alone. With one bag. No clothes. No suntan lotion. Just a bag with your identification and some money? That’s it? And that bag, with everything in it, is now gone.”
“Yes.” She nodded and didn’t take her eyes off his. The woman was curled up on the couch and looked totally terrified again. Not of him, though. She was frightened of whomever or whatever she was running away from. At least, that’s what he suspected, and based on her reaction, there was no way she knew that he was an Amoveo. She would have said something, wouldn’t she? “You probably think coming to Mexico like that is something only an idiot would do.”
“No.” Zach pressed his lips together and leaned both hands on the back of an upholstered chair while leveling a serious look in her direction. “It sounds like something only someone on the run would do.”
She opened her mouth to say something but apparently thought better of it and snapped it shut. Fiddling with the chain around her wrist, she looked away from him and shrugged one shoulder. Bingo. Annabelle was on the run. Anger simmered beneath the surface at the notion of someone hunting down his mate, and in that instant, he knew he wasn’t going to let her out of his sight. No way.
What if she was running from a Purist who found out she was an Amoveo mate? What if the Caedo found out about her?
He ran one hand over his stubble-covered jaw and let out a slow breath. What a clusterfuck. How the hell was he supposed to approach this whole mate business with her? He couldn’t come right out and ask her, Hey, do you know about the Amoveo? Seen any shapeshifters lately?
“Do you have a phone that I could use?”
“Nope.” He shrugged and gave her an apologetic look. “I don’t have a cell phone, and the one here at the house doesn’t seem to be working.”
“You don’t have a cell phone?” She looked at him like he was an alien from another planet. “Are you serious?”
“Totally. I don’t really care for them.”
“It figures,” she said with a curt laugh. “If I didn’t have shitty luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.” Annabelle shook her head and stifled a yawn before giving him an embarrassed smile. “Sorry. I didn’t sleep much on the plane.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure getting mugged took it out of you, too,” he said.
Sleep. The dream realm. That’s it. If she really was his mate, then he would be able to find her there tonight. Connecting with her before had been next to impossible, but now that they’d actually met, maybe he could get through to her. It would be a hell of a lot easier to tell her about the Amoveo if she experienced the dream realm with him.
“You could probably sleep for a week,” he murmured.
“I—I should go. I’m sure there’s a pay phone in town or something.” Annabelle made a pained expression while she pushed herself off the couch and slowly rose to her feet. “I’m sorry for the trouble I caused you.”
“No trouble.” He crossed to the couch and held his hand out to her. “Come on.”
“Where?” She looked at his hand warily before turning those haunting green eyes back to his.
“The bedroom.” Her big eyes got even bigger, and Zachary couldn’t help but let out a loud laugh. “Not like that. Believe me”—a grin cracked his face and he winked—“if I wanted to take advantage of you, I could’ve done that while you were passed out on my couch.”
“Oh really?” She folded her arms over her full breasts. The action had the delightful side effect of accentuating her cleavage, and when he finally looked back at her face, she was giving him a knowing look. Eyebrows raised, she waited for him to continue.
“I’m kidding.” He was partly kidding. The truth was that he wanted to wrap her up in his arms and discover every inch of gorgeous flesh hidden beneath that dress. He bet she tasted sweet, like a plum. He also bet that he had a better chance of winning the lottery than getting Annabelle in his bed. At least for now. “Listen, it’s getting late, and you’ve had a hell of a night. Whoever you want to call will be there tomorrow after you’ve gotten some rest. You can take the bedroom and I’ll crash out here tonight.”
“No.” She shook her head and waved him off. “I couldn’t. Really, I should go.”
“Where are you gonna go?” Zach rested his hands on his hips and gave her a doubtful look. He closed the distance between them, stopping just a few inches from her. He lowered his voice and met her challenging stare. “You have no money, no credit cards, no ID, and a lump on your head. You really don’t have a lot of options right now, and I’d like to think that crashing here with me is more appealing than sleeping on the street in Loreto, Mexico.”
“Why would you help me?” Annabelle asked in a quiet, almost reverent tone. She was shorter than he had first thought, probably not more than five-foot-three. The top of her head barely came up to his chin. Looking up at him with wary curiosity, she fiddled with the bracelet again, as though she was trying to detect if he had any ulterior motives. At least she wasn’t looking at him with fear. That was a step in the right direction, and with any luck, he would eventually get her to tell him who or what she was running from. “You don’t even know me, Zachary. I—I could be anybody.”
“I know you’re hurt and you’re alone.” Zach’s lips tilted at the corners. “And that you need help.”
Without thinking, he reached out and brushed away the long strand of hair that drifted across her forehead. The pad of his finger grazed over her impossibly soft, smooth skin, reminding him of spun silk, and that ball of need in his gut tightened ferociously. Her eyes widened, and she sucked in a slow breath while he trailed one finger along the perfectly sculpted edge of her jaw.
Dropping his hand to his side, he murmured, “That’s all I really need to know.”
Silence hung between them, and desire that was almost palpable crackled in the air. Dominic’s words from yesterday drifted through Zach’s mind as he stared into the seemingly limitless depths of those gorgeous green eyes. You can’t run from it.
Zachary was in so much trouble, because he knew what Dom said was true. For the rest of his life, no matter where he went or what he did, this woman’s face, scent, and energy would be forever imprinted on his psyche. And that scared the ever-living shit out of him.
“Thank you.” She stepped back and gestured to the couch before hugging her arms around herself. She felt the connection too. She must have, and he didn’t know if that was good or bad. “Zachary, you’re kind enough to let me stay here, so the couch will be just fine.”
“You’re sure?” He gestured to the bedroom. “I don’t mind. Really.”
“I’m sure.” Annabelle flashed him a shy smile that just about did him in and left him speechless. “Thank you for showing me such kindness. I wouldn’t expect it from an—from a stranger.”
After settling Annabelle in with a blanket and some Tylenol, he locked up the house and bid her good night. Lying in his bed, he couldn’t get those gorgeous green eyes out of his mind, and a million thoughts raced through his head. With the soothing sounds of the ocean surrounding him, Zachary drifted to sleep with one name on his lips. Annabelle.
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