Bonded by Blood
Author:Laurie London

chapter TEN

A FEW EARLY students filed up the stairs into one of the classrooms, some carrying fresh, unopened art supplies and crisp pads of oversized drawing paper, while others brought dog-eared sketch pads and nubs of well-used charcoals and pencils.

Mackenzie loved the beginning of a new session, the eager anticipation in their faces, the promise hidden on a blank sheet of paper. She finished setting up the last easel and was about to review the class list when Martin walked in.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” she asked. With Martin’s busy schedule, he rarely popped in unannounced.

“I’m meeting Paul here and we’re going out to dinner. Here. I brought you this.” He handed her a Starbucks cup.

She glanced at the clock and guessed she had enough time. She followed him to the hallway and sank into one of the upholstered chairs.

“How’s the new session shaping up so far?” Martin asked. “Classes full?”

“Yes, most of them are and we’ve got wait lists on a couple of them. I think we’ll need to add another session of beginning drawing next term. Although with the school year wrapping up after this session, I’m not sure if kids are going to want to continue through the summer. But let’s remember that when we start planning the fall schedule.”

“That’s fantastic. Have I told you how much I appreciate all you do around here? This place wouldn’t be half as successful without you.” When she said nothing, he kicked the toe of her boot and she looked up. “I’m serious, Kenz.”

“Thanks, I love it. Especially the beginning classes. It’s exciting to see their progress from beginning to end. The kids are especially fun because they tend not to hide their enthusiasm like adults do.”

“I think it’s your passion and enthusiasm that gets people excited.” He took a sip from his cup and leaned back in his chair. “Forgive me for sending you to Dominic’s home?”

“I still can’t believe you didn’t give me a heads-up.” She flicked him playfully with her pencil. “I thought you were my friend.”

“I am, darling. Your BFF.”

“Friends don’t let friends show up at devastatingly gorgeous men’s homes without a warning. What if I had gone to the gym first and was all sweaty and stinky? Did you ever think about that?”

“You don’t work out.”

“But it’s the principle.”

“Sorry, Kenz, but there was something about the two of you and I wanted to help ignite that spark.”

“You’re quite the fairy godmother.”

“Don’t roll your eyes at me, missy. I’m serious. I can’t put my finger on it. There’s like an undercurrent churning between you, just below the surface, and if you don’t dive in, you’ll never get swept away. I just wanted to do my part by pushing you into the water. I’m only sorry nothing came of it.”

“Very poetic. Do you make that stuff up in your sleep and try to find a way to use it?” Mackenzie took off the plastic lid of her cup and dipped a finger into the whipped cream.

“No. I’m naturally gifted that way.”

“I figured Mrs. Thorn-Steuben told him I had posed for the painting. Wasn’t she sitting next to him originally?”

“I rescued him before she sat down. Besides, would it be so bad if he bought it because he did know it was you?”

“In a word—yeah. It’s a nude, Martin. I’m naked in that painting. It makes me feel awkward, that’s all. And to show up clueless on his doorstep—I wanted to throttle you.” Yet although she could barely admit it to herself, Dom’s passion for the piece did excite her on some level.

“I worry about you, Mackenzie, that’s all. Working two jobs, looking out for everyone but yourself. Have you had any man-fun since you gave Kyle the boot?”

“Martin, please.” She glanced around but knew they were not within earshot of the classroom. She hadn’t thought about her ex-fiancй in ages and preferred to keep it that way.

“Or are you still worried about what happened with your cousin last year?”

Setting her empty cup down at her feet, she folded her arms across her knees and stared at the floor before answering.

“Constantly. If you truly understood what my family has been through, you’d understand. Stacy is the third cousin of mine to disappear. Of course I worry I’m next. Wouldn’t you be?”

She tugged at the hem of her skirt, thinking he couldn’t fully appreciate the cloud of dread she lived under each and every day.

“It’s not like I have a family history of heart disease,” she continued, “where healthy living can reduce my chances of getting it. This is a very real possibility and if it’s going to happen to me, it’ll probably happen soon.”

“You’re so fatalistic. I say you live your life and if you fall in love, well, so much the better.”

“Do you think it’s fair to jeopardize the future happiness of a husband and children in the event something does happen to me? It’s hard to imagine the overwhelming devastation you feel when you lose a parent. It’s a living nightmare that you never wake from. I know what that feels like, Martin, and I just can’t do that to a child. It’s a choice I’ve made. You mentioned Kyle—I have to admit, it was the knowledge that I could never have children that ruined things between the two of us, and it made me realize what a fool I had been.”

“He knew you didn’t ever want kids, didn’t he?”

Noticing a scuff on the top of her black boot, she licked her finger and rubbed it off. A few more students filed into the classroom and she glanced at her watch. She’d have to get going soon.

“Yeah, but I think he was hoping I’d change my mind after we were married. When I got the news from my doctor, although it was a relief to me, it was the reason he needed to call things off.”

“God, that guy was an ass. I never did like him, Kenz. I’m sorry, darling, but I just didn’t.”

“I’m fine with it all, I really am. I don’t know what I was thinking when we got engaged in the first place. Long-term just isn’t something I can have. Strictly short-term only, if anything. I was fooling myself into thinking I could have a normal life, I guess. It’s actually much easier living only for yourself and not worrying about what loved ones will do when you’re gone. Mom hardly remembers me any longer and Corey… Well, he’s Corey.”

“Isn’t he worried like you are?”

“No, not really. He’s in denial, whereas I…I’m a realist.” She sat up and tucked a leg under herself, the leather from her tall boot sliding easily against the fabric of the chair. “What am I doing discussing all this heavy stuff with you? You’re my boss.”

Of course he was her boss, but he was also one of her best friends. One of the few people she could really talk to. Although she knew he didn’t really understand—could anyone?—he always listened, validating her feelings whether he agreed with them or not.

“Friend first, boss last. I’d be lost without you, darling. I hate hearing you talk like this.”

“Oh, Martin. Don’t say that. You’d be fine without me. That’s why I’m extremely organized in case something happens. You’ve seen the detailed notebooks and materials I have on each class. Someone could pick up right where I’ve left off without skipping a beat. You’d be fine.”

“I’m not talking about the stupid classes, silly. I’m talking about you.”

“Don’t go there. Please. That’s the one thing I can’t control.”

He reached over and patted the back of her hand. They sat there in silence as another student entered the classroom across the hall. Glancing at her watch, she made a move to stand up, but Martin held her back.

“Kenz, since you’re so worried about the future, why not focus on the present? Dom Serrano is such a hottie. If he went the other way, I swear, I’d be all over him.”

She stood up, grabbed her cup, and blew Martin an air-kiss over her shoulder. “I promise not to tell Paul. Thanks for the mocha.”

Mackenzie had just enough time to gather a few things for the still life they’d be working on. Most of the students had arrived and the low hum of conversation filled the room. She cleared her throat and moved to a spot where everyone could see her.

“Hello and welcome to City Art School. I’m Mackenzie Foster-Shaw and I see a few familiar faces.” She waggled her fingers at them as she looked around the circle of easels.

She opened her mouth to continue her standard introduction, but when she looked toward the doorway, she forgot how to speak. She had to grab the edge of the table behind her to steady herself.

With a black leather coat draped over his arm, Dom sauntered in like he owned the place.

“Dom.” She managed to choke out his name after her mouth hung open for a moment. Everyone turned to the door.

She glanced around the room but wasn’t sure what she was looking for. What in the hell was he doing here? All moisture inside her mouth evaporated as the temperature in the room skyrocketed. With one eyebrow raised, he looked as if he were waiting for an answer. Had he just asked her something? If so, she hadn’t heard anything but the ringing in her ears.

“Can I help you?”

“I’ll wait till you’re free. Mind if I watch?”

Not trusting her voice, she nodded. Was this beginning drawing or watercolor? Everyone’s eyes were on her, including Dom’s, as they waited for her to continue.

She looked at the class list, unable to keep the paper from rattling. Beginning drawing. How did she normally start? Discuss composition? Art supplies? Her expectations?

Somehow she figured out what to say and limped through a few demonstrations. Soon everyone was focused on their drawing exercises. She walked over to where he sat near the door. His cologne had a rugged smell, like leather and sandalwood, reminding her of his condo when he’d just climbed out of the shower.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, keeping her voice low. The room was as quiet as a library.

“You left this.” He tossed her tape measure onto the table. “Figured you’d be missing it. Can’t find a Hello Kitty tape measure just anywhere. Mind if I stay and observe?”

She snatched it up. “Suit yourself.”

Now that the initial shock of seeing him had worn off, she was just plain irritated. What did he think he was doing coming in like this? Her hands shook as she assembled the still life in the center of the room. She fiddled with a piece of white silk until she was satisfied with how it draped over a box, then, after arranging a few pieces of fruit, a blue glass and a book, she stepped back to see how it all looked.

Did he want to tease her again since he’d obviously gotten so much enjoyment out of it the last time?

With her hands on her hips, she appraised the still life. Way too ordered, too predictable. The elements were situated with too much purpose. She shifted the book, moved the fruit and messed up the fabric. Much better.

She walked around the room, answering questions and making suggestions. When she got to Dom, she expected to meander casually past him, but she found herself stopping. He’d been doodling on a spare drawing pad she kept near the door in case someone forgot their art supplies. She was stunned to find his approach to the assignment energetic and almost whimsical.

His apple didn’t quite look like an apple with its irregular shape, and yet it was. The shading was dark and unabashedly bold. His book wasn’t a realistic interpretation of the still life book as it looked more like a trapezoid, but the shape was exuberant and she liked how he positioned it haphazardly on the paper. The style and composition were fabulous and she had to keep herself from putting an encouraging hand on his shoulder the way she did with her other students.

“How am I doing, teacher?”

His words yanked her back to reality. Impudent bastard.

With his back to her, his thick dark hair moved almost of its own volition as he blended a charcoal mark with his finger.

That hair. That thick, wavy hair. It wasn’t pulled back in the leather thong this time. Instead, it grazed the top of his collar, the ends tousled and curled, almost wind-blown. Would her fingers glide through easily or get caught in the thickness?

She stopped herself just in time. She had almost leaned in to discover whether it had a concentrated sandalwood scent to it. Tugging at the hem of her T-shirt, she smoothed it over the top of her hips as she attempted to collect her wits.

“I…I love it actually.” She wanted to lie. To tell him it was terrible, but she couldn’t. “It’s bold. A little reckless perhaps, even defiant. Skirting the rules somewhat, but not quite without abandon.” She took a step forward, resting her hand on the back of his chair and leaned close. She couldn’t help herself. “It’s got a certain je ne sais quoi about it, Mr. Serrano, if you want to know what I really feel.”

Slowly, and with the self-assurance of a man who knows what he wants and probably often gets it, he swiveled to face her.

She forgot about the rest of her students for a moment as her arm slipped from his chair back and glanced off his shoulder. With a warm hand, he clasped hers before it could fall to her side.

Looking down at his face, she saw the soft sparkle of his eyes and wanted to run her fingers along the square of his jaw. His mouth twisted into that playful smile she’d seen several times before and had dreamed about at night, and she suddenly realized she was positioned in the juncture of his legs. She couldn’t remember how to breathe.

“What a detailed assessment of my little sketch. You do have a beautiful way with words. I’m truly flattered. Thank you.” He raised an eyebrow. “Mister?”

Clearing her throat to buy herself an extra speck of time, she tried pulling away but he wouldn’t release her. She searched her brain for a clever comeback, a fitting reply. Nothing. She felt jumbled inside. “You’re welcome. Dom. It really is quite good. It…it makes me smile.” He softened his grip, but she wasn’t really relieved when she was able to pull away.

“Teacher?” She tried her best to copy his flippant tone.

After class, everyone helped stack the easels against the wall, but one student struggled to get his folded up. Before she could move to help him, Dom was at his side.

“These are rather sticky. Can I have a try at it?” With a twist, he loosened the thumb screws, collapsed the legs and handed the folded easel back. Dom rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder, the gesture almost fatherly, and the two spoke quietly for a moment. Then they both laughed. “Me, too,” she heard Dom say.

She was surprised. In previous terms the boy had been uncommunicative and rarely asked for or accepted help. As she shuffled through her papers and drawing samples, she wondered what Dom had said to make him feel so comfortable. She finished putting away all the supplies and turned to go.

“Good class.” Dom was close behind her as they walked out the door, and the thrill of his nearness raised goose bumps on her arms.

“Thanks. I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, though.”

“What are you talking about?”

“First of all, you can’t just waltz in anywhere you want to. I was teaching a class. These people paid good money to take it. They don’t need their teacher distracted by…by an unexpected visitor.”

“I distract you?”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

“Actually, I am a student. At the silent auction, I was the highest bidder on this.” He waved a piece of paper with the City Art School logo. “Lucky me. Again.” Despite herself, she felt her face heat. “You donated a six-week session of art classes, remember?”

“Of course I remember,” she snapped. Okay, now it made sense. When she’d checked to see how much money her donations had raised, she’d noticed someone had filled out the buy-now price on this item. It was him. She wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or pissed off.

“I didn’t plan on taking the classes, but—”

“Then why did you buy it if you didn’t intend to use it?”

He shrugged. “It was an impulse purchase. Besides, many people buy certificates at auctions with no intention of ever using them. They simply consider it a donation.”

The temperature of her blood shot up. She didn’t care that he’d paid much more for the classes than what they were worth. Damn the Alzheimer’s Foundation.

“So when you left the tape measure, I thought I’d drop it off. Besides, I enjoyed our conversation. The way you describe things is…intriguing.”

“Intriguing?” Her anger began to fizzle. She didn’t remember exactly what she’d said last week at the loft. What she did remember were his thinly veiled taunts and innuendos.

He leaned against the door frame and she almost grazed his hip when she reached for the handle.

“Thank you, I guess.” Shutting the classroom door with a bang, she locked it and turned on her heel.

“HAVE DINNER WITH me,” Dom called, before she got to the top of the stairs. “Tomorrow night at the loft. I want to cook for you.”

Mackenzie stopped then spun around to face him. Her eyes danced in obvious anticipation of what she was about to say. He tuned in to the beat of her heart as it pounded in his ears.

“What, so you can christen the arrival of your new bedroom painting with the actual subject matter?” The words spat through her teeth, twisting his gut in a delicious fashion. She was clearly on edge. He should stop and try to calm her down, but her feistiness lit a fire inside him that he wanted to keep smoldering.

“How interesting. I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Oh.” She scowled. “Well, I’ve got news for you. What happened at the auction was an anomaly. An accident. A horrible mistake.”

He closed the distance between them and her eyes flashed. Toe to heel, she backed away from his advance but he continued until she could go no further. With both hands on the wall, he caged her between his arms and leaned in, stopping just before their bodies met. His eyes were drawn to the pulse fluttering below her ear and he licked his lips.

“An anomaly, yes. A horrible mistake, no.”

He heard the breath catch in her throat as he dipped his head to hers. He knew she expected him to kiss her, and that’s why he didn’t. A brown curl tickled his cheek as he inhaled and pulled her scent into his lungs, his erection throbbing between his legs. He repositioned himself, wanted to press his length hard against her hip—God, she would feel good—but he didn’t. She arched closer as if she sensed his desire, her body contradicting her words.

“What are— Who do you think— Just so you know, I don’t do these sorts of things with strange men. Ever. I’m sorry I gave you that impression.” Her halting voice betrayed the effect he was having on her and he grinned. Although she was a head shorter than him, with a defiant lift of her chin, she managed to look down her nose at him through her lashes.

His gums throbbed as his fangs threatened to break through, but he willed them to stay put. “I’m not really a stranger, though, am I?”

Her green eyes were glued to his lips. Was she hoping he’d kiss her? Even the tip of her tongue darted out for a moment, but still he didn’t make contact. He wanted her to touch him first and he wasn’t disappointed.

Her palms were cool against the heat of his chest as she tried to push him away with an oomph. It was half-hearted at best. He moved away from her slightly, although he could tell she was caving and desire simmered behind her eyes.

“What do you think you’re doing? I have no idea what came over me that night or what kind of a person you think I am, but it ain’t happening again.” She thrust her finger at his chest and he jumped back playfully. Oh, he was so loving this.

“So if you think—” She took a step forward, poking him in the chest with a short pink nail and he took a step back. “You can ask me to dinner—” Another step, another poke. “Just to get me into bed, you can forget it.”

His back was now against the opposite wall and he put his hands up in a mock show of self-defense.

“I would never, not in a million years, have gone to your place last week if I had known it was you who bought that painting. Got it? And I would’ve figured out a way for you to take an art class from someone else had I known you were coming. And that Hello Kitty tape measure? You can buy them at practically every drugstore. What are you laughing at?”

The corners of her mouth strained, betraying her efforts not to smile. She was upset, yes, but not angry. Just because he’d surprised her? He sensed there was something more. Did he dare dip into her thoughts again while they were this close? The bond was strong for him.

Not a moment had gone by since he’d taken her blood that he hadn’t thought of her. Wondered what she was doing. Where she was. What she was thinking, feeling. It was no use. He was achingly attracted to her and knew she wanted him.

He reached out with his mind, stroking hers ever so gently, then released her. She scowled and rubbed her neck. He had to be careful, he couldn’t bear to wipe her memory again. He didn’t want to remove himself from her even if he was leaving soon.

What he learned surprised him. She wasn’t upset about what happened at the auction or that she couldn’t get him off her mind. She was upset by how he regarded her as a result, that he may have a low opinion of her.

Oh God, if she only knew.

She didn’t want him to think her behavior that night was indicative of her as a person even though all she was looking for was a short-term relationship.

He wanted to drag her into his arms, cover her with kisses, and convince her otherwise. That he didn’t think any less of her. Quite the opposite. Their attraction for each other was powerful, almost palpable. Being aware of the blood bond had helped him to control it, but she had no idea. She really couldn’t help herself that night.

One thing was clear. She wanted him now. He didn’t have to probe her mind to know that. He could taste it in the air between them, smell it on her breath. Whether or not she’d admit it just depended on how hard he tried.

Everything about her compelled him and he physically ached to know her better. Short-term? Yes, he was fine with that. Wouldn’t want anything more. Of course not.

“What if I told you that I find you attractive on every level? That I want to know what makes you you?” Her face softened somewhat. She was listening. “What kind of music you like. Your favorite artist. The last book you read. Your favorite dessert. I know you’re much more than those fifteen minutes on the terrace. You fascinate me on every level, Mackenzie Foster-Shaw, and I simply want to know you better. That’s all.”

She said nothing, but the color of her eyes deepened, saying what words could not.

He ran the tip of his nose along the smooth column of her throat and felt her shiver. Instead of backing away, she tilted her chin up to give him more access, and he knew he had her. He pushed her hair aside, still careful not to touch her skin with his fingers. She moaned softly and the musky scent of her arousal filled his nostrils. He knew she wanted to feel his hands on her, but he was going to make her wait.

“Of course, I’d be lying if I said I was upset it happened. I’m not. Ever since that night on the terrace, I’ve dreamed what it would be like to have you in my bed.” He felt heat radiate from her cheeks and she exhaled slowly. “But I also respect your feelings and simply want to cook for you. That’s it. There will be no christening.” The tip of her tongue darted out for a moment. Not unless you want it, he wanted to say, but he stopped himself.

God, he was mesmerized by her. Her large hoop earring had captured a strand of her hair. Reaching up a finger, taking care not to touch the silver, he ran it down the side of her face, releasing the curl. Her body trembled and he had to suppress a growl. His gums ached, but his fangs stayed hidden.

He wanted this woman as he had never wanted anyone before. It took every ounce of willpower he possessed not to lift up her flirty skirt, slip her tights off her hips, and push himself inside her softness here in the art school hallway. He was going to get her to make the first move and it would be so much sweeter that way.

“I’ll be the perfect gentleman.” He put his palms up. “Promise.”

Her lips curved into a smile as she backed away and sauntered to the stairs again, her skirt swinging against her thighs in a sweet goodbye. Long, loose curls bounced on her back as she trotted down the steps.

“Tomorrow night? What time?” she called from the landing.

“How about seven?”

“I’ll be there.” As she got to the bottom, he heard her voice again, but it was so low he wasn’t sure whether she spoke it aloud or it came from her thoughts. “Coconut cream pie.”

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