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“Are you hurt?” the stranger demanded. Despite the low note in his voice, he didn’t appear to be much older than me, his accent an odd mixture I couldn’t quite place. He almost sounded like a German from Scandinavia speaking with a British accent.
His hands slid down the sides of my arms as if he was checking for broken bones. Hooligan stood at his side watching him, his tail wagging in silent approval, his canine expression almost adoring. Which was bizarre, because Hooligan didn’t normally take to guys right away.
A bright, electric blue tattoo stretched up the side of his neck, the design a combination of curved and straight lines—a symbol of some sort, almost like a letter from some ancient alphabet. His wide jaw tapered down to my favorite kind of square chin, his flawless mouth set in a serious expression, his nose a perfect straight line. His thick black hair fell almost to his shoulders and his eyes were intensely blue in his darkly tanned face. They seemed to smolder with emotion as his gaze burned down at me.
My head hurt. My ribs ached. My arms and legs were bruised and sore and my ankle could barely take my weight. But more significantly, the best looking guy in the entire rocky mountain region had miraculously turned up to answer my prayers. “Who are you?” I breathed. “And where did you come from?”
My rescuer took a step backward and I got a better look at him.
A black leather vest wrapped his upper body, ending at his waist in front and dipping a little lower in the back. Ridged spines crossed the front of his vest while, on the back, the ridges formed a pattern that swirled from between his shoulder blades and flared downward.
On his legs he wore a pair of long, loose shorts made of what looked like heavy wool. Yes, wool. Some of the guys at school still wore long shorts but I’d never seen a pair made of wool. A broad strap of leather held his shorts around his hips and from this rough belt hung two cords. A small pouch dangled from one cord while a sheathed knife hung from the other. But this costume wasn’t the most unusual thing about his appearance. What was really bizarre were his bare feet. We were having a mild October but it wasn’t that warm!
“My name’s Valor,” he answered. His hair fell over his face as he cut a glance toward the open garage doors. When he lifted a hand to move the dark strands away from his eyes, I noticed that the four knuckles on the back of his hand were exceptionally thick and square. “I’m…from England.”
My gaze fixed first on his feet then on his unusual shorts. “Are you staying with someone around here?”
“Yes,” he answered tentatively. His eyes followed my gaze to his legs and feet. “And they’re having a costume party to celebrate…”
“Halloween?” I suggested. It was the Friday before Halloween so there were sure to be some weekend parties, though I hadn’t heard of any. But I was only a sophomore so it’s not like I’d have been invited to any of the junior or senior parties.
“That’s right,” he confirmed, watching me closely. He was probably afraid I’d think he’d escaped from an insane asylum in that getup.
“And…what are you supposed to be, exactly?”
“A Celtic warrior?” he suggested as he lifted his hands away from his sides.
I tilted my head and gave him an appraising once over. “Don’t you need a sword to be a warrior?”
“A sword would be nice,” he agreed. A slight smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “Unfortunately, steel is expensive and I had to settle for a knife. But I do have a fine yew bow to complete my…ensemble.”
I started to laugh. It just bubbled out. It wasn’t anything he’d said. I was just so relieved that I’d been rescued without involving the local emergency services…or the next-door neighbor.
“But you’re hurt,” he insisted, a troubled frown marring his perfect features as he looked around the garage. “May I take you somewhere to sit down?”
I stared at him, amazed by his perfect manners, not to mention his perfect grammar. I was gobsmacked, as my British cousins would say. With my free hand, I tugged at my knitted hat and made sure my hair was covered. At that point, I was wishing I’d worn my new chinos and my favorite blue top instead of the baggy jeans and loose brown turtleneck I’d pulled on that morning. But how was I to know I’d run into a hot guy in my garage when I’d dressed?
“Just let me get my cell phone,” I told him and turned toward the front of the garage. But before I could take a wobbly step toward the Jeep, Hooligan cantered off, retrieved my phone and delivered it—covered in a thin coat of wolfhound slobber.
“Oh, Hooli,” I muttered. I breathed a sigh of annoyance as I wiped the flat glass surface on my jeans. “You need to work on your timing, boy.”
With a low laugh, Valor reached out to ruffle the fur on Hooligan’s head. As he grinned, I couldn’t help notice that there was something about his mouth that was…different. Something slightly savage. It almost looked as if he had more than his fair share of teeth. It wasn’t unattractive. In fact, it was quite stunning in a wild and untamed sort of way, like something out of a graphic novel with a good looking mutant hero.
With my phone back in the pocket of my hoodie, I smiled at Valor and nodded toward the doorway at the far end of the garage. He took my elbow and steered me into the house, which was just as well since my ankle wasn’t exactly one hundred percent. I have to admit I was pretty charmed by the caring gesture. I took my time limping to the house, enjoying the warmth of his touch, which seemed to spread from my elbow throughout my entire body.
The landline was ringing as we stepped into the mudroom and I hobbled into the kitchen to answer it. It was Greg, calling from England and asking about his shipment. When I told him only one crate had arrived, he seemed anxious about the other two until he tracked the packages online and assured himself they would arrive tomorrow.
Without incriminating myself, I mentioned that the wooden crate was a little dinged up. Actually, that was a bit of an understatement. It was obvious the box had been opened and Greg would know it whenever he came back home to claim his stolen goods. Keeping that in mind, I asked, “Should I open the crate and check inside?”
“No,” he barked. Then, as if realizing how abrupt he sounded, he said more calmly, “I’ll have your mother check the crates when she gets home.”
“Okay,” I answered. I figured I could make that work—as long as there was an explanation for why the box had been opened by the time Greg returned to Colorado.
“In the meantime, don’t mention any of this to anyone.”
“Any of what?” I asked just to rile him. As far as Greg knew, I had no idea what was inside the crate.
“Just…don’t talk to anyone,” he insisted.
“Okay,” I repeated. I glanced around the kitchen and into the dining room, assuring myself that the place was reasonably neat and wishing we had nicer furniture. We don’t have anything fancy. My mother isn’t much of a decorator. Her job is relatively demanding and she doesn’t have much time for that sort of thing. But she likes tapestry, green upholstery, dark brown leather and pine so it all kinda works in a woodsy sort of way that suits a home in the mountains.
I shifted my gaze to Valor who had settled on a barstool on the other side of the kitchen counter. He was watching me intently, as if he was trying to memorize my every move. I tugged at my hat self-consciously, and tried to smile again. I couldn’t help but feel flustered by the way his gaze followed me. It was strange for someone that attractive to pay any attention to me at all. Not that I’m bad looking. I’m perfectly presentable, really. But I think my hair puts a lot of guys off.
“That was my stepfather,” I told him after I hung up the phone.
“You don’t like him very much,” he stated in a quiet voice.
“Um,” I hedged brilliantly. Valor was pretty perceptive and I wasn’t expecting that from a guy. I didn’t know what to say. I hate to lie. On the other hand, I don’t like to say mean things about people. I’ve been on the other end of that stick often enough so I try not to go there. I rubbed my bruised elbow and made a face, wondering how to explain my lack of enthusiasm for my stepfather.
“Are you hurt?” he asked. His gaze followed my hand on my elbow. “That…box was heavy.”
That box was heavy, yet he’d lifted it with one hand and thrown it half way across the garage to rescue me. I winced at the memory, thinking I must have looked like an idiot, crushed like a bug beneath the tool chest. Valor must have realized that pulling out all the drawers was not a smart move on my part.
“I was looking for a tool when the chest fell on me,” I explained haltingly. “I needed the crowbar to open the crate in the garage.”
He hesitated before commenting. When he finally spoke, he seemed to choose his words carefully. He didn’t mention the tool chest; instead he asked about the crate. “The crate that your stepfather asked about?”
“That’s right,” I answered, more than happy to change the subject and not too worried about the promise I’d made to Greg. After all, Valor had overheard my conversation with the step-person. So, technically it was too late to include him in my vow of silence.
“And he’s the one who shipped the crates here, to…America?”
“And there are…more crates on the way, then?” he asked. His tone seemed deliberately casual.
I stopped rubbing my elbow and frowned. It seemed like a strange question. But not as strange as the next one.
“Are you…married?” he asked. He tilted his head and locked his steady gaze on mine in a way that made my pulse skitter like spilled M&M’s.
“No!” I insisted on a soft burst of laughter. “Exactly how old do you think I am?”
“Any boyfriends?” he continued without answering my question. One of his dark eyebrows teased upward.
“Not recently,” I muttered evasively. My last boyfriend had been Kyle Bailey in the sixth grade. But Valor didn’t need to know that.
A satisfied smile crept into his mouth and glinted in his eyes.
“Whereabouts in England are you from?” I asked, flustered by his questions about my love life. “My mother’s entire family is from the UK and I’ve been there several times.”
“York,” he replied. He scratched Hooli’s head after he padded into the room and thrust his huge skull beneath Valor’s hand.
“Really? That’s where the step-person is right now. It’s a beautiful city.”
“It’s nice here too,” he said without removing his gaze from my face.
Under the intensity of his look, I felt my cheeks flush with color. I figured he was just flirting—outrageously—but still…
I cleared my throat self-consciously and said, “Hooligan doesn’t usually take to strangers right away. I’m surprised he’s made friends with you so quickly.”
“He’s just a good judge of character,” Valor murmured, rubbing Hooligan’s ears through his fingers. “Aren’t you, old boy?”
“Thanks for rescuing me,” I continued. I took a deep breath in an attempt to calm myself. “My mother’s out of town and I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t…”
“You’re welcome,” he said, like it was no big deal.
“How long are you here for?”
“I’m not sure,” he answered. I probably looked disappointed with his answer because he added, “Quite a while, most like.”
I offered him lunch and he insisted on helping though you’d have thought he’d never seen the inside of a fridge before. He couldn’t find the mayonnaise or the lettuce or even the cheese, but I wasn’t about to complain when I had a majorly hot guy in my kitchen who was obviously trying to make sure I didn’t use my ankle any more than I had to.
We carried our sandwiches into the living room and watched some BBC America while we ate. He seemed both familiar with the programming and absolutely captivated by it. I offered to loan him my phone if he needed to call his friends and tell them where he was but he said nobody would miss him before nightfall.
I could have listened to his rough, lilting voice all day. His accent was way cool, although he didn’t sound like any of my cousins in England. Unfortunately, he didn’t talk much. It almost seemed like he was afraid of saying the wrong thing. And when he did talk, the words he used were an odd combination of modern terms mixed with old words that I’d only ever seen printed in books.
Valor finished his ham and cheese sandwich and acted as if he’d never had a better meal in his lifetime, which I found very gratifying though I suspected he was exaggerating just to be nice.
“You’re welcome,” I told him as I collected our plates and headed toward the kitchen. Half way across the living room, a sharp pain shot up my leg and a soft cry escaped my lips. I stumbled as my ankle gave out.
“You’re hurt,” Valor immediately insisted, his voice tight with concern. He vaulted over the back of the couch and strode toward me, catching up to me as I limped into the kitchen and lowered the dishes into the sink.
Before I could tell him I was okay, he picked me up and carried me back to the living room. It was a short trip but it took me by surprise. If I had twisted my ankle at school, one of the guys might have gotten out his phone and called for help. If the situation was dire, he might have even let me lean on his arm on the way to the nurse’s office. But nobody would have picked me up—into his arms. I couldn’t believe how strong he was. Not that I’m heavy or anything but he carried me as if I was a sack of feathers. And I am not a sack of feathers.
In the living room, he carefully lowered me back down onto the couch then knelt in front of me and checked my ankle, his fingers gently exploring the joint. “It’s swollen,” he murmured. “You mustn’t walk on it any more today.”
“But I need to clean up the mess I made in the garage,” I protested. “The tools are all over the floor and I left that crate open. I should close it up.”
“You’re not moving,” he informed me in a firm tone. His commanding blue gaze searched my face. “After I get you settled, I’ll clean up the…garage and take care of the crate before I leave.”
I gave him directions to my bedroom upstairs and he brought me a pillow as well as the tartan quilt from my bed. I had to promise not to move before he would go outside to take care of the mess in the garage. He was gone longer than I expected but checked back with me before he left for the afternoon.
I moved my legs toward the back of the couch so he could sit with me.
“How’s your ankle?” he asked. His expression was serious as he looked down at my face.
“It was a close thing. But I think we can rule out amputation for now.”
“That’s good,” he said with a soft, low chuckle. “You don’t think you need to see a…healer?”
“You mean a doctor?” I asked, surprised by his choice of words.
“Yes, a doctor,” he confirmed quickly. “That’s what I meant.”
“No,” I assured him. “I’m good. I don’t think my foot’s gonna fall off or anything drastic like that.”
He dragged his hand back through his hair, the black locks snagging on his thick fingers. “Would it be all right if I came by tomorrow?”
I tried to act casual though I was smiling all over inside. “What time?”
“I’m not doing much tomorrow morning, if you want to stop by.”
“Right, then.” He got to his feet and stood beside the couch for a while like he didn’t really want to leave. But maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. “Promise me you’ll stay off your feet,” he insisted sternly.
“I promise,” I answered solemnly. “Cross my heart.”
His lips parted in a slight grin and his teeth flashed white against his tanned skin. “Good bye, MacKenzie.”
I liked the sound of my name on his lips. “Good bye, Valor.”
I waited until I heard the front door close then limped over to bolt the lock. Wrapped in a warm glow, I returned to the couch. After checking my phone, I answered some text messages then called my mother in California to check in for the evening. It wasn’t until I was in my pajamas and brushing my teeth later that night that I realized I hadn’t introduced myself to Valor.
So how did he know my name was MacKenzie?
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