Christmas Candi
a free online read by L.L. Foster

Amos Jardine first showed up as the hero's uncle in the L. L. Foster novella Total Control. If you like his story, you can read about his nephew, Brax Jardine, in that novella. His niece, Mercedes Jardine, was in Have Mercy. Both novellas are in the anthology, Out of the Light, Into the Shadow.

 

 

Christmas CandiInside the smoky, small-town bar, he watched for her in twitchy anticipation. She should have been in already, but midnight had come and gone with no sign of her.

His blood burned and his guts agonized.

He needed her. Tonight. Completely. He'd made up his mind, so where the hell was she? She only lived a block away and for as long as he'd known her, she'd never been late.

For months he'd waited, biding his time, giving her an opportunity to grow used to him. Despite their age difference and outlook on life, the sexual chemistry smoldered between them. So many times he'd been aware of her raping him with her eyes. Around him, she showed no hesitation or uncertainty, and that was a first.

But she didn't come on to him. She didn't make her attraction obvious.

Candi Pearson was a young, fresh, very sexy enigma. Soon she'd be his. And then he'd never let her go.

Outside, a wintry mix of snow and sleet added to the blackened piles on the side of the road. Cold wind whistled and bare tree limbs bent beneath the force of the winter storm. On the big front window, a half-lighted, plastic santa head bounced against the glass.

Inside the bar, sweaty bodies churned on the crowded dance floor to a holiday tune from the jukebox. Desperate women and out-of-luck men wove in and out of the smoky haze beneath a smattering of multi-colored Christmas lights wrapped around the beer signs and the mirror behind the bar. The occasional blustering voice rose in anger, drowning out the howling wind. Pool balls clattered together, a din of whisky demands sounded near the bar, and finally, just as Amos Jardine's impatience frayed, the front doors opened.

Snowflakes and cold wind blew in ahead of her, but he knew Candi had arrived. He always knew when she was near; her proximity kicked his awareness into overdrive.

She'd lost her hat. A ragged tear showed in the sleeve of her puffy coat. Sleet dampened her jeans all the way to her knees.

Every nerve ending went on alert, especially when Amos caught the waves of her panic.

Two days before Christmas, something had happened to her. Something bad.

Heart thundering with protective instincts, Amos forced himself to stay seated at the very back of the room. It was important that she come to him – and when her gaze found his from across the room, her need nearly took his breath away.

Shoving her way through the crowd, she charged to him. Her long, corkscrew blonde hair bounced around her sweet face. Ruined make up smudged her big blue eyes, and fear bored holes in her usual bubbly persona.

Yesterday she'd been singing Jingle Bells under her breath; today she looked in fear for her life.

Locking his jaw, Amos held himself steady until she'd reached him.

"Amos," she said fast, breathing in a rush while glancing behind her as if hellhounds nipped at her heels. She dropped into the chair across from him and reached for his hands. Gasping for air, her chest laboring as if she'd run a marathon, she rasped, "I need you."

Finally.

At the first touch, his body tightened. With his gaze locked on hers, Amos closed his larger, rougher hands around her chilled, slender fingers.

After years of destruction and a talent that drained him of humanity, God knew he didn't believe in much. But he believed in Christmas. Always had, always would.

And this year he wanted Candi Pearson, all wrapped up with a pretty satin bow, waiting beneath his tree.

Or in his bed. Or on the kitchen table.

Hell, right here, right now would do.

Desperation robbed a man of prudence; he'd take his saving grace where he could get it. He'd already made up his mind that this year, he wanted Candi for Christmas.

Christmas CandiSomehow, he would have made it happen. But now, she'd come to him on her own. Out of necessity, but still... This might be the opportunity needed to bare his soul, to come clean with his sins, and to show her that now and forever, he would protect her.

"I'm sorry," she rasped, still winded. "So sorry to ask you to do this, to involve you, but –"

"Quiet now," Amos told her in a calm, even tone. She needed to catch her breath, and when she spoke, the lyrical cadence of her voice distracted him. He understood her urgency and preferred to glean the particulars for himself.

The males of his family had been blessed – or cursed, depending on your point of view – with the ability to absorb the emotion of others, decipher it, manipulate it, and then return it. He could drive a man to suicide, or give a woman an earth-shattering orgasm. He could remove grief, or instill insanity.

All of which meant he was effective at understanding motives and controlling others.

Very effective.

So effective that little by little, his civility had been stripped away. In his effort to use his ability to destroy immorality, he'd absorbed so much malevolence that, without a woman's gentleness to soften it all, he'd be forever tainted with the ugliness. He needed a balance.

He needed Candi.

Because he'd ordered her to silence, she went still. But amazingly enough, she didn't stay that way. He could feel her ire building, stronger and stronger, beating against his typically unbreakable will until she suddenly snatched free her hands and overturned her chair as she surged to her feet.

Two things struck Amos: She had freed herself from a hold unbreakable by most. And once freed, she still didn't run from him.

Slapping her small hands down on the table, she leaned into his space. "Listen up, buster. You've been hitting on me forever. You want me. I know you do."

No denying that, so Amos merely raised a brow.

"Well now's your chance." Tears swam in her eyes and renewed panic quickened her breath. "Get me out of here. Keep me safe, and... I'm yours."

She would barter with him?

No.

Hell no. Amos wanted her willing, not coerced – by him, or anyone else. In every way, he needed her complete acceptance of him.

Taking his silence for dithering, she appealed to him. "Please Amos. I know it's a lot to ask, but you're the biggest, most dangerous and capable man I know."

"Dangerous?"

"You know it's true!"

Course it was. He could dismantle a person's sanity with just a look. And yet, she didn't fear him. "Sit down, Candi."

She fought the order, and if he hadn't exerted more resolve than most ever required, she would have defied him. As it was, when she did finally sit, she did so grudgingly and with a curse.

Christmas CandiFascinated, Amos studied her as he would an exotic animal. Lush, innocent, and defiant; she was everything he craved.

Everything he needed.

When signing her name, she dotted the "i" with a heart. She smiled at everyone and drew smiles in return. She showed uncommon kindness even to the dregs of society that patronized the bar.

In the time he'd known her, her generous spirit had drawn many men. But over and over, Amos had watched her deflect all sexual advances in favor of mere amity.

Candi shied away from her own rich carnality, but once he had her in his bed, she wouldn't shy away from him. He wouldn't let her.

Blinking away fresh tears, Candi glared at him. "Why are you doing this? I thought for sure that you'd help me."

"And I will. But I can better protect you if we're not on the run." Meeting a threat head on was always preferable to a sneak attack, especially when Candi's nearness had the ability to fracture his concentration. "Try to relax. No one will touch you, I promise."

"You have to... to unleash me." And then with palpating desperation, "They'll be here soon!"

Now both brows lifted. She understood that, without a single physical touch, he kept her restrained.

But she wasn't shocked by his ability. Neither was she terrified by it, or of him. No, whatever Candi feared right now was worse than his aberrant control.

"I'm thirty-nine years old."

For only a moment, her fear abated. "Seriously? You look younger."

He locked his jaw at what sounded like a vague compliment, and therefore sensual provocation. Any admiration from her affected him like a stroke of flesh on flesh.

"For at least ten years I've been looking for..." Amos almost said you, but stopped short of making such a profound declaration. "...for a woman who didn't cower in fear of me."

She snorted. "I'm not afraid of you, Amos. I know you wouldn't hurt me. But I am afraid of the goons chasing after me. So if you would just let-me-go..."

No, she was far from cowering. Sliding his feet across the floor to cage in hers beneath the table, Amos promised, "You need never be afraid. Not anymore."

Thick lashes drifted down over her eyes in a display of exasperation and concern.

She didn't yet know the scope of his ability.

Tonight he would give her a firsthand example.

Amos took her hand, and shuddered in reaction. He could almost feel those small, soft fingers on his body, caressing, exploring, curving around his erection...

"You have to let me go, Amos."

Never. He tipped his head, amazed by her. "You know I'm restraining you. You feel my control on you."

Christmas Candi"I'm not an idiot." She opened her eyes again, snaring him in the clear blue promise of relief. "I don't understand how it works, but somehow you do that to people. I've seen you break up fights with just a look."

She'd noticed that? And here he'd thought he was so subtle.

"I've seen you send men packing out the door when they didn't want to go, all because you decided they'd had enough to drink. You've never hurt anyone, but you've -"

"Wrong." He had hurt people. He had slaughtered people – when they deserved it.

Her slim brows knit together. "You've tried doing it to me before but –"

"I've tested you," he clarified. Just a little, but she'd opposed him, which had only added to his interest in her.

No one could resist him.

As she'd said, grown men were powerless against a mere flicker of his will.

Yet Candi had struggled against his cerebral clutches, forcing her way free. She captivated him - emotionally, physically, mentally...

He had to have her.

But first, she deserved the truth. "When I want to control you, Candi, I will. I can manipulate you in any way that I want."

"Yeah, I get that." Her mouth tightened. "Otherwise, believe me, I'd be out of here right now."

So even that didn't unsettle her?

Candi managed to lean forward. "They have guns, Amos. They will shoot me. So unless you can stop a bullet -"

"Shh."

She went mute and utterly still.

Just then, Amos felt them. Turning his head while still keeping Candi captive, he watched as two burly fellows strode in the front door and started looking around. Like stereotypical henchmen they wore black trench coats and knit hats pulled low. Ruddy cheeked from the cold, they searched the crowd with narrowed eyes and mercenary objective.

Amos felt Candi's urge to hide, but he needed her to understand that there was no reason.

Not with him around to protect her.

The bartender chose that inauspicious moment to bellow over to them, "Candi, you're late, damn it. Stop visiting and get your ass in gear."

A great, shuddering groan of distress escaped her. "Amos, please."

"Shhh. Just watch," he whispered, and with little effort, he stiffened the posture of both men.

Christmas CandiCandi gasped.

"You see?" He brought them to his table where they stood, like obedient children, waiting for his edict. Their faces contorted with confusion and rage, but Amos didn't allow them to move or to speak.

Candi wouldn't look right at them, instead, flinching away.

That anyone had frightened her so much infuriated him. Amos smoothed his thumb over her trembling fingers. "Do you want them dead?"

Her lips parted. "What?"

"They were after you. I'll happily have them kill each other if that's what it'll take to make you feel safe again."

Tears leaked down her rosy cheeks. "Don't do this to me, Amos." She sounded agonized. "Don't put this on me."

He reached across the table to stroke her cheek with his fingertips, taking away the damp trail of distress. "I don't want you to ever cry, Candi. Not if there's a way I can fix things."

"This is insane. All of it." She hiccupped with fear and upset. Voice so low he could barely hear her, she said, "I never expected to be in a position like this. I... I don't know what to do."

No, of course she didn't. She was twenty-five, innocent of evil, and though she'd never said as much, he knew she was sexually innocent, too. She didn't need to see all the ugliness of his world, not yet, not tonight.

Not until he'd won her over.

Letting out a sigh, Amos asked her, "You don't doubt that I could have them massacre each other?"

She shook her head.

Amazing. Amos stared up at the men. "Either of you morons have a cell phone?"

The biggest of the two men locked his teeth – and nodded. His black eyes glared at Amos, but it didn't faze him. His power rendered the fool impotent.

As a matter of preference, Amos liked to destroy evil for good. But for Candi, he'd make a concession. He'd show her that he could handle things, make them right, without a bloodbath. "Take out the phone and call 911. Turn yourselves in. Tell the cops..." He looked at Candi. "What sins should they profess?"

Wide-eyed, lips parted in awe, she stared at him.

Speaking slow and enunciating, Amos said, "What did they do, honey? Why are they trying to hurt you?"

"Oh." She glanced at the two men, but only for second. "I... I saw them kill someone."

Damn. So she'd already seen the ugliness. "Do you know who?"

She shook her head. "A man in my apartment building. I think it was gambling related because I heard him swearing that he'd get the money somehow, begging for a chance... but they shot him anyway." She swallowed hard, her face paling. "In the side of his head. There... there was blood everywhere."

Shit. "I suppose they realized that you saw it all?"

Christmas CandiVoice going higher but fainter, she said, "They hadn't shut the door completely on his apartment. I was in the hallway..." She faded off, then said with renewed horror, "I was leaving for work and I heard them and I looked in just as they... as they pulled the trigger."

"You made a sound?"

She nodded. "Then they saw me, and they started chasing me and I knew they were going to kill me, too. There wasn't time for me to get to my car and get it unlocked." Her gaze caught on his. "All I could think was to get to you, so I ran here instead."

He'd often bemoaned the fact that she lived in such a disreputable area so close to the seedy bar. But now he thanked God for that close proximity. "You did the right thing." Fury and satisfaction commingled to scorch Amos. From now on, she would always come to him, for everything. "They're going to pay for threatening you, I promise you that."

After an unsteady breath, she whispered, "Thank you."

She'd been scared out of her wits – so she'd run to him. Amos soaked that in, knowing it had to mean something. Something significant.

This Christmas, he had a chance.

He looked back at the men. "Call the police, tell them who you killed, why you killed him, and where to find the body. Then tell them you'll be here, waiting for them."

Shaking with the effort to resist, the man withdrew his phone. He wore black leather gloves now spattered with blood.

Perfect. The cops should have all the evidence they needed for a solid case. There'd be no miscarriage of justice. In no time they'd have it all wrapped up.

The fellow punched in 911. While speaking to the police in a wooden voice, his cohort listened in, vibrating with distress.

Content with how this would turn out, Amos sat back in his seat. "Put the phone back in your pocket."

Straining, the man did so.

"Now both of you, go sit right over there where I can keep an eye on you. Wait for the police. Once they enter, you're going to start fighting with each other. No weapons." He didn't want any of the customers to get caught in cross fire. "Be vicious. Try to kill each other. Do you understand?"

Faces taut, they nodded.

"Excellent. Go sit down."

With the stiff-legged gait of zombies, snarling under their breath, they went to the empty table and sat in the hard metal chairs to await their fate.

At the table beside them, four drunken men sang "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer," off key.

To Candi, Amos asked, "Good enough?"

This time the tears were of joy as she nodded in relief. "It's perfect. Thank you."

Christmas CandiNow, about that trade she'd offered when first entering the bar. Her body in exchange for protection –

"Amos?"

Vivid sexual images crowded his brain. "Hmmm?"

"Release me now." She chewed her lower lip, and whispered, "I can't stand having them at my back."

He'd almost forgotten that he kept her immobilized. With a blink of cognizance, he freed her.

So fast that it startled him, she shot out of her chair and came over to stand behind his. Her hands rested on his shoulders, and he could feel the heat of her at his back.

She trusted him to keep her from her harm, and that proved a turn-on, too.

Again the bartender, Fargus, shouted to her. "Candi! What the hell, girl." The Santa hat he wore on his bald head nearly slid off. "We need you up front –"

Amos silenced him in mid sentence. Fargus turned away and began serving drinks as if he'd never noticed Candi's entrance.

"Thank you," Candi whispered.

"No problem." Fashioning Fargus's actions proved simpler than with the two strong-willed thugs, who'd really posed no challenge, either.

In fact, not since he'd reached his majority had any person truly tested his skill – except for Candi.

Crowds could get dicey, especially if he was injured or on the run, or if any innocents had already been hurt. Seeing the pain of others often engendered his sympathy, which fucked with his skill.

But Fargus and the two brutes didn't challenge him.

He pushed back from the table to make some room, looked back at Candi, and then patted his thighs. "On my lap."

She tucked in her chin and gave him a ‘you've got to be kidding' look. "I'd rather stand."

"I'd rather hold you."

Her brows came down. She skipped her attention back and forth between him and the men who'd pursued her. "I would rather you not use your wiles on me, Amos Jardine, thank-you-very-much."

Few things amused Amos, but hearing his deadly ability likened to ‘wiles' did the trick. He grinned.

She blinked at that, softened, and said, "You should do that more often. You're always incredibly handsome, but it's almost lethal when you're happy."

He wasn't happy yet - but soon. "Thank you."

She rolled her eyes. "I should have kept my mouth shut. Your ego is big enough as it is."

Christmas CandiCandi remained so wary of the threat, Amos resisted teasing her about other "big" attributes he possessed.

"They won't bother you, you know." He took her wrist and drew her around to his side. "I won't let them."

Beneath her sweater, her wonderfully voluptuous chest expanded on a deep breath. "Even without that voodoo of yours, you're a formidable guy, aren't you?" She didn't give him a chance to answer. "I mean, look at you. You're... what? Six-four?"

He nodded. "Nearly a foot taller than you."

"And I bet you weigh over two-hundred pounds, all of it muscle."

"Two-twenty-five." And yeah, he stayed in shape. He'd gotten beat up a little over the years. A few knife wounds, a bullet or two... but overall, he'd held together. It wasn't bragging to admit the Jardine males were blessed with fighter physiques and looks that appealed to women.

But for the Jardines, only the right woman would do for anything long term.

In the briefest of touches, Candi stroked his shoulder through his flannel shirt, over his biceps, back up again. She dropped her hand and swallowed, glanced over at the men, and back again. "You have the most compelling coloring." This time she slid her fingers through his hair.

To a man, they all had the same dark hair and hazel eyes. Many of the women had that coloring too, and it always proved a potent combination.

But only the men had the unique control of emotions.

Candi's fingers trailed over his jaw. "I like how your sideburns have turned silver."

Maturity, and harsh reality, had left its mark on him. He didn't sweat the small stuff.

Candi touched his left eyebrow. "How did you get this scar?"

"I got distracted and paid for it." Amos put a hand at her small waist inside her coat, and even through her sweater, he could feel the heat of her. "You should take off your coat."

She shook her head. "I'd rather get out of here."

"Honey." He pulled her resisting down onto his knees. Her bottom was as lush as her rack, and it made him insane. "If you don't want me to kill them, then I at least need to stay to see that they're arrested. And you," he said, stroking her back, "are going nowhere without me."

She leaned into him. "It's not that I don't want them dead. After what they did, it'd be dangerous for them to just go free. But I..."

"You don't want it to be your call."

"Yeah." She stared toward the men. "They taunted my neighbor before they killed him. They were so cruel, and I think they were enjoying themselves."

Amos hugged her. No way would he let her return to her apartment where she'd witnessed murder. "Once this is over, will you come home with me?"

"I have to work."

Christmas CandiHe flattened a look on her. "Not happening. Not tonight." A touch to her cheek brought away another tear. "Your make-up is ruined."

"Oh crap." She ran trembling fingers beneath both eyes, removing some smudges, and making some worse. With a sigh, she dropped her hands. "It doesn't matter. I'll clean up in the bathroom."

Time to get firm. "You're not staying."

"I can't lose out on a night's pay."

Amos refrained from telling her that he could supply anything she needed. Not yet.

Just then the doors burst open and three cops came in, alert but with their weapons still holstered. Amos glanced at the men, and they launched at each other. A table overturned and a barmaid screamed.

The cops broke up the fight and restrained the two men who, under Amos's direction, continued to struggle until finally one cop pulled out his Taser to bring them into submission.

Handcuffed and held tight, the two men were taken out as one cop held back to talk to excited "witnesses."

"Almost time for us to go." Holding onto Candi, Amos gathered up his coat, tossed a tip on the table, and crossed the room to the doors.

Candi said, "Amazing, how the crowd just parts for you. Sort of reminds me of the Red Sea and Moses, yeah?"

Urgency pulsed through his veins. Soon he'd have her alone. "Sarcasm is unnecessary."

"Maybe, but this is going to take some getting used to."

She'd have a lifetime, so Amos wasn't worried. Pausing at the door, he watched as the two men were dispatched to the backseat of cruisers. He would have preferred to demolish the men, but for once, he'd trust the legal system.

After the cop cars drove away, he took the thick woolen scarf from his coat and, watching Candi, he put it around her neck. "This will help to keep you warm."

"Thank you." She lifted one end of the scarf to her nose to breathe in his scent.

Provoked, Amos zipped up her jacket, then put on his own heavy coat and took her hand. "Come on."

She dug in her heels. "Amos, seriously, I need –"

"You need me. Not as much as I need you, but I'll work on that real soon." To keep her from arguing, he wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her off her feet so he could kiss her.

Her hands landed on his shoulders, she gasped, and he took advantage, deepening the kiss, tasting her and tormenting himself.

Her fingers slid into his hair and she moaned.

A promising sign.

Christmas CandiWithout another word, Amos hustled her out of the bar and into the freezing night air. Sleet pelted his face but did little to cool his lust. Even salted, the walkways were treacherous with ice, so he held Candi close as he led her to his pick up. The truck was one he favored for driving to the bar. It fit in, which helped him to fit in.

Once they were inside he started the engine and turned up the heat. All around them, establishments displayed Holidays decorations. The tattoo parlor, the Laundromat, the pawn shop and a gas station, were all lit with blinking green and red lights.

"Amos..." Candi fretted beside him. "I don't want to go back to my apartment. I know you took care of those men, but I'm still –"

"I'm taking you to my house." He put the truck in gear and drove out to the main road.

Surprise sounded in her tone. "You have a house?"

"Yeah." He had a semi-boner too, and a powerful case of lust. "There's a lot you don't know about me yet." He glanced at her. "I'd prefer to get questions out of the way before."

Interior lights on the dash reflected in her bright eyes. "Before... what?"

"Before I get you in range of my bed." His hands tightened on the steering wheel. Amos reminded himself that she'd just been traumatized, and she likely needed some time.

Unfortunately, he couldn't give her that right now.

"Once we're there," he admitted, "the last thing I'll want to do is talk."

When she went silent, he felt smothering guilt. She'd been through so much tonight, she didn't need him pressuring her.

But as snowflakes gathering on the windshield, faster than the wipers could take them away, Candi slid closer to him. She put a hand on his thigh, and Amos felt her gaze on his face, felt her hesitancy before she said, "I'd like that."

Oh hell. If he made it to the house, he'd be lucky, because right now the side of the road was looking pretty darned enticing.

"I've wanted you for a while. I guess you know that?"

If she kept talking about it, he'd lose what little control he still possessed. His voice harsh and deep, he said, "Yeah. The chemistry was there, and hard to miss."

She moved that small hand along his thigh, skipped past the fly of his jeans, and put it against his chest over his punching heartbeat. "I've never..."

"I know." And that, too, aroused him. He'd be her first, and he was Alpha enough that it mattered. "Tell me why."

Leaning her head against his shoulder, she sighed. "There's no one big reason."

"Then tell me all the little reasons."

Christmas Candi"Okay." She sat up straight again. "I never met a man like you. Living in this area, most of the men I've met were more like my father."

He knew Candi now, the woman she was. He understood her heart and her optimism. But he knew nothing of her upbringing, and he wanted to know. He needed to know everything. "What does that mean?"

She thought about how to explain. "Too much drinking, not enough work." She shrugged. "A lot of self pity and lack of motivation. Abrasive and sometimes abusive –"

"Your father mistreated you?" He'd find the man and-

"No, but he was pretty cruel to mom." She looked out at the snowy landscape. "He died years ago, when I was seventeen. I've never missed him. In fact, it was a relief for him to be gone."

"Your mother?"

"She passed away last year."

Damn. "I'm sorry."

"It was a blessing, really. She'd been sick for awhile." Turning toward him again, she studied his profile. "I was never in a hurry to get intimate with anyone. Then I met you."

And from the get-go, the attraction was there. It had grown stronger each time he was near her.

Again Candi touched him, her hand on his shoulder. "You are so different from other men I've known. You hang out in a bar, but you don't drink that much. In fact, I've never seen you drunk. And you don't flirt with the women there."

Bar whores were not his thing. "At first, I mostly came to the bar to be... normal."

Candi gave a small laugh. "If you mean average, like everyone else, I can't see that ever happening. From the very beginning you stood out as different."

"No one else noticed."

"Sure they did. The women all came on to you and the guys all steered clear. In a world of common people, you stand out, Amos. Accept that as a good thing."

He caught her hand and lifted it to his mouth to kiss her fingers. "If it doesn't scare you off, then I'm fine with it."

"No, you don't scare me." She cupped his jaw.

"You know that I returned to the bar each night because of you."

She chewed her bottom lip. "I know it now. But... Well, I always figured you were out of my league."

Christmas Candi"No. Hell no."

He turned into the neighborhood where he lived, not far from the bar, but it could have been a different world. Here the houses were spacious, expensive, and the area safe. Instead of multi-colored lights, more discreet white lights and luxurious garland and wreaths decorated the stately homes. Proximity to a hospital meant that plenty in the medical field ensured exclusivity.

"We're very different, Amos."

"We'll be good together, you'll see."

When she said nothing, Amos glanced at her. She stared with a sort of horror at the impressive houses.

"Candi?"

"You live here?"

Time to come clean. "There are plenty of things you don't yet know about me." He pulled into his driveway and opened the three car garage by remote. As he parked next to his BMW, she glared at him.

"You're rich?"

After the garage door closed them in, Amos turned off the truck and released his seat belt. Without a word he released hers too, then pulled her closer for a deep kiss. She was stiff and resisting... for about three seconds.

"Listen to me, Candi Pearson. There's an entire world between us, and it has nothing to do with the money I've accumulated. I'm fourteen years older than you. My world has been dark with the fight against evil. I'm jaded and harsh and I've never wanted any woman the way I want you."

Still soft against him from that kiss, she bypassed everything he'd said to softly ask, "Fight against evil?"

"It's what I do."

Slowly she regained her wits. "What do you mean?"

Knowing this could turn her away, that it could make the difference in having her, or losing her, Amos dug deep for honor. She deserved full disclosure. Nothing would work between them unless she knew upfront what she'd be getting into.

"This odd ability is a trait within the males of my family, used throughout history mostly to assist in the better good. We seek out the scum of the earth, people who, without our interference, might skate past the laws and remain free to bring dread onto innocents."

She licked her lips. "Mostly to assist in the better good?"

"There've been a few black sheep who chose instead to use their ability to take advantage of others." He kissed her again, because he needed to kiss her. "Hell, to some degree, we've all used it to take advantage. It's how I amass funds to support myself and continue the work."

Christmas Candi"I don't believe you would steal from people."

"No, nothing like that. But I can glean information about financial opportunities, and financial pitfalls."

Her hands came to his neck; he could feel her soft breath on his face. "You fascinate me, Amos." This time she kissed him. "I don't know how you do what you do, but I know you wouldn't hurt anyone who didn't deserve it. Your age makes you mature and reliable. You are... so big and powerful, and you make me feel safe."

Before he lost it and took her in the cab of his truck, Amos got out and strode around to her door. "Come on."

She held back. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

How could she ask that?

Before he could answer, she lifted her chin. "Because I'm not a one-night stand kind of woman. If we do this, I expect it to... to mean something."

To hell with waiting. He lifted her out and into his arms. "It means you're mine, now and forever." He kicked the truck door shut and carried her into the house.

"Forever?" she asked, as he carried her down the hall, past the enormous Christmas tree in his living room. Scents of pine and cinnamon filled the air.

Amos went up the stairs and into his bedroom. "I can't let you go, honey. Please don't ask me to."

"Okay, but –"

Amos laid her on his King sized four-poster bed. "No buts." Even here, in his bedroom, he had signs of Christmas. Garland around his mirror, twinkling lights at his window. The holiday always brought promise, this year more so than ever before, because this year he had found Candi.

Undeterred, she grabbed his hands. "But," she said again, this time with emphasis, "I don't want you to... to... manipulate me."

Amos pulled off her shoes. "You're worried that I'll make you do things, feel things, that aren't real?" He unzipped her jacket and pulled her upright long enough to strip it off of her. Then he whisked her sweater off over her head.

"I don't know." She crossed her arms over her heavy breasts. "This is all pretty weird and different."

Saying nothing, Amos unfastened her jeans and stripped them down her legs, leaving her in bra, panties, and knee-high socks. His chest labored and his abdomen tightened. "Cute."

She made a sound of embarrassment and exasperation. "Amos..."

He carried his gaze up along her body, over sumptuous hips, an adorable belly, and those full breasts she couldn't conceal. Her blonde hair fanned out around her face, like the angelic halo of an angel. Drawing in needed oxygen, Amos met her gaze. "I don't need help in that arena. Everything you feel will be real."

Christmas Candi"Oh."

Visually exploring her body, he shrugged off his coat and nearly popped the buttons on his flannel shirt as he struggled out of it. After toeing off his boots, he pushed down his jeans and removed his socks at the same time.

Naked but for snug boxers that did nothing to hide his erection, he straightened in front of her.

She stared with all the rapt attention of a virgin about to change her status.

Amos came down to rest beside her, propped on one elbow. Trying for moderation, he removed one of her hands from her breasts, kissed her knuckles and placed it above her head. He did the same with her other hand. The bra had a front closure, and he easily opened it, letting the cups part to bare her.

"Beautiful." He could have spent plenty of time just looking at her, but she removed that option by turning into him, her arms around his neck.

"Kiss me again."

He had no problem with that request. Her lips parted to his tongue, and as he cuddled her breast, she moaned.

Amos had planned a slow and thorough seduction. He had intended to ease her into things, to overwhelm her and rob her of any misgivings.

It wasn't necessary. Her hands were all over him, and her lack of shyness invited him to do the same. He kissed her everywhere, and as he drew one tightened nipple into his mouth, he slid a hand down her back and into her panties over that heart-shaped ass that he'd dreamed about for months.

He skimmed a hand over her hip, to her belly, and then lower. At the first touch of his fingertips to her sex, she whispered his name, anxious and ready.

Between hot, damp kisses and soft, excited moans, he removed the rest of their clothes. After taking a condom from his nightstand, he moved over her.

When she opened her arms to him, her eyes filled with acceptance – and more - Amos knew he was head over heels in love with her. Candi was the woman for him, for all of his life.

Now he needed her to realize it.

Some of the lust abated, tempered with the tenderness of rich caring. It was just as acute, just as urgent, but it was so much more than physical hunger.

"I love you, Candi." Her eyes flared, but he didn't give her a chance to speak. He covered her mouth with his own as he sank into her, inch by inch, gently pushing past the restriction of her innocence. The twinkle lights sent small shadows over her, like fairy dust playing on her skin. Amos kissed her lips, her throat, her shoulders. So soft everywhere.

Discomfort had her fingertips digging into his shoulders, but she also wrapped her legs around his waist.

Christmas CandiHis forehead to hers, he asked, "You're okay?"

Nodding, breathing fast, she whispered, "You're inside me, and it's... incredible."

There was no more talking after that. Amos slid one hand beneath her hips, arranging her so he could go even deeper. Moving together, they found a rhythm that pushed her closer to release. As she tightened around him, he felt her climax building.

By sheer will he held back, waiting for her, fighting the pounding compulsion to let go.

At the first ripples of her orgasm, he lost it. He found her mouth, kissing her hard, swallowing the sounds of her pleasure and loving the bite of her nails on his flesh, how her heels dug into the small of his back.

Little by little, the sharp explosion of pleasure eased way to a softer satisfaction. When Candi went utterly limp beneath him, Amos came up to his elbows to look at her.

Her cheeks were damp from exertion, her lashes lowered to hide her eyes. She was so beautiful to him, inside and out.

He put a gentle kiss to her swollen lips, and felt her smile. With an effort, she lifted her arms around his neck and when her eyes opened, he saw a wealth of emotion there.

He remained inside her; their hearts beat together.

For one of the few times in his life, Amos felt vulnerable. "My family can be overbearing."

That blurted admission turned her expression quizzical. "Meaning the men are all much like you?"

"Yes." Some were so dark that Amos feared for their souls, but never would he let anyone upset Candi.

"You're close with your family?"

A difficult question. Some of his family he saw on a regular basis; others, he hadn't even talked to in years. Without a woman to balance the duty, Jardine males could be lost.

"When we're together, it's like we were never apart. We're in sync, and we're loyal." He thought to add, "I'm closer now with my nephew, Brax, especially since his marriage. His wife is big on family gatherings. If she has her way, we'll all soon be in a room together."

"I would enjoy meeting all of your family." Then, as if she'd read his mind, she said, "And no, Amos, they won't frighten or intimidate me. I promise."

He smoothed back her hair. "When necessary, I'm gone a lot. And sometimes... I come home bloody. My blood, but often someone else's, too."

She traced a long, thin scar that ran from his left armpit over his ribs. Somber, she stared up at him and asked, "But you'll always come home to me?"

With her waiting? "I swear it." But he had to ensure that she would be there, and he knew only one way to do that.

Amos drew a breath, kissed her forehead. "I love you, Candi. I want you to be my wife. Do you think you could live with my lifestyle?"

A smile teased her lips. "Oh, Amos." She cupped his jaw in her small hand. "The truth is, I love you so much that I don't know how I could ever live without you."

His heart felt full, and years of ugliness lifted from his soul. Hugging her, he rolled to his back so that she rested atop him.

"I've always believed in Christmas, the elusive magic, the spirit of goodness that could change everything. For me, you're it."

Christmas Candi"That goes both ways, Amos. You are the most incredible man with such an astounding talent. But the best part of you is your heart." She rested her head on his shoulder. "Thank you for giving it to me."

He held her close. This year, the holiday had given him the finest of gifts.

It had given him salvation. It had given him promise.

It had given him... love.

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