Cherokee

The quest for his Cherokee heritage had brought Adam Paige to Native American Sarah Cloud, hoping sweet Sarah could enlighten him on the culture they shared.The bright, beautiful woman quickly became more than his guide to a proud nation. But Adam knew too well what deep desires could mean for his wounded spirit. Her goal had been only to help Adam regain his birthright. But soon Sarah was giving Adam more than she'd given any man – her heart was his for the asking.Yet what would become of their much-coveted happiness once Adam learned his legacy held a powerful, shocking secret neither had ever imagined?
Содержание:

Cherokee


A Cherokee Knight. A Dragon Slayer.

   Sarah couldn’t keep her eyes off Adam. He stood before her, his thumbs hooked in his pockets—a stance that made the female in her take notice.

   He took a step toward her. “We still haven’t talked about what happened earlier.”

   “We’re just friends.” The statement sounded foolish, even to her own ears.

   “I keep telling myself that. We’re just friends. There’s nothing happening between us.” He laughed, a rough-textured sound that faded as quickly as it came on. “That’s a lie, at least for me. I can’t help myself. I want you. And I can’t pretend that I don’t.” He moved closer, until they were only inches apart. “You’re my midnight seduction, sweet Sarah.”

   Her heart thumped wildly. She wanted to kiss him, seduce him, feel him branding her skin. Mist and moonlight, she thought. Fairy tales and fantasies. She craved all of that and more.

   But wanting Adam didn’t mean she had the courage to take him.

   Dear Reader,

   Welcome to the world of Silhouette Desire, where you can indulge yourself every month with romances that can only be described as passionate, powerful and provocative!

   The ever-fabulous Ann Major offers a Cowboy Fantasy, July’s MAN OF THE MONTH. Will a fateful reunion between a Texas cowboy and his ex-flame rekindle their fiery passion? In Cherokee, Sheri WhiteFeather writes a compelling story about a Native American hero who, while searching for his Cherokee heritage, falls in love with a heroine who has turned away from hers.

   The popular miniseries BACHELOR BATTALION by Maureen Child marches on with His Baby!—a marine hero returns from an assignment to discover he’s a father. The tantalizing Desire miniseries FORTUNES OF TEXAS: THE LOST HEIRS continues with The Pregnant Heiress by Eileen Wilks, whose pregnant heroine falls in love with the investigator protecting her from a stalker.

   Alexandra Sellers has written an enchanting trilogy, SONS OF THE DESERT: THE SULTANS, launching this month with The Sultan’s Heir. A prince must watch over the secret child heir to the kingdom along with the child’s beautiful mother. And don’t miss Bronwyn Jameson’s Desire debut—an intriguing tale involving a self-made man who’s In Bed with the Boss’s Daughter.

   Treat yourself to all six of these heart-melting tales of Desire—and see inside for details on how to enter our Silhouette Makes You a Star contest.

   Enjoy!


   Joan Marlow Golan

   Senior Editor, Silhouette Desire

Cherokee Sheri Whitefeather


SHERI WHITEFEATHER

   lives in Southern California and enjoys ethnic dining, summer powwows and visiting art galleries and vintage clothing stores near the beach. Since her one true passion is writing, she is thrilled to be a part of the Silhouette Desire line. When she isn’t writing, she often reads until the wee hours of the morning.

   Sheri also works as a leather artisan with her Muscogee Creek husband. They have one son and a menagerie of pets, including a pampered English bulldog and four equally spoiled Bengal cats. She would love to hear from her readers. You may write to her at: P.O. Box 5130, Orange, California 92863-5130.

   To the Cherokees who inspired this story— Annie Dear-Johnson for her strength and sensitivity; Lisa Kelly and her daughter Mandi for their beauty and heart; Kona Bruckner and her children, Amy, Bryon and Jeremiah for their triumph; Christine Tevis and her sons, Bobby, Bruce and Bryon (my favorite little artist) for following Windrunner’s path.

   I would also like to acknowledge Barbara Carlton for teaching her son about his Cherokee heritage and Barbara Ann Tucker, my Texas friend, for the lovely letters and powwow pictures. And to another Barbara, my proud and supportive mother-in-law, many thanks for encouraging us to consider alternative medicine whenever one of us is ailing. Unfortunately we don’t always listen, but the characters in this book took your advice to heart.

   And finally to the countless readers out there expressing an interest in the American Indian culture, this recipe is for you:

   INDIAN FRY BREAD

    (from various sources)

   Cornmeal or flour for dusting board

   2 cups flour

   ½ tsp salt

   ½ tsp baking powder

   ½ cup instant dry milk

   ¾ cup water

   Oil or shortening for deep frying

   Dust pastry board. In a mixing bowl, stir flour, baking powder, salt and powdered milk. Add water in small amounts, stirring until the mixture reaches the consistency of bread dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. Cover and let rest for ten minutes. Heat oil or shortening in a deep frying pan. Pull off a palm-size mound of dough, roll into a ball, then flatten into a 6-inch disc. Fry one at a time on both sides until golden. Serve hot, sprinkled with powdered sugar, drizzled with honey or covered with taco fixings. Makes about 4 servings.

Contents

   Chapter One

   Chapter Two

   Chapter Three

   Chapter Four

   Chapter Five

   Chapter Six

   Chapter Seven

   Chapter Eight

   Chapter Nine

   Chapter Ten

   Chapter Eleven

   Chapter Twelve

   Chapter Thirteen

   Epilogue

One

   Sarah Cloud entered the break room, her productive day nearing its end. She didn’t own Ventura West, a successful skin care salon in the San Fernando Valley, but she took pride in working there. She enjoyed soothing her clients with a refreshing mask and a quiet shoulder massage. They relied on her to make them feel whole, to sweep them away from the hustle and bustle of their harried L.A. lives, if only for an hour each week.

   Removing a small container of orange juice from the refrigerator, she looked up. Tina Carpenter, the sweet but air-brained receptionist, stood in the doorway.

   “You’re never going to believe who’s here,” the young woman said, her eyes wide and bright. “It’s that doctor-type guy from the clinic next door.”

   Sarah smiled, amused by Tina’s definition of the holistic practitioner. Of course it wasn’t his profession that mattered to the women in the salon. All were in agreement that their new neighbor was by far one of the most attractive men they had ever seen. Sarah had no idea what to think, since she had yet to catch even a quick glimpse of him. Not that she cared. Southern California overflowed with tall, tan, muscular men.

   Tina flashed an excited grin. “Guess what? He wants to talk to you. And he even said it’s personal. I wonder if he’s going to ask you on a date or something.”

   Baffled, Sarah capped her orange juice. A date? With a woman he’d never even met? Not likely. “Are you sure it’s me he wants to talk to?” This wouldn’t be the first time Tina had misconstrued a message. The receptionist was the owner’s niece—an inept but permanent employee.

   “Of course I’m sure, silly.” Tina grabbed her arm. “Come on. He’s waiting.”

   Sarah approached the reception area, then slowed her pace when she saw him. He stood near the front window, almost out of place amid the elegant ambiance of the salon. He wasn’t what she had expected. He wore dark indigo jeans and a blue button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled to his elbows. But it wasn’t his ranch-style attire that made her stop and stare. She knew immediately that the color of his skin hadn’t been enhanced by the sun, his golden complexion and strong, chiseled profile suddenly reminding her of home. An uncomfortable reminder.

   When he turned, their eyes met. And then held. She wanted to look away, but couldn’t. He was too unusual to be considered classically handsome. Each riveting feature battled for dominance—eyes too deep, a mouth too full, cheekbones so prominent they could have been sculpted from clay.

   He was a mixed blood, she realized. But how mixed she couldn’t quite tell. He wore his hair long, but it was brown instead of black, secured at his nape in a thick ponytail.

   Sarah took a deep breath, more uncomfortable than ever. She hated being reminded of home.

   He came toward her, his height overwhelming. She had been wrong. California wasn’t overflowing with men like him. His masculine presence commanded attention, but his smile generated warmth. No wonder no woman within breathing distance could keep her eyes off him. Tina leaned over the reception desk, and Claire, the flamboyant makeup artist, craned her neck to get a good look at his backside.

   “Hi,” he said. “I’m Adam Paige. I work next door.”

   Sarah extended her hand, sensing he waited for her to do so. Apparently he had been taught the same protocol. A man didn’t touch a woman without invitation, not even in a greeting.

   The handshake sent an electrical charge straight up her arm. She drew back quickly, keeping her voice polite and professional. “I’m Sarah Cloud. How can I help you?”

   He pushed at his shirtsleeve, shoving it further up his arm. “Vicki Lester suggested I stop by. She’s a patient of mine.”

   Sarah nodded. Vicki was a client of hers, too. And a friend. Vicki lived in the same sprawling apartment complex. “She didn’t tell me to expect you,” Sarah said, hoping she didn’t sound too distrustful. How could her friend neglect to mention this man and all his rugged beauty?

   “I saw Vicki this morning,” he explained. “After her appointment, we got into a serious conversation. When I told her about what’s going on in my life, she thought I should talk to you.”

   His life? I’m an esthetician, Sarah thought, not a psychologist. If he had problems, the best she could do was ease him with a facial—lift the tension from his forehead, massage the stress from his shoulders.

   She glanced up at those broad shoulders and swallowed. Then again, talking might be better. She actually found herself attracted to Adam Paige—a man whose golden complexion and Indian cheekbones reminded her of why she’d left home. “Would you like to sit down?”

   He glanced around, caught Tina’s eye and returned her smile, indicating to Sarah that the bouncy blond receptionist appeared to be eavesdropping.

   “Maybe we could go across the street to the juice bar instead,” he said.

   “Sure, that’s fine.” Sarah had some time to spare, and a cold drink sounded good. She’d left her orange juice on the table, and now her mouth felt unusually dry.

   He opened the door for her, and they stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the salon. Ventura Boulevard buzzed around them. Late-day traffic gathered at a red light while summer tourists explored what locals simply called the Valley.

   Sarah looked over at Adam as they crossed the street, and he sent her a devastating smile. If she hadn’t been wearing sensible shoes, she would have tripped over her own feet.

   Curious, she glanced down at Adam’s feet, wondering what sort of shoes he wore. Lace-up ropers, she saw, California style. No dust, no scuffed toes. In spite of his Western appeal, Adam Paige with the chiseled profile and heart-stopping smile had most likely been born and raised in the Valley.

   Sarah lifted her gaze, realizing a case of nerves had set in. Suddenly she felt like the troubled Oklahoma girl she had been. The one who had come to L.A. with nothing more than a battered suitcase and a need to break free of her past.

   After Sarah’s mother died, her father had found solace in the bottle, drinking his way into oblivion. And as much as she loved her dad, walking away from him had become her only option. She had learned firsthand how deceptive alcoholics could be, how irresponsible and hurtful.

   She glanced toward the sky and recalled his last broken promise, the last devastating lie. She’d graduated from high school two weeks before, and had come home from a new full-time job to find her dad in the backyard. He was dressed in grubby clothes, the old jeans and T-shirt he wore when tending the rose bushes that bloomed every summer. The flowers Sarah loved, the only beauty left in their run-down yard.

   Standing in the setting sun, she watched her father reach into a planter and dig below the dirt. And then her breath caught, the threat of tears stinging her eyes.

   The bottle that glinted in his hand could have been a knife. When he dusted it off, twisted the cap and took a drink, a sharp pain sliced through her—the sickening stab of betrayal.

   He turned and their eyes met. And at that painful moment, she knew. He wasn’t her father anymore, the man she had once admired, the Cherokee warrior who used to tuck her in at night. Too many scenes like this one had destroyed those warm, tender feelings. For Sarah, there was nothing left but emptiness.

   Neither said a word. She didn’t accuse, and he didn’t apologize. They only stood, staring at each other. His graduation gift to her had been an impassioned promise, an ardent vow of sobriety, and that gift had just been shattered, along with Sarah’s eighteen-year-old heart.

   “We’re here.”

   Blinking, she turned to see Adam, not her father, watching her. “I’m sorry. What?”

   “The juice bar.”

   “Oh, of course.”

   Once inside, they ordered their drinks and sat across from each other in a small booth. Sarah fidgeted with her cup. Adam studied her, his gaze scanning the length of her hair.

   “Vicki told me that you’re originally from Tahlequah,” he said. “And that you’re registered with the Cherokee Nation.”

   She stiffened at the mention of her hometown and her heritage, her memories still too close to the edge. “Yes, I am. Is this what you wanted to talk to me about?”

   He nodded, his voice tinged with emotion. “I just found out that I was born in Tahlequah and that I’m part Cherokee, too. I know that sounds strange, but up until a little over a month ago, I had no idea that I was adopted.”

   Sarah released a heavy breath. He was born in Tahlequah? This gorgeous Californian? No wonder he reminded her of home.

   She didn’t want to discuss his newly discovered Cherokee roots, but after his personal admission, how could she just get up and walk away? The least she could do was give him a moment of her time, no matter how uncomfortable the subject made her.

   “You were adopted by a white family?” she asked.

   “Sort of,” he answered. “My father was English, but my mom was Spanish and Italian. I always figured my coloring had come from her. You know, all that Latin blood.” He glanced down at his drink, then back up. “My parents died when I was in college. They were killed in a plane crash.”

   “I’m sorry,” she whispered. Grief was something that still haunted her. She knew how it could destroy, claw its way into a person’s soul. And at this oddly quiet moment, Adam’s soul could have been her own. Their gazes were locked much too intimately.

   

   Adam didn’t respond. He couldn’t. Everything around him had gone still. There was nothing. No one but the woman seated across from him. He wanted to touch her. Make the invisible connection between them more real.

   Was it Sarah’s eyes that captivated him? Those dark, exotic-shaped eyes? Or was it her hair—the lush black curtain? Her skin was beautiful, too. Clear and smooth and the color of temptation.

   Before Adam’s imagination took him further, he blinked away his last thought, breaking their stare. Sarah picked up her juice, and he sensed her uneasiness. Was the connection between them loneliness? Was she as alone as he felt? Within the span of a month, everything familiar in Adam’s world had changed. He’d moved, switched jobs and stumbled upon his adoption.

   “I’ve been storing some things that belonged to my parents,” he said finally. “Mostly personal items, but there were two tall file cabinets from my dad’s office. They were filled with old business records, but I kept them anyway.” He glanced at Sarah’s slender hands, recalling the shock tied to his discovery, the way his own hands had shaken. “I moved recently. Not a major move, just to a place that’s closer to work. But since I was reorganizing and packing, it seemed like a good time to clean out those files.”

   “You found something, didn’t you?”

   “Yes.” He swallowed back the pain, the lump that had formed in his throat. “There was a document from an adoption agency. It was in a manila envelope with some old tax records. I guess that’s why I didn’t see it before.” He swallowed again, then released a heavy breath. “I discovered that I was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to a Cherokee woman named Cynthia Youngwolf.” Leaning against the table, he searched Sarah’s eyes, hoping for a miracle. “Do you know anyone by that name?”

   She shook her head. “Tahlequah is the Cherokee capital. There’s a large Indian population there. It would be impossible to know everyone.”

   Adam’s heart sank. “I’ve been trying to find her, but nothing has panned out. First I checked with the Oklahoma phone directory, and then I placed some personal ads in newspapers. After that, I listed my name with one of those adoption search agencies.” He hoped his biological mother was looking for him, too. Looking for the son who had lost his adoptive parents.

   Surely Cynthia Youngwolf wondered about him. What woman wouldn’t think about the child she had given up?

   “This whole thing has been pretty overwhelming.”

   “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help,” Sarah said.

   Adam studied her face, features that were strong yet delicate. Vulnerable yet proud. Were other Cherokee women as compelling?

   What did his mother look like? And who was his father? Were they secret lovers? Too young to raise a child? He had questions, and no one but Cynthia Youngwolf could answer them.

   And what about his parents? The ones who had raised him? Why hadn’t they told him that he was adopted?

   He couldn’t control the turmoil, the jumbled emotions that left him feeling hurt and confused. Why had they lied to him, pretending he was their biological son? They’d had so many opportunities to tell him, especially during all that family counseling.

   And what about the critical events leading up to the therapy? Were there subtle hints? Quiet innuendoes? Something, anything that marked the truth?

   Yes, he thought, his heart striking his chest. There was.

   Adam had been seventeen at the time, a tall, rangy boy with fire in his blood. And two weeks earlier, he’d gotten caught stealing a pint of whiskey from the local market, the place where his mother bought groceries.

   Adam had lied, of course, insisting he’d swiped the liquor on a dare. Yet that hadn’t stopped his parents from cornering him, from trapping him with one of their mandatory talks. But why? He knew they hadn’t found the other bottle, the one he kept hidden in the trunk of his car.

   “We picked up some literature,” his father said.

   Slumped on the couch, Adam glanced up at his dad. His mother sat in nearby chair, twisting the tassel on one of the pillows she’d embroidered. His dad was tense, and his mom was jittery and fretful. Things didn’t look good.

   “Literature?”

   Ronald Paige nodded, a quick, hard jerk of his head. “About alcoholism.”

   Irritated, he righted his posture. “And what’s that got to do with me?”

   “You drink, Adam. You drink a lot.”

   “That’s bull.” He dragged a hand through his hair and ground a booted heel into the carpet. “I party on the weekends once in a while. That doesn’t make me an alcoholic.”

   “It’s more than that, and you know it. You’re addicted. All the signs are there.”

   All the signs are where? he wondered. In some stupid brochure his parents had latched onto? “I’m not going to sit here and listen to this.” When he stood, he topped his father by several inches. “You guys are freaking out. Making something out of nothing.”

   “And you’re out of control. You don’t even seem like our son anymore.”

   “Really? Well maybe I wished I wasn’t. All you ever do is hassle me.” Turning to leave, he caught sight of the look that passed between his parents. A look that said something secretive, something he couldn’t quite name.

   Shrugging it off, he slammed the front door and headed for his car, grateful the whiskey was still there.

   A horn honked and Adam jolted, realizing where he was. He sat in the juice bar, staring blindly out a window. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly. He had come a long way since his bout with the bottle, and, up until their untimely death, his parents had remained by his side. The loving, supportive family that had kept his adoption a secret. None of it made sense.

   He turned to face Sarah, hoping she could help him unscramble this puzzle. “Do you still have family in Tahlequah? Will you ask them if they’ve ever heard of Cynthia Youngwolf?”

   Her eyes shifted focus. Instead of meeting his gaze, she studied her drink, her tone distant. “My family…my father doesn’t live in Tahlequah anymore. He’s in another part of Oklahoma now.”

   “I see,” Adam responded, although he didn’t. All she would have to do was ask her father about a name, yet she appeared reluctant to do so. Why? he wondered. Why wouldn’t she make one simple phone call? And why had her shoulders tensed throughout portions of their conversation?

   One minute he saw attraction in her eyes, the next detachment. Warm. Aloof. Gentle. Afraid. She appeared to be all of those things. And that made him want to touch her even more, reach for her hand and hold it. This woman, he thought, this dark-eyed mystery, was connected to his birthplace, a heritage he knew nothing about.

   The Cherokee books he’d purchased helped, but they weren’t enough. Reading didn’t combat the loneliness. He needed more than just words on a page.

   He needed human contact.

   He needed Sarah.

   Adam started. He needed a woman he’d just met? Was he losing his mind? The last of his sanity?

   No, he thought. He wasn’t crazy. A woman born in Tahlequah, a stunning Cherokee with dark eyes and long, flowing hair. He couldn’t have dreamed her if he’d tried. Sarah was the answer he had been waiting for.

   She glanced at her watch. “It was nice meeting you, Adam. But I should get back to work.”

   “I’ll walk you,” he offered.

   They stood on the street corner, and as she brushed his arm, a ray of hope shot through him—an awakening from one of his ancestor’s arrows. No, he wasn’t about to give up on Sarah Cloud. Somehow, some way, he would break through her defenses, unlock the mystery surrounding her. And in the process, he intended to find his biological mother. The woman who had given him life.

   

   The next week Sarah paced one of the facial rooms, checking and rechecking her supplies. Adam Paige was her next appointment. A facial. The man had booked a facial. Not that she didn’t have other male clients. She encouraged men to take better care of their skin, yet the thought of touching Adam made her palms tingle and her pulse race.

   She sanitized her hands for the tenth time, a nervous habit, she supposed. And one she’d just acquired. Checking her watch, she exhaled a shaky breath. Maybe he would fall asleep during the facial the way some of her other clients did. It would be easier touching him if he slept.

   Sarah let out an anxious laugh. Mrs. Whipple snored during her procedure, but then Vivian Whipple was nearly eighty years old. Young, virile Adam Paige wouldn’t snore. And he probably wouldn’t fall asleep, either.

   Quit stressing and go, she told herself. Adam was probably early, waiting in the reception area for her to greet him.

   Sure enough, he was there. As Sarah approached, he stood. Today he wore tan trousers and a matching shirt. Although he looked more stylish than he had the week before, he still exhibited the same rugged appeal. Both the makeup artist and her client checked him out from their vantage point. And, of course, Tina watched with a dreamy smile, probably thinking Sarah was the luckiest girl in L.A.

   Yeah, right. More like the most nervous.

   “Hi, Adam,” Sarah said, reminding herself it was just a facial—a procedure she had done a thousand times before. “Are you ready?”

   “Sure. Lead the way.”

   She showed him where her treatment room was, then took him to an empty dressing room. “Just remove your shirt and put this on.” She handed him a kimono-style robe that belted in front, her friendly, professional voice intact. “And when you’re ready, come to the facial room.” Pointing to a rack of hangers, she added, “We encourage clients to keep their belongings with them, so be sure to bring your shirt along.”

   “Okay.” He flashed that devastating smile, and she proceeded down the hall, taking a deep, I’ll-get-through-this breath. Men might be low on her list of priorities, but this one made her tingly and weak-kneed, sensations she would prefer to do without.

   Sarah waited by the treatment chair, resisting the urge to cleanse her hands again. She couldn’t wash away her nervousness no matter how hard she tried. Touching Adam was inevitable, and dousing herself with an instant sanitizer wasn’t going to help.

   When footsteps sounded, she looked up. Adam entered the room, shirt in hand. She took it from him and hung it on a nearby hook. He wore the aqua robe she had given him, and although it was a simple garment, the pale color emphasized every striking feature. She decided his biological parents must have been beautiful, their genes creating a mixed-blood masterpiece.

   “Have you ever had a facial before?” she asked.

   He smiled again, his teeth white and straight. “No, but I’m looking forward to it.”

   “Have a seat, and I’ll explain the procedure,” she said, struggling to focus on her job. She hadn’t been this anxious since her state board exam. This jittery inside. How much physical perfection could one man inherit?

   He sat on the facial bed, his presence filling the small room. Sarah closed the door, knowing she had to. A relaxed setting enhanced the treatment.

   Once she briefed him, he reclined and she draped him with a coverlet. He had chosen to keep the room quiet rather than listen to a CD from Sarah’s collection. She had a variety of soft music as well as sounds from nature. She would have preferred to have a CD playing. The silence only made her more aware of her nervousness.

   “I’m going to cover your hair,” she told him, slipping her hands behind his neck. His hair, banded into a ponytail, felt smooth and thick. Healthy, she thought. Everything about Adam boasted strength.

   After analyzing and cleansing his skin, she began the massage. She knew all the clinical benefits of a facial massage, yet when her fingers connected with his skin, she forgot each and every one.

   She could have been a woman stroking her lover. A woman exploring his face, the chiseled angles and rawboned sensuality.

   Each manipulation felt erotic. Rolling movements, circular friction. She touched his forehead, his cheeks, the bridge of his nose. She allowed her fingers to roam his face, the pressure light but firm, slow yet rhythmic.

   Heat against heat, Sarah thought. Flesh against flesh. Adam kept his eyes closed, but he didn’t sleep. Instead he moaned his pleasure—a low, masculine sound.

   When she accidentally brushed his lips, he wet them afterward. She swallowed and moved down his chin, his neck.

   Mesmerized, she became aware of every breath he took, every muscle that twitched, the rise and fall of his chest, the flutter of his eyelids.

   He made another low sound and shifted his weight, causing the coverlet to slip. The V on his robe gaped. Sarah was tempted to slide her hands inside, massage his chest, his nipples.

   Catching her breath, she chastised herself. She had to end this now. What kind of esthetician fantasized about her client? A stranger?

   A beautiful stranger.

   Easing back as naturally as possible, she broke contact, lifting her hands to fill a basin with warm water.

   Adam opened his eyes, blinking as though awakening from a dream. He tilted his head back and looked at Sarah.

   “That was nice,” he said, his voice a husky whisper.

   She managed a shaky smile, uncertain of how to respond. Her fingertips still tingled, and the gaping robe still exposed his chest—gorgeous, golden-brown flesh. She even caught sight of a taut, muscular belly.

   Sarah adjusted the coverlet, knowing it was her professional place to do so. Adam didn’t seem to notice that his robe had slipped open, but then why would he? Most men bared their chests without modesty.

   “I’m going to remove the moisturizer, then prepare a mask,” she told him, an image of his navel imbedded in her mind.

   She continued the procedure, shielding his eyes with moist cotton pads. They didn’t talk while she applied the mask, and within an hour the treatment was complete, his skin firm and clean.

   He stood and smoothed his hair, his robe still loose, the belt barely tied. “Thank you, Sarah,” he said, coming forward to press some folded bills into her hand.

   “You’re welcome.” She accepted the tip, realizing they were only inches apart. He wasn’t wearing cologne, she thought, her heart fluttering in her breast. He smelled natural, like fresh-milled soap.

   “Will you have dinner with me tonight?”

   The invitation caught her by surprise. And so did her response. Without the slightest hesitation, Sarah agreed to share a meal with him—this tall, beautiful stranger. A man she knew she should avoid.

   

   Adam stood in the main square of Chinatown, waiting for his date. This was insane, he thought. No matter how hard he’d tried, he hadn’t been able to convince Sarah to allow him to pick her up at her apartment. She had insisted on meeting him.

   He checked his watch. 7:20 p.m. She was late. Was he about to be stood up? It would serve him right, he supposed. Plenty of women chased him, and he’d gotten used to the attention. But then, that attention was based on his looks, not on the man he was inside. And he wanted more than a superficial relationship. He wanted…

   What? A commitment?

   Someday, maybe. But he wasn’t looking for love. At least not at this time in his life. He had too many other issues, too many other goals—like finding his biological mother, bonding with his heritage. He couldn’t think about love and commitment. Not until he knew who he was and where he had come from.

   He released a heavy breath. So where did Sarah fit into this? Why was he so eager to see her again?

   Because she fascinated him, he realized. And she could lead him to his roots. Adam knew he was lost, a ship that needed to come to port. The adoption had him feeling so damn disconnected. For the past month he had been floating. Going nowhere.

   And he had the same vibe about Sarah. He suspected she was troubled, too. And that drew him to her, made him want to help. She was solid, real—so unlike the superficial women who chased him. She would make a good friend.

   A good friend? he asked himself. Or a compatible lover? He couldn’t very well deny the sexual spark between them. He hadn’t counted on it, but it was there—lurking, hiding, waiting to be released.

   Well he wasn’t about to release it. The last thing he needed was to complicate a new friendship with sex. He would just have to keep those urges under control.

   And just how was he supposed to do that? He had already booked another facial for next week. He wanted her to stroke him again, enchant him with her magic.

   Her mystery.

   Adam frowned. Already his hormones were interfering with a friendship that hadn’t even happened yet. He could find another connection to his heritage, couldn’t he? He didn’t need Sarah to show him the way.

   A beautiful, exotic woman. A dark-eyed Cherokee mystery.

   Damn. Maybe he should just forget the friendship and have an affair with her. A passionate one-night stand. That would satisfy his hormones, the unexpected lust.

   Disturbed by the thought, he shook his head. Maybe it would be better if Sarah did stand him up. Then he wouldn’t have to worry about their attraction.

   Adam checked his watch again, then glanced up and caught his breath. It was too late, he thought. Much too late.

   Beautiful, dark-eyed Sarah was already walking toward him, and all he could think about was tangling his hands in all that glorious hair and kissing her senseless.

Two

   Sarah scanned the menu, wishing she could think of something to say. She wasn’t good at small talk and was even worse at dating. How was she supposed to concentrate on what to order with Adam sitting across from her? A man who appeared relaxed and confident? He probably had the dating ritual down pat.

   She stole a quick glance. Of course he did. Look at him. God’s gift to womankind. He wore his hair in a ponytail, his clothes casual but trendy—a printed shirt and pre-washed jeans sporting a well-known label. California ranch wear, she decided, designed for the city cowboy. His rugged style appeared natural. He didn’t try to attract attention. He just did.

   He caught her eye, and she looked down, studied her hands.

   “Did you know that they don’t serve fortune cookies in China?”

   She glanced up again, forcing herself to hold his gaze. “Why not?”

   “They were invented in the U.S. They don’t exist in China.”

   “Have you been there?”

   “No. I read that on the Internet in a travel guide. I spend a lot of time online.”

   Sarah took a deep breath, told herself she would get through this date. It helped not thinking of him as a world traveler. She had never even been on a plane. “I’m glad they serve them here. Fortune cookies are my favorite part of a Chinese meal.”

   He smiled. “Me, too.”

   When his smile faded, their eyes met. They sat in a small red booth, candlelight flickering between them. His face fascinated her, but she had already touched it, explored the ridges and angles, the masculine texture of his skin. She didn’t want to remember every detail, but looking at him made that impossible.

   He lifted the teapot and offered her a refill. She shook her head. She hadn’t finished the first cup yet.

   “Let’s choose a few extra entrées so we can share,” he said.

   “All right.” She agreed even though the suggestion sounded oddly intimate. “I would prefer chicken and vegetables, though. I don’t eat red meat.”

   He smiled at her, something he did often, she noticed.

   “Me, neither,” he said, his voice as easy as his smile. “I guess that means we’re going to get along just fine.”

   Yes, she thought, if she could just get over her nervousness, tame the unwelcome flutter in her stomach.

   When the waiter arrived, they ordered a variety of dishes. Adam spoke a little Cantonese, enough to surprise Sarah and please the grinning waiter. Sarah wondered if Adam had learned the language on the Internet. He appeared to know a lot more than just the history of fortune cookies.

   “Ancient cultures fascinate me,” he told her. “I had some training in traditional Chinese medicine. It’s an integral part of their philosophy and religion. Much like the Native American culture.” He lifted his tea. “I’ve been reading about the Cherokee.”

   Sarah frowned. She didn’t want to discuss her heritage. And coming from Adam, the term Native American sounded almost glamorous. A far cry from her roots. She was just a simple Indian girl from Oklahoma.

   “Where did you get your formal training?” she asked, hoping to steer clear of Cherokee subjects.

   “First I attended a school of herbal studies in Northern California, then transferred to a university in London”

   “London? You went to school in England?” Maybe he was more of a world traveler than she had originally thought. “Did you like living there?”

   “Sure. It’s a beautiful country, and the University of Westminster was an excellent school.”

   His casual response made her feel even more Indian, and she hated the feeling. Adam’s adoptive mother might have been Latino, but he’d been raised in a predominantly white world. Apparently his brown skin hadn’t hindered his experiences. “It sounds exciting, but expensive, too.”

   “My dad was an accountant, one of those conservative guys who saved money for his son’s education. We weren’t rich, but I didn’t go without, either.”

   His adoptive father must have been an honorable man, she thought with a twinge of admiration and a sting of envy. Sarah’s father hadn’t saved a dime. She had struggled to pay for her own schooling.

   Their dinner arrived, and they ate in silence, his gaze catching hers between bites. Feeling shy, she glanced away. His mouth fascinated her. The way he moistened his lips before he lifted the fork.

   He leaned toward her, and suddenly, foolishly, she wished the table wasn’t between them.

   “Sarah?”

   “Yes?”

   “Are you enjoying your meal?”

   She nodded, even though her stomach was still alive with nerves, the flutter of feminine anxiety. “Yes. It’s quite good.”

   He smiled, and she took a deep breath, recalling the warmth of his skin.

   

   Night settled in the sky, scattering stars around a quarter moon. Adam and Sarah walked through the Chinatown courtyard, strolling in and out of boutiques. Adam loved the area. A few of the vendors knew him by name. He spent a lot of time in Chinatown, purchasing herbs and admiring the culture.

   He turned to look at Sarah. As many times as he came here, he had never brought a date. Not until today.

   She smiled a little shyly, and he considered holding her hand. Then reconsidered when she clutched her purse strap with the hand closest to his. There was no point in pushing too hard. If something developed between them, it would happen naturally.

   “Have you been to Chinatown before?” he asked.

   “Once, when I first moved here.”

   “And when was that?”

   “Six years ago. I was eighteen at the time.”

   Adam nodded. He could almost see her, fresh out of high school—a little Oklahoma girl heading for the golden state. She was still little, he realized. Small and feminine in a way that made him yearn to protect her. But whether or not she would welcome protection, he couldn’t be sure. In spite of her petite frame, independence shone through. She didn’t have to tell him that she had ventured to California alone.

   Independent yet vulnerable. Suddenly Adam was reminded of the stray cats that came to his door, the smooth, sleek creatures he couldn’t seem to resist. He gave them their space, but he fed them, too. And those scouting a cozy place to sleep inevitably found their way into his bed.

   Adam looked at Sarah again, wondering if she would find her way into his bed. If she would nuzzle and purr, arch and stretch against him. A smooth, sleek creature he wouldn’t be able to resist.

   Frowning, he shook his head. She wasn’t a lost kitten. And he was thinking with his libido, creating sexual scenarios on a first date. So much for not pushing too hard.

   “What’s your favorite thing about California?” he asked, forcing himself to clear his mind.

   She stopped to gaze at a window display. “That’s easy.” Turning toward him, she smiled. “The beaches. I love the sand and the surf. I like to go there at dusk, when it’s quiet.”

   She sighed, and Adam pictured her at the beach on a windy day, dressed in an oversize sweater and jeans, her waist-length hair blowing in the breeze. “You collect shells, don’t you?”

   She widened her eyes. “Yes. How did you know?”

   Because he could see her walking along the shore, shells glinting in her hand like pieces of eight. She was, he decided, a woman who appreciated simple treasures. “A good guess, I suppose. Do you want to check out this shop?”

   “Sure.”

   They entered the boutique and scanned the crammed interior. It held a collection of goods, many of them jewelry and trinkets, shiny items meant to attract a woman’s eye. Sarah looked around, then wandered over to a small circular rack of clothing. Intrigued, Adam watched her.

   She admired a satin dress, tilting her head as she stroked the shiny red fabric.

   “It’s pretty,” Adam said, noting the traditional mandarin collar and intricate embroidered design.

   “Yes.” Her voice held a note of feminine awe.

   The proprietor, a tiny Chinese woman offering a friendly smile, walked over to them. She was old, Adam thought, ancient and charming. She patted Sarah’s shoulder with a gnarled hand.

   “You try on,” she said, her accent making her English choppy.

   Sarah turned, hugged the garment in a startled reaction. “Oh, no. Thank you, though.”

   “We have a private fitting room.” The woman pointed to a corner where an ornate brass rod housed a silky green drape.

   “I’m just browsing.” Sarah replaced the dress, giving it one last glance.

   The old woman said, “Okay,” then headed toward the front counter.

   Perplexed, Adam studied his date. She had looked at the garment with longing, yet refused to indulge herself. Sarah Cloud was a mystery, a dark-eyed princess who wore plain clothes and collected seashells at dusk. He didn’t know how to pursue her, wasn’t sure if he should try. She confused as much as fascinated him.

   “Why didn’t you try the dress on?” he asked.

   She crossed her arms in what seemed like a protective, if not slightly defiant gesture. “It’s too fancy.”

   “I think it’s perfect.”

   “Not for me.”

   Did everyone see her beauty but her? he wondered. Most beautiful women in L.A. were used to attention, yet Sarah didn’t appear to notice an appreciative eye. Of course she wasn’t from California, he reminded himself. And that alone appealed to him. Since he’d lost his parents, the City of Angels and everything it represented no longer felt right. But in spite of his European education, it was all he knew.

   Sarah had asked him about England, and he had tried to respond as casually as possible. His parents had died while he was in London. He had come home to bury them, then returned to finish his studies, knowing his career was all he had left. But that hadn’t been something he could discuss over dinner, not on a first date, not when he’d wanted to keep the evening light. And there was nothing light about the death of his parents—the caring, supportive family that had lied to him. It hurt so badly, sometimes he couldn’t breathe.

   Adam looked at Sarah and noticed her arms were still crossed. She was tense, but suddenly so was he. “Let’s buy something,” he said, hoping to ease the tension. “You pick out a souvenir for me, and I’ll choose one for you.”

   “You’re kidding, right?”

   “Nope.” And he intended to con her into the red dress. “Come on.” He led her to the other side of the store. “Find something you think I’d like.”

   Baffled, Sarah wandered through the tiny boutique. She didn’t know what to choose for Adam. She wasn’t an experienced shopper. And the only items she collected came from the sea. She didn’t buy shells; she lifted them from the sand, even broken and chipped ones.

   He smiled at her, and her stomach unleashed a flurry of wings. Beautiful butterflies, she decided. It wasn’t nerves this time. It was the flutter of attraction.

   Curious about his upbringing, she wanted to ask him about his mother and why he was determined to replace her with the woman who had given him up. But she decided now wasn’t the time for that sort of conversation.

   Maybe she was curious about Adam’s mother because she missed her own. Sarah didn’t have anything to remember her mother by, no outdated dresses, no feminine little keepsakes. Her father had burned everything. But that had been part of their culture, the old Cherokee way. A path she no longer followed.

   Sarah looked up at Adam. He watched her. Closely. Maybe too closely. Before he could ask what she had been thinking about, she returned to the business at hand. She still had to find him a souvenir.

   Scanning the shelves, she caught sight of a teapot. But not just any teapot. This one was adorned with a hand-painted dragon. The serpent’s body shimmered with gold, and its eyes were set with shiny red stones. Yes, she thought, a powerful creature spun from legend. A man like Adam would slay this beast, assume the role of the protective knight, the fairy-tale prince.

   She lifted it, turned it in her hand. The serpent’s eyes shined back at her. The detail was exquisite. The dragon seemed alive, ready to breathe a burst of iridescent flames. She could almost feel the heat. The scorch of fire.

   “This,” she said. “Do you like it?”

   Adam blinked. “It’s a teapot, Sarah.”

   “It has a dragon on it,” she pointed out.

   “Yeah, but it’s still a teapot.”

   She stifled a smile. He looked as if she had just squelched his masculinity. “You drink tea, so what’s wrong with a teapot?”

   “Nothing, I guess. It’s just not what I figured you’d choose.”

   She touched the serpent. “I think he’s dangerous.” Like the way Adam made her feel. Suddenly she was caught up in the moment, in the fairy tale she had created in her mind.

   Adam studied the teapot, and the winged flutter erupted in her stomach again. And when he took a small step toward her, the motion intensified.

   “Okay. I’ll take the dragon,” he said. “But I want you to try on that dress.”

   Her heartbeat jumped. “Why?”

   “Because I want to see you in it.”

   “It won’t look right on me,” she said, feeling suddenly foolish. “I’m not a red satin kind of girl.” She wore mostly pastels, simple skirts and blouses constructed of washable fabrics. Never red. And never satin.

   “You’ll never know until you try it on.”

   Was he challenging her? Baiting her? Either way, she knew she had to prove him wrong. Sarah considered herself a practical woman. She had no use for such a luxurious garment. It wouldn’t fit her looks or her lifestyle.

   “Fine. I’ll try it on.” She turned and headed toward the clothing rack, knowing Adam followed. Retrieving the dress, she darted into the fitting room without glancing back.

   She closed the curtain, removed her wedged sandals and unbuttoned her blouse. Slipping off her skirt, she eyed the dress. It looked much too bright next to her mint green ensemble. The dress zipped in back, so she peeled it open and stepped into the opening. The moment the fabric touched her skin, she shivered. It felt cool. Slick. Almost wet.

   Fighting those sensations, she forced herself to continue. She couldn’t reach the zipper to close it all the way, nor could she attach the tiny hooks that fastened behind the collar. She fumbled with them, then gave up and studied herself.

   The woman in the mirror startled her. Nothing about the image seemed familiar. Her waist-length hair spilled over red satin, like onyx melting over rubies—jewels from the fairy tale she had created. Tilting her head, she ran her hands over her body. Even with the zipper partially undone, the dress molded to her curves.

   Decadent. Sensual.

   Wrong, she told herself, suddenly nervous. This wasn’t her.

   With a pounding heart, she fastened her sandals and emerged from the fitting room. She would prove to Adam the dress wasn’t right. She would…

   …slam into his gaze and lose her breath.

   He stood tall and handsome, watching her, his stare bewitching. The knight. The fairy-tale prince. The dragon slayer.

   “I told you it was too fancy,” she said.

   “No,” he countered quietly. “It’s perfect. Let me buy it for you.”

   She shook her head, but he persisted. “Wear it now, Sarah. Wear it for me.”

   How in God’s name could she refuse? Deny the husky pleasure in his voice?

   Realizing the zipper was still undone, she chewed her lip. “I…um…couldn’t zip it all the way. Will you ask the saleslady to help me?”

   He smiled. “Does that mean you’re going to let me buy it for you?”

   She nodded. “Yes. Thank you. I’ve never owned anything like this before.”

   Adam moved closer. “I can zip it for you.”

   No, she thought. Her heart was already thumping against her ribs. And her stomach. That wild winged flutter. “But it has these tiny hooks.” She placed her hand on the back of her neck, trying to explain, trying to keep him from coming any closer.

   His smile turned boyish. “I think I can manage.”

   He didn’t give her a choice. He approached her, so she turned around. How many women had he dressed? she wondered. Or undressed?

   “Lift your hair,” he said, his voice quiet once again.

   Decadent. Sleek. Dangerous. The words spun in her head, making her dizzy.

   She pulled her hair to one side, felt him touch her. His hands were deft, steady and controlled.

   He zipped the dress, then went after the hooks, his breath brushing her nape. A shiver raced up her spine, but she wasn’t cold. She was warm. Much too warm.

   “All done.”

   “Thank you.”

   She turned and found herself inches from him.

   He moistened his lips, and she swallowed. Was he going to kiss her? She wanted him to, yet she couldn’t imagine letting it happen. Not here. Not in this tiny boutique. There were other customers, and the saleslady watched them from behind the counter.

   Sarah stepped back and lifted her arm where the price tag dangled. “This needs to be cut.”

   He nodded, but didn’t say anything. He was staring at her. Fixated, it seemed, on her mouth. Finally, he blinked and smiled.

   Still a little dizzy, she returned his smile, and they walked to the front counter. He paid for his purchase with a credit card. She with cash. The old woman removed the tag on the dress and packed the teapot in a sturdy box. Sarah, wrapped gloriously in red satin, accepted a shopping bag with her old clothes folded inside.

   They stepped into the night air, and she filled her lungs, chasing away the dizziness. An array of buildings surrounded them, a blend of ancient architecture and modern accents.

   “Where did you learn to speak Cantonese?” she asked Adam, as he guided her toward a secluded bench.

   “From coming here and talking to the people.” He placed his package on the ground and waited for Sarah to sit. “But I only know conversational phrases. Languages aren’t easy to grasp unless you use them all the time.”

   She nodded. She only remembered bits and pieces of the Cherokee dialect, words her mother had spoken. But that seemed like a lifetime ago.

   They sat quietly, stars glittering in the sky, a small breeze cooling the summer air. Sarah enjoyed the silence until Adam’s gaze became too intense. She shifted a little, uncrossed her legs, then crossed them again, unsure of what to do with herself. The dizziness returned—the shaky, wild, fluttery sensation.

   She looked away, pretended to study a building, her pulse racing.

   Would sex make her feel this way? she wondered. Hot and hungry? Excited yet nervous? Sarah was a virgin—a woman who still lived in the shadow of an old-fashioned upbringing, keeping herself pure for love.

   Or was that a lie? she asked herself. Was she saving herself for the right man? Or using her virginity as an excuse to protect her heart?

   “What are you thinking about?”

   Adam’s question startled her. “Nothing important,” she responded, knowing she couldn’t tell him where her mind had wandered.

   “I was thinking about dragons,” he said.

   “What about them?”

   His voice turned quiet, a little husky. “The embroidery on your dress. I didn’t realize it before, but it’s a dragon.”

   “It is?” She glanced down, saw the image come suddenly to life. What had looked like an intricate pattern was actually a gold serpent twining around her breasts, her tummy, her hips. And Adam’s gaze followed every curve, desire flashing in his eyes.

   She couldn’t stop what was happening, nor did she want to. They moved in perfect harmony. Synchronized, slow—dancers coming together at the same moment. She wet her lips. He slid his hands into her hair. She made a kittenish sound, and he kissed her.

   Pleasure caught at the back of her throat, then flowed through every vein, every cell, every muscle. She grew hot. Needy. Her flesh burned, her nipples ignited. She wanted him to caress her, slay the dragon scorching her body.

   He did. He touched, stroked, ran those clever hands over the fire. She had never felt so helpless, yet so completely alive. A smoldering kiss in public. It wasn’t proper, but God help her, she didn’t care.

   They were in their own world, and nothing could penetrate it but passion. His tongue swept her mouth—a mating—over and over. The motion was sexual. And that was what she wanted.

   She had needs, strong, overwhelming needs. She wouldn’t lose her heart. Sex wasn’t love. She could sleep with him tonight.

   Sleep with him? Was that what she wanted? To lose her virginity to a man she barely knew? A man obsessed with his newly discovered Cherokee roots? A man romanticizing the culture she’d left behind?

   Her head reeling, Sarah pulled away from Adam’s kiss.

   He made her flesh tingle, her heartbeat accelerate, but she couldn’t be with him. No matter what her mother had said, modern warriors didn’t exist. And neither did dragon slayers.

   “Sarah, what’s wrong?”

   “I think it’s time for me to go,” she responded, clasping her nervous hands in her lap. She needed to escape this moment, the spicy taste of his kiss still lingering on her tongue.

   “But why? Tell me what’s wrong.”

   “Nothing. I just want to go home.” She stood, lifted her purse. She couldn’t explain, couldn’t ease his conscience. He hadn’t offended her. He had aroused her, made her feel too good.

   He rose from the bench, his gaze searching hers for the answer she refused to give. “I’ll walk you to your car.”

   “Honestly, Adam. I’ll be fine. Thank you for dinner. For the dress.” Something she should have never accepted. Gathering the bag of her old clothes, she left him standing at the bench, Chinatown dazzling around him.

Three

   A week passed, and Adam still battled his emotions. His work day had ended, but he sat in the conference room at the clinic, checking his watch. Then rechecking it. In twenty minutes, he had an appointment with Sarah. He hadn’t spoken to her since their date, and he’d expected her to reschedule his facial, refer him to another esthetician. But she hadn’t done that.

   Of course not. She was too professional to turn away a client, to let personal feelings interfere with her job.

   And what exactly were her feelings? he wondered. To him, their kiss had seemed so right, so naturally erotic, especially when she’d made those sexy little sounds. Like a stray kitten, he thought, mewling in satisfaction. Now that damn fantasy wouldn’t go away.

   Maybe she didn’t want to be the object of his desire, the woman he lusted after. Adam frowned. Had he really put his hands all over her? Yeah, he had. And even though he longed to do it again, he still owed her an apology. That kiss had been a little too wild, too hungry for public display.

   An apology would set things right. They could be friends, couldn’t they? They didn’t have to get romantically involved. He could lay his urges to rest, but he couldn’t let Sarah go. Not completely.

   He was too caught in the mystery surrounding her. Why was she hiding from her heritage? What could have possibly happened to turn her away from her roots? Adam needed to know. Being Cherokee was their link, a bond he hoped to strengthen.

   He left the clinic and entered the salon. The blond receptionist grinned when she saw him. He returned her smile, but just as he approached the desk, he spotted Sarah coming around the corner.

   The blonde spoke up first. “Sarah, your five o’clock is here.”

   “Thank you, Tina,” she responded, shifting her gaze to Adam.

   He walked toward her, and she slipped her hands in her pockets. She wore a white lab coat over her clothes, but it didn’t make her look clinical. Instead she looked pure—a dark-haired, dark-eyed angel.

   “Hi,” he said.

   “Hi,” she repeated, her voice fighting a strained note. “Go ahead and change, and I’ll meet you in the treatment room.”

   “Okay.” He knew the receptionist was watching, and he knew it made Sarah even more uncomfortable than she already was. He should cancel the facial, let her off the hook, but he needed some quiet time with her, to apologize without an audience.

   Five minutes later, he entered the treatment room, shirt in hand. He hung it on a nearby hook and waited for Sarah to acknowledge him. She was still setting up, filling disposable containers with creams and lotions.

   She turned, and their eyes met. Silence, still and awkward, engulfed the room. Neither spoke. Adam became aware of everything—the pounding of his heart beneath the robe, the hitch in Sarah’s breath, the way her hands shook.

   He had no right to put her through this. He had to ease the tension. Walking toward her, he managed a smile, even though his heart picked up speed. Being near her did that to him, he realized. And it wasn’t a comforting thought, trying to calm a woman when he wasn’t particularly stable himself.

   Sensuality sizzled between them. Nervous and edgy, maybe. But it was there, a thickness in the air he couldn’t deny. Couldn’t control.

   “Let me help,” he said, reaching for one of the disposable containers.

   “No, it’s okay, I can…”

   Their fingers brushed, an innocent touch that sent shock waves through his unstable heart, his yearning body.

   Sarah must have felt it, too. She pulled back, knocking over a nearby jar. It rolled onto the floor, spilling a citrus-scented lotion.

   “Damn it.” Her voice shook as badly as her hands. She dashed over to the paper-towel dispenser and tore one in her haste. “I can’t seem to do anything right today.”

   Because of me, Adam thought. Because their attraction was so intense.

   She knelt on the floor and began soaking up the mess. He lowered himself beside her. “It was my fault,” he said, taking the paper towels away from her. “I startled you.”

   “It was an accident.” Avoiding eye contact, she released an audible breath. “I’ll get something to clean up the residue.” She went to a cabinet and returned with a spray cleanser and another wad of paper towels.

   They worked side by side, concentrating on the task at hand. They didn’t look at each other, didn’t speak. Instead they gazed at the vinyl floor as if the pattern held great importance.

   “I think we should cancel the facial,” he said, when the overwhelming silence became too much to bear.

   “I think so, too.” She sat back on her heels. “I’m just not myself today. I almost called in sick.”

   Which said it all, he thought. She had been anxiety-ridden about seeing him, enough to make herself ill. His apology was long overdue.

   “Sarah, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get carried away last week. I shouldn’t have kissed you the way I did. And certainly not in public.”

   She twisted a dry paper towel. “I…um…we both got carried away. It wasn’t all your fault.”

   “Then why don’t we start over?” He stood and offered her a hand, trying to keep his voice casual, his heartbeat steady.

   She accepted his hand, but let go the moment she was on her feet. Leaning over, she picked up the soiled paper towels, then tossed them into the wastebasket. “I don’t think we should go out again. I don’t think it would work.”

   “I meant as friends.” He tried not to frown. The rejection stung, even if he had been prepared for it. “I know you’re not comfortable dating me. But I think we have a lot in common, and I’d like to be friends.”

   She sent him a small smile. “That’s a nice thing to say.”

   “Then you’re willing to start over?”

   Sarah nodded, although a part of her could still taste his kiss, feel the heat of his body next to hers. Struggling with the image, she sanitized her hands, wringing them together. In spite of their attraction, friendship was best. Dating Adam was out of the question.

   Why? she asked herself. Why was she going to deprive herself of his kiss, his touch?

   Because it might lead to sex, a step she wasn’t ready to take. How could she become intimate with a man obsessed with finding his Cherokee family when she had left her own behind? And then, of course, there was her virginity. She couldn’t pretend that her moral upbringing didn’t matter. She had made a promise to her mother. And she couldn’t forget that youthful vow.

   Don’t give yourself to a man unless he’s special to you, unless you love him.

   But how will I know the difference?

   You’ll know, sweet Sarah. You’ll know.

   She could see herself sitting on the edge of a lace-draped bed, gazing at her mother, her head filled with wonder. It could have been yesterday. Or it could have been a lifetime ago. A dreamy twelve-year-old girl who had just experienced her first menstrual cycle.

   I’ll wait for the right man, Mom. I promise.

   She blinked, looked at Adam and noticed how stunning he was—the planes and angles of his face, the broad shoulders, slim hips. And his smile, that warm, genuine smile.

   Yes, he was handsome, but she wouldn’t fool herself into believing he was the right man.

   “Sarah?

   “Yes?”

   “Will you have dinner with me tomorrow night?” He held up a hand as if to fend off an expected protest. “A friendship dinner at my house. Just a casual meal.” He flashed that devastating smile. “What do you say?”

   “You’re offering to cook for me?”

   “Well, sort of.” His grin turned a little sheepish. “I’ll probably just throw some sandwiches together. Maybe a salad.”

   Sarah laughed. “How can a guy who eats health food not know how to cook?”

   “Oh, I don’t know. He lives on veggie burgers. The frozen kind you pop in the microwave.” He smiled at her again. “So, will you come over tomorrow night? Suffer through one of my bland meals?”

   “Yes,” she said, charmed by his honesty. Besides, she thought, curiosity had gotten the best of her. She couldn’t help but wonder where he lived.

   

   He lived in a guest house in Sherman Oaks, not too far from Sarah’s apartment. She smoothed her blouse, then knocked on the door. She had actually stressed about what to wear, then decided on jeans and a plain blue top. Everything she owned was simple, she supposed. Everything but the red satin dress.

   Adam opened the door and stunned her senses. Classic rock played on the stereo, and his jeans were faded, the knees fraying just a little. She heard a loud “meow” and watched a black cat brush her leg as it darted past.

   “Hey, Sarah. Come on in. Don’t worry about Darrin,” he added, apparently referring to the cat, “he’s allowed to go out.”

   Sarah entered the house and took in her surroundings—hardwood floors, heavy oak furniture and tall, leafy plants in every corner.

   The clean, masculine decor suited him. As always, Adam wore his long hair secured in a ponytail.

   Handing him a small packet, she said, “It’s fresh honey. For your tea. I didn’t know what else to bring.”

   “Thanks. I guess you’re not going to let me forget about that teapot, are you?”

   “What?” She blinked and realized he was teasing her. “You’re an herbalist. You’re supposed to brew your own tea.”

   She gave a start when something moved. Another cat, she told herself foolishly as a furry being pounced onto the back of the sofa. This one was white with big curious eyes.

   “How many cats to do you have?” she inquired, petting the friendly creature.

   “There’s usually five or six around here. Most of them are strays, so the number changes. Some just visit and others have decided to stay. Cameo is a permanent resident. She’s expecting a litter soon.” He nodded to the sturdy feline. “She showed up at my door pregnant. There wasn’t much I could do.”

   But spoil her, Sarah supposed. Cameo looked pampered and well loved.

   “Dinner won’t be long,” Adam said. “I was in the middle of fixing the salad, and the spaghetti is almost done.”

   “Spaghetti? I thought we were having sandwiches.”

   He shrugged. “I figured boiling some water and opening a jar of sauce wouldn’t be too hard.”

   She laughed. “Can I help with anything?”

   “Sure. The table still needs to be set.”

   His roomy kitchen displayed a garden window filled with potted herbs. The appliances were white, the butcher-block table just big enough for two. She hung her purse on the back of a chair and inhaled the cooking aroma. Apparently he’d added fresh oregano to the store-bought sauce.

   “Dinner smells wonderful.”

   “I’m figuring it out.” He smiled. “Would you like something to drink? Water? Milk? Juice?”

   His beverage selection pleased her and so did the fact that she didn’t see a bottle of wine breathing on the counter. She avoided alcohol, even with dinner. “No thanks, I’m fine.”

   The CD on the stereo shifted from classic rock to vintage country, and she realized his taste in music was as diverse as her own. Stray cats and eclectic songs. She couldn’t help but like him.

   He pointed out the appropriate cabinets and drawers, and she set the table, feeling surprisingly relaxed. His plates and bowls were heavy stoneware, his silverware stamped with a geometric pattern. She turned and spotted the dragon sitting on a cluttered oak shelf. Its jeweled eyes glowed back at her.

   Adam removed the pasta from the stove and dumped it into a large serving bowl.

   And then he winked, jarring her composure with a perfect white smile. She had to tell her woman’s heart to behave. It flipped in her chest, forcing her to catch her breath. He was just too handsome for his own good.

   “Dinner’s ready, sweet Sarah.”

   Sweet Sarah. Stunned, she stared at him, her jittery heart flooding with emotion. Her mother used to call her that.

   “Lemon?”

   “I’m sorry, what?”

   “Do you want lemon?” He poured her a glass of carbonated water, held it up.

   “Yes, thank you.” She told herself it was coincidence. It didn’t mean anything. He didn’t know about her nickname, didn’t know that it made her ache for childhood dreams and fairy-tale wishes. The beauty her father had destroyed.

   They sat across from each other, a ceiling fan turning slowly overhead.

   Refusing to focus on her jumbled emotions, Sarah started a conversation. “Didn’t you just move into this house about a month ago?”

   Adam nodded. “About the same time I started working at the clinic. Regardless, I’m due for a vacation. I haven’t had any time off in years.”

   “So did they agree to give you some time off even though you’re new?”

   “Yeah. A couple of weeks in August.”

   “I was thinking about taking a vacation this summer, too. Sleep in and be lazy. Sometimes it feels good to do nothing.” She placed her napkin on her lap. “So what made you decide to switch jobs anyway?”

   “The new facility has more to offer. There’s a yoga studio and a natural pharmacy in the building. There’s also a masseuse and a variety of practitioners.” He poured dressing on his salad, then glanced up. “I would love to open a wellness center someday. Of course, there are some things I would do differently.”

   Sarah understood. She often thought of opening her own skin-care salon. She tasted the spaghetti, alternating bites between her salad.

   “Adam, why is it so important for you to find your biological mother? Why would you want to replace your parents with the woman who gave you up?”

   “I never said I was trying to replace them. But damn it, I don’t understand why they didn’t tell me that I was adopted.”

   So he was hurt, she thought. And confused. “Maybe they were protecting you.”

   He made a face. “From what? Come on, Sarah. I had the right to know.”

   She sighed. “I hate to say this, but there’s a good chance that your biological mother won’t want to see you. She might feel as though you’re interfering in her life.”

   He lifted his water, took a sip. “Then that’s a chance I’ll have to take. Besides, I think most women give up their babies because they’re unable to care for them, not because they don’t want them.”

   “It was a closed adoption.”

   “That doesn’t mean anything. My mom could have been forced to give me up. She could have been too young or too poor. Or it could have been one of those tragic-type love stories. It’s obvious my father was white. Maybe the difference in their cultures kept them apart.” He reached for a breadstick, dipped it into a bowl of marinara sauce. “I’m not going to quit searching. After I find my mom, I’m going to look for my dad. I want to know both of them.”

   Sarah shook her head. Did he have foolish notions about reuniting his parents? Bringing lost lovers back together?

   “You’re still skeptical,” he said.

   She shrugged. “It’s my nature, I suppose.”

   “But you would probably do the same thing if you were in my situation. Uncovering the circumstances of my birth will fill a void in my life. I’m part Cherokee, Sarah. I belong to a nation of people I know nothing about.”

   “Maybe your biological mother didn’t want you to be raised by an Indian family.”

   “That’s possible, I suppose. But if that’s the way she felt, then I need to know why. Don’t you think I have a right to know about my culture, learn everything I can?” He paused, pointed to the plants crowding the window sill. “I’ve devoted most of my adult life to alternative medicine, but that didn’t come from the way I was raised. My adoptive mom grew herbs for cooking purposes, but I took it a step further. I studied about their healing properties on my own. Isn’t it possible that’s the Cherokee in me?” He met her gaze, his voice taking on a wistful tone. “Maybe there was a medicine man in my family.”

   Sarah sighed. She respected the healer in Adam, but he was caught up in the Indian mystique, glorifying it in a way that would only lead to disappointment. She knew firsthand that the old ways were lost. Her father was living proof of the Cherokee lifestyle today—false promises and alcoholism. There wasn’t a medicine man on earth who could take away the pain William Cloud had caused.

   When the opportunity arose, Sarah changed the topic of conversation. She didn’t want to talk about being Cherokee, didn’t want to think about it or relive it in her mind.

   

   After dinner, Adam and Sarah sat on the patio, the sky sprinkled with stars, the summer air cooled by a soft, intermittent breeze. Adam admired his companion, thinking how beautiful she looked—her hair a long, luxurious curtain, her eyes as dark and mysterious as the night. No wonder she had come to the City of Angels. She was one of them, he thought. A lost angel.

   Something was wrong in her life, and he wanted to fix it, make her pain go away.

   “Do you eat sweets anymore?” she asked.

   Adam quirked an eyebrow. Her question seemed out of the blue, but everything about Sarah Cloud was unpredictable. “No. At least I haven’t in a long time.”

   “Me, neither. But don’t you ever want to cheat?”

   He couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah. Every once in a while I get a craving.”

   “Me, too. Chocolate eclairs are my favorite. I love the custard filling.”

   She made a hungry little moaning sound, and Adam pictured her mouth sinking into the rich, creamy pastry. Damn it. Now he wanted to touch her, slide his arms around her waist, ease his body next to hers, slip his tongue…

   He studied her lips, the full, alluring shape. Kissing wasn’t an option. He had agreed to friendship. No romantic entanglement.

   Then why couldn’t he convince his hormones of that?

   He sipped his tea, hoping the honey-flavored brew would ease his craving, give his mouth something to do. The taste of her, the fevered flavor of their forbidden kiss, still lingered in his mind.

   “Do you want to cheat next time?” he asked.

   Her voice turned soft. “Are we talking about dessert?”

   “Yes,” he responded. “We won’t be so guilty if we do it together.”

   She looked at him from across the table, and like magnets drawn to metal, their gazes locked and held. Sarah pushed her hair off her shoulder, and Adam gripped the handle on his cup. They could move, make unimportant gestures, but they couldn’t take their eyes off each other. Couldn’t stop staring.

   Suddenly the world around them ceased, sounds and scents fading. She felt it, too, he thought. The sexual pull. The heat that wasn’t supposed to happen. They weren’t talking about chocolate eclairs.

   “I don’t think cheating is a good idea,” she said, breaking their unnerving stare.

   “Yeah,” he agreed, his voice huskier than usual. “We have more discipline than that.”

   She folded her hands on her lap. “Of course we do.”

   They sat quietly then, and Adam noticed the world had returned. The breeze blew a little stronger, stirring scents from his garden. He turned toward the plants and studied the small crop, needing to focus on something other than the attraction he had vowed to ignore.

   “I read that when traditional Cherokees gather wild herbs, they ask a plant for its permission to be gathered, then leave a small gift of thanks,” he said, thinking it was a beautiful practice. He wondered how it would feel to leave a shining bead on the ground in place of a plant.

   “Was that in one of your text books?” she asked.

   He shook his head. “I subscribe to a Cherokee newspaper. I get it online, in digest form, and they post cultural tidbits in every issue. Unfortunately my education didn’t include Native American practices, at least not to any degree.”

   “The elders pass along things like that.”

   “I don’t know any elders,” he said, watching her tight expression, the one that came over her face whenever he mentioned their heritage. “You’re the only Cherokee I know.”

   “I can’t help you, Adam. I don’t follow the old ways anymore.”

   He scooted his chair forward. “Why not?” he pressed, hoping to uncover her mystery, unveil the true woman, the soul behind the quiet, exotic beauty.

   She didn’t respond. Instead she reached for her tea and held the mug, drawing comfort, it seemed, from the warmth.

   He saw sadness in her eyes, the loneliness reflected in his own. They were meant to be part of each other’s lives, he thought. He wouldn’t let this lost angel fly away.

   “I don’t think being Cherokee is anything to be proud of,” she said finally.

   He didn’t know how to react, so he waited for her to continue. She did, after she tasted her tea.

   “When I was young my mother filled my head with all of those romantic notions about the old ways. I was taught to believe in the unity of family and have pride in my heritage.” She met Adam’s gaze, her voice distant. “Cherokee men were supposed to be warriors—their role to remain strong and provide for their wife and children.”

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