Pre-Release Final Edit Excerpt:
Corinne ignored him and got to work stowing her belongings in their proper places. In such a tiny space, organization and tidiness were mandatory. He followed her back outside to the stump of an old oak leveled off and sanded smooth after the remnant gales of a southern hurricane had toppled it. Cleaver in hand, she lay one largemouth bass on the stump and raised the blade. Another hand wrapped around her wrist, holding it. She looked into the silver eyes of the stranger. He raised one finely drawn eyebrow and, without speaking, gently extracted the cleaver from her hand. With his other hand, he drew her away from the stump. He gave her a pointed look that needed no words to explain he would clean the fish.
“Whatever,” she muttered and shrugged her shoulders before going back inside. It was, she mused, quite possibly the most idiotic thing she’d done that day, leaving a strange man outside with a cleaver. What if he happened to be an axe murderer?
She snorted and giggled at her own absurdity as she pulled a cast iron skillet from the cupboard and set it on the stove. A twist of the wrist, a hiss and a whoosh, and blue flame rose from the burner. Corinne found some dill-infused olive oil and drizzled it into the pan. A heady scent quickly rose. She grabbed a bundle of asparagus and rinsed the spears, a lemon and cut it in half, salt, pepper, and leftover rice pilaf from the day before. She loosened the lid on the rice and popped it into the small microwave oven for reheating.
Two perfectly cleaned and filleted fish slapped down on the countertop beside her. Without speaking the man turned on the spigot and washed his hands and the cleaver in the sink. Corinne found her gaze drawn to those hands, large but not crude, the fingers long and elegant and capable looking. When he finished, she rinsed the fillets, patted them dry with paper towels, and lay them in the skillet. The flesh sizzled. She dumped the asparagus spears into the skillet, too. Knowing she had a few minutes—not many—she pulled down two of her four plates and retrieved the necessary silverware.
“Thanks for cleaning the fish,” she said and held out the plates and silverware. “You can set the table. Cups are in the upper cabinet left of the sink. Napkins are in the drawer below the silverware.”
The man looked down his straight nose at her, faintly horrified, but he took what Corinne handed him and obeyed her order. With a spatula, she checked the underside of the fish and, satisfied with the golden brown color, flipped it. She turned the asparagus spears to ensure they cooked on all sides, squeezed the lemon over the contents of the skillet, and sprinkled salt and pepper. The correct buttons pressed, the microwave hummed and the old turntable rattled.
She placed a potholder on the table and transferred the skillet from the stovetop to the table. A moment later, she transferred the reheated rice to the table and extracted a serving spoon from a drawer.
“Bon appétit,” she said in her best imitation of Julia Child as she seated herself and gestured for her guest to take the seat across from her.
He looked at her with a puzzled frown.
“I’m not a good mimic,” she acknowledged with good cheer. “You should hear my Jacques Pépin imitation. It’s even worse.”
He blinked at her. She sighed, crossed herself, folded her hands, and bowed her head to quickly murmur a rote prayer over the food on the table. She crossed herself again and gave him a determinedly bright smile.
“So, tell me about yourself, like your name,” she said as she used a fork and spatula to transfer an entire fillet and several asparagus spears to his plate. He simply looked at her. “You’ve been watching me for the last few days. I know you have. Mind telling me why?”
She spooned rice onto his plate and he picked up his fork. She waited with an expectant attitude as he sampled her cooking.
“Oh, I forgot drinks,” she exclaimed and jumped up to retrieve a pitcher half full of iced tea. She poured and set the pitcher on the table.
“Will you at least tell me your name?” she begged as she filled her own plate. “You look like the Grim Reaper frowning at me.”
Her guest met her gaze, his unblinking, and he finally replied in a low, somewhat rusty baritone, “Uberon.”
She gifted him with a polite smile and said, steel lacing every syllable, “Thank you. Now please tell me why you’ve been shadowing me.”
Corinne choked on the tea she attempted to swallow. Setting the glass down, she said, “What do you mean by that?”
“You’re mine,” he repeated, his voice low, quiet, and calm as though he declared nothing more momentous than the state of the weather. He gestured at his plate with his fork and added, “This is good.”