Under Her Skin (Blank Canvas #1) by Adrian Anders
Battered by a life determined to tear him down
This quiet ex-con’s scarred hands may be the gentlest touch she’ll ever know.
…if only life were a fairy tale where Beauty was allowed to keep her Beast
Ivan thought the world was through giving him second chances. Who’d want a rough ex-con with a savior complex and a bad habit of bringing home helpless strays? Everyone in Blackwood, Virginia knew he wasn’t good enough for the fine things in life; they knew he was too damaged to save. He just needed to keep his head down, work himself to the bone, and pretend he was content with the lot he was given.
Until she came into his life. Until she changed everything.
Until he realized he would do anything, fight anyone, tear the world apart if it meant saving her.
He was bent low over the anvil, hammering a piece of bright-red, burning metal with a mallet. Sparks flew like some kind of crazy fairy dust. He looked magical and mythical and so very…right. Powerful back and arms and hands worked in concert to hammer order into iron, and an errant thought escaped: images of him working her over the same way. Shaping and molding her into something strong and lasting. She trembled.
When Uma glanced up, Ivan was watching her. Only he no longer looked like the same man. This Ivan was a whole new creature, transformed. Intimidating in an entirely different way. He looked pleased to see Uma, but insecure, awaiting a verdict.
“Oh,” she stammered out. “Wow, you’re… Just wow.”
And what a verdict it was. Gone was the beast she’d had a grudging connection with two nights before. This man was breathtakingly handsome.
“You shaved. And you cut your hair and… It’s…
Wow. Amazing.” The shock of the change was solid in the pit of her stomach. Attraction, she thought, skittering away from the notion.
Ivan got a pleased, self-conscious look on his face. A kid given a compliment he didn’t know what to do with. It was adorable.
“Come on in and have a seat,” he said a little too loudly, like maybe the beard had muffled his voice as well as his looks. As Uma walked past him, he leaned over his table, grabbed an earmuff-like thing off a hook, and handed it to her. “Put this on. I just need to finish up.”
She pulled the ear protectors over her head and moved to her armchair in the corner while he returned to his hammering.
He worked and she watched, transfixed. Each strike of cold metal to hot was precisely aimed. The vibrations hummed through every cell of her body—the same rhythm she’d come to depend on nightly. Only this time, she felt it from the inside out.
Sparks blossomed in showers of bright gold, a halo for Ivan’s body. He was an alchemist, a god creating worlds.
And his face. Oh, the man’s face. Dark brows drawn low over eyes half-closed against the light, mouth tight, chin and jaw rigid, clamped in stern concentration. Uma couldn’t help but imagine that expression focused on her, that hard body thrumming with excitement above hers. She crossed her legs to alleviate the pressure growing between them.
Why, oh why, did he have to shave it off? She’d been okay before. Puzzled at the faint stirrings of attraction, yes, but willing to put it down to the feelings of coziness and safety he engendered in her.
“You got more of that moonshine?” she asked, too antsy to just sit there staring.
He didn’t look up when he said, “Yep. Right over on that shelf. You’ll have to rinse your mug from the other night. Pump’s outside. Sorry. No runnin’ water out here.” No running water? Uma’s eyebrows rose at that, but she shrugged. “Got beers in the cooler, too, if you’d rather.”
Instead of going for the beer—the easy option—in kind of a show-offy move, which she’d surely regret, she went for the moonshine. As if to show how little she cared about germs and stuff, Uma filled her mug without rinsing it. “You want some?”
“Hell no.” He shook his shoulders in a kind of exaggerated shudder of disgust. “Can’t stand the stuff.”
“Hey!” she laughingly yelled, her voice shakier than she expected.
“I’d take a beer, though.”
She found the cooler and pulled out a bottle but couldn’t find anything to open it with.
“Leave it there. I’ll get it when I’m done.”
With a shrug, Uma left it on the shelf and took her mug back to the armchair, where she curled up and spent several moments trying to relax, looking everywhere but at him. A nearly impossible feat, when he was so big, so very there. She finally gave up and let herself watch the show, imagining throwing open those big, wooden doors and taking shots of him while he worked, day or night. Light or dark. Hot or cold. Opposites, just like those funky eyes of his. She wanted to capture it all.
It was easy to let the ambiance he created form a surreal cushion around her, calming her and nearly wiping the stupid ad from her mind. She dipped her lips in the drink and kept her eyes on him, sinking heavily into it, the clanging of metal syncopating with her heartbeat, insulating them from the world outside. It was warm and dark, the light orange and intimate.
She was no longer in modern-day Blackwood, shying from the horrors of her life, but caught in some alternate reality, some other time, some place medieval. She pictured him half-naked, chest gleaming in the firelight, muscles bunching with each slam of the hammer, his skin beaded with sweat, pebbled with goose bumps.
Uma came out of her trance to find his hammer still, his eyes on her. Their intensity was palpable even from across the room.
He picked up his beer, popped the top on the edge of a worktable, and came toward her, his nearness strumming her nerves. The crate creaked under his weight just like the last time she’d been there, and she flashed back to that moment, thinking how much could change in so little time. She took another sip and let it relax her further, remembering how she’d been wrung out when he’d rescued her from her car. He, the scary, untouchable next-door neighbor, inviting her in for a slightly weird midnight drink.
Tonight, now…he was a timeless magician whose body bent iron and sparked fire. Or was that the moonshine talking? Maybe, she swore he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen: hard and sweet looking at the same time.
Tonight, although he’d unveiled another piece of his puzzle, he sat before her a mystery she desperately wanted to solve.
Adriana Anders has acted and sung, slung cocktails and corrected copy. She’s worked for start-ups, multinationals and small nonprofits, but it wasn’t until she returned to her first love—writing romance—that she finally felt like she’d come home. Today, she resides with her tall French husband, two small children and fat French cat in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she writes the dark, gritty, steamy love stories of her heart.
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