Excerpt for Essential Master

“Shhh, don’t let her attire fool you. She’s a pussy cat in disguise.” Nicholaus lightly rubbed his thumb over Zebadiah’s collarbone, sending tingles of awareness through him. “So what’s in the sack, cara mia?”

That’s when Zebadiah noticed she was carrying a brown paper bag. “Davis told me there were ducks down here, so I cubed up some bread. I thought we might want to feed them.”

Her thoughtfulness struck a chord inside of Zebadiah. He too had brought bread down with him, although the greedy little bastards had cleaned him out already. “They’ll love you forever.” Zeb stood and offered his seat to her. “If you’d like to be alone, I can always head back up to the house. I promised Ethan I’d make some of my black forest cake for him today. I could…”

“You could sit back down and not run off like a scared rabbit,” Steph interrupted. “I know I make you nervous, but how are we going to get past that if you run every time I come near?”

“Steph…” the warning in Nicholaus’s tone did little to dissuade her.

“Don’t you ‘Steph’ me, Nicky.” Her hands went to her hips. “I know we promised we’d wait for him to be ready. All we asked is that he spend time with us willingly.”

Feeling as if the world was closing in around him, he tried to placate the woman. “Please don’t fight because of me.” Holding his hands up, he backed away. “I’m not worth it.”

Steph froze and stared at him. “Whoa, we’re not fighting. Calm down, babe.” The endearment rolled off her tongue, but felt like a spear stabbing him in the back. Allison had called him ‘babe’ in the same cajoling tone before she turned ugly and abusive.

“I gotta go.” He turned and fled back up the path. He didn’t get more than half a dozen steps when a strong arm wrapped around his waist, halting his flight. He instinctively kicked back at his attacker. But no matter how much he struggled, the arm remained firm. Eventually the soothing tones of Nicholaus’s voice penetrated his fear.

“Shhh, it’s all right. You need to relax. We’re not going to hurt you.”

“Let me go…please.” Tears threatened to run down his face. How had he thought he was ready for this? All he wanted was the safety of his bedroom, where no one could hurt him.

“I will when I know you’ll walk calmly back up the path. With this uneven ground and with your still unsteady knee, I don’t want you to re-injure it because you’re running from us. Our intention was never to scare you, Zeb.”

He took deep gasping breaths, his heart still racing, but what Nicholaus was saying made sense. He was just starting to be able to move along with some mobility. He didn’t want to backslide. “I promise I’ll walk.”

A low rumble against the top of Zebadiah’s head, was the only indication Nicholaus had heard him. Then Stephanie appeared in his line of vision, her face impassive. He started to struggle again. She had the same look Allison had the last they’d scened…

“Stop, Zebadiah.” The firm command in her voice had him freezing, barely breathing, fear waiting to consume him once more. “That’s good. Now…can you tell me what I did to make you panic?”

Zeb’s eyes widened in surprise. Of all the things she could have said, that was the one he hadn’t expected and made him want to explain “I…she called me that…”

Steph’s gaze softened, her fingers brushing his cheek. The caress startled him. He jerked back. “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. “You have nothing to be sorry about. I’m the one who’s sorry. I inadvertently triggered something painful inside you. So the word ‘babe’ is off limits. So tell me, sexy, what do I call you?”

His cheeks flushed at her backhanded compliment. “I’m not sexy. Cute maybe.”

She cocked her head, looking down at him. Another first for him. He’d never been with a woman taller than him. Men yeah…hell, he was only five-seven so lots of men were taller than him, but his last mistress had only been five-four and the one before her had been even shorter. “I don’t know. What you do you think, Nicky? ‘Sexy’ fits, wouldn’t you agree?”