Her Elemental Viking The Complete Collection - AJ Tipton - ebook
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Ancient Vikings, magic, and modern-day women unite with a wondrous passionOver a thousand years ago, a witch cast a wicked curse on four charming Viking brothers. Today they are still sexy and immortal, but forever doomed to suffer for their past transgressions…or are they?Her Fiery Viking: Mikkel's mature romance includes incendiary bar room shenanigans, high-speed car escapades, and a love strong enough to heal even the most damaged of hearts.Her Steamy Viking: Bram’s sexy tale for mature readers features a spectral matchmaking grandmother, fun in the tub, and a witch whose touch might be wicked enough to change everything.Her Winged Viking: Erik's wild ride involves horny immortals, a matchmaking bartender, and a love powerful enough to soar.Her Rock Hard Viking: Carr's island adventure features island romance, sexy waterfall action, and a love passionate enough to make the earth move.Her Christmas Viking: This festive novella for adults features holiday spell work, naughty gifts, and a winter wonderland you'll never see coming.These STANDALONE novellas can be read in any order. There are no cliffhangers, and each short ends as it should: happily ever after.

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Her Elemental Viking

The Complete Collection: Five Paranormal Romances

AJ Tipton

Illustrated byChameleonstudio74

Contents

Her Fiery Viking

Her Steamy Viking

Her Winged Viking

Her Rock Hard Viking

Her Christmas Viking

Letter from the Authors

Meet AJ Tipton

Copyright © 2017 by AJ Tipton

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This book is for sale to adult audiences only. It contains substantial sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which may be considered offensive by some readers. All sexually active characters in this work are 18 years of age or older.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and incidents appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is purely coincidental.

Created with Vellum

Her Fiery Viking

The new secretary was turning out spectacularly--her fists pounded rhythmically against the top of his wide mahogany desk as he thrust into her hard from behind. The most recent in a string of secretaries--Sissy? Sally? It was something innocuous and forgettable like that--talked way too much for his taste. Mikkel resisted the overwhelming urge to roll his eyes at her breathless demands.

“More! Give it to me! Oh God, harder! More! More! God! Oh yes! More!” He reached forward and covered her mouth with his hand, dampening her screams before the entire office figured out what they were up to. After waiting a few more seconds for her bucking orgasm to subside, he pulled out and came onto her flawless ass. Bored, Mikkel yawned. He had heard it all before.

Taking tremendous effort to stifle the second yawn trying to force its way past his lips, Mikkel ran his fingers through his short blonde hair. Centuries of misbehaving had allowed him to enjoy women of nearly every variety--young and old, royalty and commoner. He honed his sexual prowess on priestesses and princesses, pharaohs and peasants, but for some reason he couldn't resist the indefinable allure of his company’s secretaries. It certainly didn’t hurt that these women took one good look at his chiseled features, ironclad abs and rippling biceps and threw themselves at him.

This newest secretary--Mikkel was now nearly certain her name was Samantha--accepted the box of Kleenex he passed over as she cleaned herself up. She blinked at him rapidly with a poor approximation of a pin-up’s sultry smile plastered on her face. It would have been more effective if the rest of her expression wasn't so...vague. He helped her clean up and he guided her through the office door as quickly as he could.

“This was great, Stephanie.” He said, giving her a quick peck on the lips. Even Cleopatra knew to not write him back when he called her Livia. “It was a really...” He deliberately paused, waiting for her to expect the complement, “...special time.”

The woman barely glanced at him. Mikkel couldn't help feeling slightly miffed. She'd had three orgasms--surely some reaction made sense. This chick already had her phone out and was playing a fairly intense game involving matching tiles.

She finished a level and put the phone away, glancing around, obviously waiting for something. He couldn't imagine who she was waiting for. She'd only started at Firewall Demolitions a few days ago, and she hadn't bothered to get to know anyone but him. Most of the employees had dispersed for lunch, and the hallways leading to Mikkel’s office were nearly deserted. A tall brunette man in navy plaid pants, matching suspenders, and a white button up rounded the corner of the taupe-painted hallway flipping through a stack of reports.

“It’s Lizzie!” she shrieked, thrilled an audience had arrived at last. She stomped her heeled foot so hard Mikkel worried about her shoe's lifespan. “God, you are like the worst boss ever!” she spat hatefully, pointing a meticulously-manicured nail accusingly at his face.

“Sorry to break this to you sweetheart, but he’s not the boss,” Nick shifted the reports into a neat stack under his arm, his light blue eyes following the red nail to Mikkel. “Oh no...” he chuckled, “Did you go and waste all that enthusiasm on a low level demo guy? I certainly hope he ‘gave it to you’ all right.”

“Jesus, Nick, ‘low level?' You cut me deep!” Mikkel chuckled with mock outrage. He swiftly ducked as Lizzie’s nails raked the air where his face had just been. Thousand-year-old Viking reflexes had their uses sometimes.

“YOU AREN’T THE BOSS?!” Another well-clawed swipe barely missed Mikkel’s broad, muscled chest and her pink bedazzled cell phone went flying.

“Trust me, tiger, you do not have a chance with the boss,” Nick said with a sly smile. He picked up the flung device and handed it over with a quick wink. “He’s my husband.”

Lizzie’s face turned into a mask of pure disgust as she processed this information.

“Come on ‘boss man’ let’s get going to the noon meeting, eh?" Nick punched Mikkel's shoulder, laughing. Lizzie's exquisite ass huffed away in the opposite direction. "We mere minions would be lost without your wisdom and leadership, oh great one.” They walked together through the labyrinth-like office building.

“Shut the hell up Nick-erbocker." He'd once drunkenly bet Nick he could make him a new nickname every day for a full week and had won; afterwards the habit just stuck. "I didn’t tell her I was the boss. But how can I deny a sweet sexy thing--” Mikkel gestured up and down, encompassing his broad shoulders, chiseled abs, and perfectly rounded ass, “all of this?”

“Truly it would be a crime against womankind,” Nick said with fake reverence, bowing his head and placing his hand on his heart. “Although, you couldn’t wait a week? Your Little Miss Claws has only been here a hot second, and I’m like 90% sure her crazy ass is going to quit or burn the place down. You know how I hate paperwork and towering infernos. Although firemen-” Nick was cut off mid-sentence by the short, greasy looking Dwayne, walking their way.

“Heard you having a real good time with the new girl, Mikey," Dwayne said with a sneer. He picked at some dandruff covering his shoulder pad-enhanced jacket as they made their way through the corridors. “Tell me, do all your lays have to give you such detailed instructions, or do they typically just give up and accept you don’t know what you’re doing?”

“Shut the fuck up, jackass," Nick shot out. "You wouldn’t know a woman having a good time if she danced all over you.” Mikkel grinned at his friend appreciatively. Nick might give him a hard time, but he had his back, especially against vermin like Dwayne.

"At least my women know how to shut up," Dwayne's smile didn't so much tilt up as slyly curve deeper into his face.

Mikkel knew Dwayne was a worthless little weasel who always talked shit, but still he felt a hot rage flash up in his chest. He could feel it like a firestorm building in his core, kindling and sparking and waiting to build and burn down everything in its path. Over the years, Mikkel had known millions with bad tempers, even a few berserkers who lost their humanity when their rage overtook their minds. In a way, he envied them their rage; they didn't have to face the kinds of consequences he did when his anger boiled over.

Breathe in, breathe out. You can't let it out here. Nick was standing in a highly populated area; he couldn’t let his temper go here. Dwayne isn't worth the cost.

He filled his lungs with air and concentrated on a full breath and the cleansing release of the exhale. He unclenched his fists as he felt the bubbling rage subside enough to face Dwayne and calmly quote:

“Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding. Gandhi.”

Dwayne rolled his eyes, muttering “Oh, I’ll give you Gandhi...” as the men arrived at their afternoon meeting. The conference room was home to the same thrilling florescent light and taupe walls as the hallways, but it was lined wall to wall with photos of structures mid-demolition. A team of visiting architects once burst out crying when they saw the wall of destroyed structural marvels, but to the demolition team the explosions were true works of art. The photos filled Mikkel with pride every time he saw them; they were tributes to precisely-placed devices, well-timed detonations, and thoroughly conquered territory. He chuckled inwardly. Father would be proud. Once a Viking, always a Viking.

The meeting was nothing special; schedules were synchronized and projects were foisted on unsuspecting newbies. The new structural engineer was arriving tomorrow, along with a new secretary. Mikkel brushed off his coworkers’ jabs and thinly-veiled insinuations about the rate they seemed to go through administrative staff. New accounts were discussed and blueprints were thrown around like confetti. Three cups of coffee and two hours later, they were released out into the world. Time to blow some shit up.

Joanna Baltz pounded the wheel of her Ford Pinto with enough force to rattle the radio in its not-quite-secure moorings. The radio had been stuck on the same channel for the last half hour and the edges of her vision tinged red. The commentators jabbered on and on about how some famous guy she'd never heard of punched another famous guy she'd never heard of. Wasn't there more going on in the world? Joanna banged the scan button for the thirty-seventh time, but the station barely flickered. Every single caller railed like they were accepting the Holy Spirit, their testimonials proclaiming the punch was a sign of the two guys' secret attraction for each other. It was only a matter of time--one woman railed in a voice so high it buzzed Joanna's speakers--before the two men were caught by the tabloids making out in assless-chaps.

How can this be the only thing all these people want to talk about? Joanna held the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles turned three shades paler.

"Aren't there wars going on out there?" Joanna muttered at the steering wheel. "Diseases sweeping through countries? Massive injustices being perpetuated all over the place?" In hospital beds around the world, people were dying of preventable diseases, preventable accidents. People with families. People with sisters. Joanna took a deep breath. In and out, her therapist said. Just concentrate on the breathing

"Way to use a blinker, asshole!" she screamed at the silver BMW in front of her. She threw the driver a middle finger while pressing down hard on her car horn. The loud blast from her car matched the off-tone rage screaming inside her head. A white sedan tried to nudge in front of her to get into the exit lane.

"Fuck off!" she screamed. "You could have merged forty-seven feet ago!" The white sedan swerved away back into the middle lane and Joanna got a look at the driver as she pulled up alongside. The woman wasn't a day younger than eighty with three screaming children in the back seat.

"Shit," Joanna muttered, tapping the brakes and flashing her lights until the old woman caught her eye and Joanna slowed enough to let her merge off the exit ramp with inches to spare.

She sighed and rubbed for forehead as she turned into the parking lot. Your temper could get someone killed, her cousin told her.

Breathe in. Breathe out. The engine made small popping sounds as it cooled. Joanna concentrated on loosening her grip on the steering wheel and counted her blessings. I am grateful for a new job. I am grateful for a new start. I am grateful to have my health. I am grateful for my shitty-ass car. I am grateful for my shitty-ass apartment with the showerhead that doesn't work. I am grateful for my hobbies. She stopped, amended. My hobby. Which consists of sitting in a bar drinking my liver to death so I don't go after the world with a tire iron. I am grateful for...she ran out of things to say. She punched the steering wheel again, and the radio fell out with a thunk.

"Well, I can tell Dr. Therapist his stress-reliever technique is bullshit." she muttered.

This was not the way she wanted to start her first day on the new job. She pushed the radio back into the dash, reapplied the duct tape, and climbed from her car.

The derelict office building's entrance loomed in front of her like a gaping mouth, with plastic sheets hanging from the doorway like crooked teeth. Looking up at the building's massive expanse, she could already see three points where they were going to need extra charges for a controlled fall. She pulled her notebook out to add a quick sketch of the building, making note of her observation before she got distracted by first-day introductions. This was the part of the job she liked the best. Buildings were simple. Physics determined where and how they would fall. Simple reliable rules dictated where and how to place explosives so the entire building would crumble in a controlled rapid descent.

"Hey there, sweet-cheeks," came a nasally, high-pitched voice.

People, on the other hand...

She could see the voice's owner out of the corner of her eye; an outline of a paunch straining his beltline and thinning greasy hair pulled back in a wispy mullet. He leaned against the nearest industrial dumpster, one hand tucked inside his belt in what was probably supposed to be a come-hither pose.

"My cheeks don't look as sweet with 50,000 volts running through your slimy ass," she smiled sweetly. Her hand itched to grab the taser inside her purse, but Joanna grabbed a pencil instead. Her cousin, the lawyer, would be very proud of her restraint.

"Oh, baby, don't be like that. I was only teasin'," said the creep.

Usually her severe short haircut, tailored suit, glasses, and notebook were enough of a message that she wasn't the teasing type. Joanna concentrated on breathing slow breaths, in and out, holding her purse's wide leather strap tight enough the small metal studs along the edges dug into her hands. She hoped her grip hid how her hands shook. Her therapist said counting her breaths would help calm the rage. A frosty margarita with a double shot of tequila would do the same thing. But that margarita was another long eight hours away and she could feel the weight of each of those hours sitting like heavy weights on her back.

She finished her sketch in a few brief strokes and put her notebook and pencil back into her purse, walking briskly toward the building.

"Hey!" the high-pitched mouth-breather yelled behind her. "Hey!" He jogged to keep up with her, panting heavily after only eleven feet and five inches.

A temporary office had been set up in a trailer outside the building. The company name, Firewall Demolitions, blazed in large red letters across the side of the trailer and a few men hung around the metal steps holding coffees and bagels. They stood in loose pairs and trios, their conversations sounding like inarticulate grunting from ten paces away. There were exactly thirty-six steps from where she stood to the boss's door. Seven men. It wasn't the worst first-day gauntlet she'd ever walked. Depending on how soon the first one noticed her and her walking speed, she’d have to endure either five catcalls or three just to go speak with her new boss.

"Look what I found, boys," the creep from the dumpster gestured to her like he expected a gold star. His eyes devoured her slowly, while he elbowed the man standing next to him. "This new secretary looks like the seventh grade English teacher who gave me my first boner." The scattered chuckles sounded a tad forced, but she could feel the men's collective gaze like a creeping itch.

"Bet she'd be super hot without those glasses…" the first comment was quiet, one man talking to the next in a voice just loud enough to carry. Joanna could feel the blood rushing to her face. They would probably think it was a dainty blush.

She used to try telling the crews she wasn't a secretary.

"Dayum, ya could bounce a quarter off dat ass…" the next voice said, a little louder. Joanna's fists clenched.

Apparently the profession of "structural engineer" was completely foreign when it was a woman carrying the clipboard.

"Don't listen to them, baby, you're a goddess among peasants…" another Cro-Magnon said, now directly to her.

Here it comes. Joanna dipped a hand into her purse. The curling fury felt like a solid mass of energy waiting to explode from her gut.

Dumpster guy reached forward and grabbed her ass.

In one smooth movement, Joanna pulled her taser out of her purse, stepped back so her skin wasn't touching his, and pressed the trigger. The guy dropped to the ground, jerks and spasms convulsing through his body, tears running down his face.

Silence spread throughout the yard. All their eyes flickered back and forth between Joanna, the flickering blue light receding from her taser, and the whimpering curses coming from the creep on the ground.

"Guys," this voice was so different from the rest she almost stumbled over her own feet when she turned to look. The voice sounded like whiskey and smooth deep caverns. The voice's owner didn't so much stand as slowly uncurl. His taut, layered muscles arranged themselves from a god lounging pose on the steps to an alpha proud stance as he reached his full six-foot five inches height. It took her a second to realize he was still talking.

"I realize most of you haven't seen a woman since last month’s Playboy. But, heads up, only women in pornos actually like that shit."

She thought the other men would respond with more jeers and chest-thumping alpha fighting, but at this man's word they stopped. Just stopped. They chuckled amongst themselves and returned to their coffee and conversations, leaving the groping guy still twitching on the ground. She knew she should be grateful, but she felt furious all over again. She had just tased a guy, and he was the one who took command? She put the taser back in her purse before she became too tempted to use it again.

Walking toward the office trailer, she could see the alpha male more clearly. He wasn't the head of Firewall Demo. She'd met most of the demolition crew's high level executives and managers during her interview process. Joanna tried to keep her facial expression neutral as she examined him. If their positions were reversed, she might have been tempted to whistle and call him a god amongst rats. His golden hair rippled in the early morning sunlight like a superhero and the white shirt stretched tight across his rippling abs hid nothing from the imagination. His jeans hung low on his waist so she could see a slight path of dark hair leading toward a sloping "v" disappearing down into his belt. Her mouth went dry and for a second all she could think about was running her hand down that path to what lay beneath.

"Eyes up here, darling," his cocky smile told her he knew exactly what she was thinking and accepted it as his due.

Caught. Two years ago, she might have said something small and apologetic about being wrong for ogling him when she hated being ogled herself. Two years ago, she would have slid meekly past and felt guilty for objectifying him. But that was two years ago.

"Get the fuck out of my way, asshole," she growled the words from the back of her throat. His eyes widened in response, his eyebrows coming together into a frown. He stepped away, waving her toward the boss door with a sarcastic flourish.

"Of course, my lady," his voice sounded too good to be real. Even sounding sarcastic and slightly hurt, his words seemed to whisper straight to her ovaries.

The trailer office was total chaos. Papers and blueprints spilled over each other in overflowing heaps across every surface. File drawers hung open with molding food covering the insides and a tilting pile of pizza boxes sat next to the door with a miasma of gnats humming across the top. The carpet fibers moved slightly and she tried not to imagine the streams of insects moving inside the shag orange weave.

"Hello?" she called. The trailer wasn't that large, but there were so many towering stacks of paper and discarded food she could barely see a few feet in front of her.

"Ms. Baltz?" The man's voice was deep and rich, but lacked the resonance of the cocky god outside. A tall, wiry man in a pressed button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows, tie, and well-fitting trousers stood up abruptly from behind a tower of paperwork covering the desk. He skillfully navigated around a pile of red-tabbed reports and held out a hand.

"Ben Knightly. Nice to see you again. My compliments on your work with the taser; I hope my men didn’t give you too much of a hassle."

"No, not at all," the automatic words came to her mouth like they had on every other job. "Although, I hope you'll have a chance to remind them this kind of harassment is illegal by state and federal laws."

Ben's eyes went to the window and then back to her. He flushed slightly. "We try to maintain a respectful work environment here. If someone says something to you, please feel free to tell me and I'll have a word with him."

Fear pulsed in the bottom of her throat. Three sexual harassment suits in four previous jobs had earned her a bit of a reputation in the industry. Anti-reprisal rules didn't mean shit when the parties involved in the suit didn't respect the court’s anonymity orders. She knew she wouldn't be able to find another job right away if this one fell through. She needed to reestablish her reputation if she was going to thrive in this industry. Firewall Demolitions had a reputation for being fair and generous with their referrals and recommendations, but if jeers and grabbing were only going to be prosecuted with a firm talk, if at all...

Joanna clenched and unclenched her fists around her purse straps. "If I get molested again," she looked him in the eye. "I promise you, a friendly chat from you will not suffice. There are at least three security cameras out there. Tell your men to back off or I'll prosecute to the fullest extent of the law."

"That seems a little harsh, Ms. Baltz. We're a friendly company, they're good guys…"

"I was perfectly clear during the interview process, sir, about the kind of workplace I would tolerate," she said through gritted teeth.

"If you can't keep the boys from gawking, then maybe you shouldn't wear such a tight jacket," Ben interrupted.

The room pulsed red.

Breathe in, breathe out. You need this job. He's the boss. From the photo of his husband and children, he doesn't actually care about your rack. Breathe.

"The last few women we've had on the site bedded some of my best men for sport. If any of them cried to a judge about sexual harassment after their game was done, I would have lost my top performers. They're good guys. They know what 'no' sounds like. If they don't stop when you tell them, I'll have a word."

In her experience, men--when surrounded by macho, competitive friends--only knew what 'no' sounded like if it was accompanied by a swift kick to the groin.

Before her brain had a chance to catch up with her limbs, Joanna swept an arm across the littered desk, scattering office supplies and papers onto abandoned pizza boxes and overflowing file cabinets. The crash was so loud it shook the trailer's thin walls.

Oh shit. Not again.

"Everyone okay in there?" called a voice from outside. Logically, she knew the voice was too muffled to be able to identify who spoke, but something about the way the words hit her gut she knew the speaker was the beautiful ab guy.

"So far," Ben called back, his expression grim.

Joanna winced. What could she say? Sorry, I promise it won't happen again. She couldn't promise that. Sorry, I promise I'm working on my temper in therapy. Two years of therapy hadn't changed a thing. Sorry, my sister died and now I can't stop breaking things. He wouldn't care.

"Sorry. I really need this job."

Ben sighed and rubbed his temples. "You can take an early day today to go over the paperwork and decide if you're serious about working here. If you're not back tomorrow with a better attitude, then I'm calling in one of our other candidates. You're not the only qualified structural engineer in this city."

She nodded numbly. One day to fix two years of baggage. She needed a miracle.

God, what a day. Mikkel's guys at the demo site were hard enough to wrangle on a good day, and today this smokin’ hot chick--Joanna, according to Ben--walked in and his grown-ass demolition specialists became drooling apes. Mikkel was grateful it was Wednesday, the day of his weekly Anger Management meeting, and he could take some time to calm the fury rising up in him.

He shifted in the hard metal chair and wrung his hands, frustrated at his coworkers’ inability to just be human beings for a moment and see something other than that woman’s insane body. And it was certainly an insane body. Stop thinking about her legs, Mikkel, stop thinking about them wrapping around your hips. He just wanted to unwrap her overly businesslike suit like a birthday present and enjoy the smooth silky center found inside. Stop thinking about her eyes. He hadn't seen such fierce strength and fiery determination in a woman in years. Joanna had none of that doe-eyed submissive crap women had been imitating since the Puritans. This was a woman who would orgasm screaming and clawing, and he could barely wait to see it. He clenched his hands tight across his knees to derail that train of thought, but staring at the floor between his knees just made him picture her there, looking up at him with that fierce determination as she took him in her mouth.

He let go of his knees and gripped the cold bottom of the metal chair. Not thinking about her was proving to be impossible. Joanna burst into his professional life out of nowhere and now she had permanent residence inside his head.

A smattering of applause burst out around him and Mikkel forced himself to concentrate. He nodded at a young guy wearing too much gold jewelry who sat down next to him. He hoped his expression looked like he'd been inspired by whatever the guy shared. Shit, Mikkel gripped the chair tight enough he heard it crack. I’m here for a reason; I can daydream about some broad on my own time.

“Thank you, Petey. That was so brave, so wonderful you felt you could share something so personal with all of us,” Tabitha, the meeting leader, said. Her chins wobbled a little as she spoke. “I know we are all here at Anger Management for different reasons, but bless you all for coming, and sharing, and showing us we’re all the same inside.” She stifled a sniffle into a floral patterned handkerchief. "It just makes me so proud to stand here and see all of you brave and dear souls trying to improve yourselves and your relationships through sharing."

Mikkel took pity on the group. Tabitha was sweet as pie, but weepier than a villain at the gallows and she would half-cry, half-talk this meeting into oblivion. He stood and walked towards the stack of empty crates they used as a makeshift podium. The group met below a hardware store owned by one of the members, and the room always smelled faintly of caulking and dried glue. It didn't compare well to all the Buddhist temples and Catholic cloisters he'd visited over the millennia to achieve peace, but there was something almost comforting in its DIY sincerity.

“I’d like to share,” he boomed, his deep voice echoing around the small basement.

Tabitha lit up like a Christmas tree at the prospect of hearing about the feelings, trials and suffering of a fellow human being. “Thank you, Mike! Everyone, this is Mike. Let’s all make him feel supported and heard!” she trilled, starting a small round of lackluster applause.

Mikkel slid behind the makeshift podium, ducking to fit his frame under a low-hanging pipe. As he drew a breath, he absentmindedly glanced around. The room was filled with some regulars, some newbies, and a woman in business wear attempting to hide her face with a flyer Tabitha handed out earlier. The cartoonesque attempt at anonymity was more hilarious than effective, as Mikkel would have known that spiky haircut anywhere.

His heart leapt in his chest, the strong physical reaction to her presence surprising him. She had removed her jacket and Mikkel drank in her slender, strong arms, delicate neck and the outline of ample breasts.

“Hi everybody, I’m Mike and I have anger issues.”

“Hi Mike,” the group robotically intoned.

Mikkel launched into his story. He had to adjust it every few decades to make sure the references made sense within the current time period, but aside from small chronological edits, it was always the same. “I used to be a normal family man--wife, kids, the whole enchilada.” This much was true.

“One day I was out of town on business and a burglar broke into our home, murdering my family in cold blood.” This much was not true. As he spoke his well-practiced speech, he couldn’t help but recall the real story. The flames reached for the sky, burning his small village to the ground. The battle cries of the Skomer tribe echoed across the hills. His hands gripped the edge of the podium. That day was one of the worst memories of his long life and one of the few not dulled by time. He had never felt so powerless, so vulnerable as that moment. He'd never felt so angry.

“After I laid my family to rest, I became completely engulfed by rage--getting into fistfights, destroying everything I touched and completely unable to interact at a basic human level.”

He watched, trying unsuccessfully not to stare, as Joanna gave up trying to hide behind the paper and leaned forward, seemingly drawn closer by his words.

What Mikkel always neglected to mention were the series of murderous rampages he went on shortly after his reasons for living were turned to char. He had been born a Viking, after all, and most of his peers and brothers never thought twice about his exceptionally violent behavior. His father even used it to his advantage, sending Mikkel into battle first to pave the way for his more even-tempered brothers.

He felt a dull ache inside his chest whenever he remembered the horrible, bloodthirsty person he had become. Had his family not gone up against that witch in Scotland, his rampage would probably have been cut short with his death and Mikkel would have been freed from the pain. Her curse left him invulnerable and unable to age, seemingly good things, but he was forced to see all his lovers and compatriots age and die, over and over again.

"One woman I met by chance, she tried to teach me to stop, but I wouldn't listen." The morning of the curse was another scene forever branded on his memory. It was supposed to be just another raid, just another island to conquer and settle. His father had ignored the warnings a powerful witch protected the island, said it was all wild rumor spread by people who were unable to protect themselves.

But everything had gone wrong from the moment Mikkel first stepped onto the island. Battle rage took over, as it always did in those early days following his family's slaughter. He dimly remembered his middle brother, Erik, heading over to the far side of the island while his youngest brother, Bram, went down to the beach. But a crucial hour was missing: his memory of going up against the crone gone.

All he could remember was after, standing weak-kneed on that beach, desperately searching and calling out for Bram's body in the sea. His other brothers lay still and cold on the ground. The witch cried out something at him and Mikkel did the only thing he could think of: he ran. He thought losing his family was enough of a punishment for the harm they caused to the witch's island, but he learned the extent of the witch's revenge the next time he got mad...

“Whenever I got into a rage, I would find myself in a state completely out of my control. This escalated, year after year, until I noticed a pattern of unintentionally hurting those around me, again and again. I was so blinded by my rage I irreparably destroyed people's lives. I ruined friendships, alienated girlfriends, and got on the wrong side of the law once or twice.”

Understatement of the millennium, Mikkel thought. Within a week of leaving the witch's cursed island, Mikkel got into a fight at a tavern when one of the other patrons tried to force himself on one of the barmaids. Since his wife and children died, he'd been quick to anger, but this felt different. This was beyond rage, it was a hot crackling inferno that built up in his chest, tingled down his spine and then exploded along his skin as literal flames. He couldn't stop it and the fireball destroyed the bar and everyone in it, friend and foe alike charred beyond recognition. He'd lost countless friends and lovers over the years to his rage. He had learned methods to quell his anger, but the curse still took him over when he was sufficiently riled--and those around him always paid the price.

He noticed a shift in the back of the room as Joanna leaned back, crossing her long, slender legs. Her face carried an expression, not of judgment or concern, but of complete understanding. Her perfect breasts strained against her shirt, rising as she sighed, and Mikkel nearly groaned out loud. He wanted to kick over the podium, push his way through the others present and devour this woman with the fiery eyes. It was a good thing lust had never been one of his triggers, or the whole room would be in flames.

Mikkel realized he had stopped speaking mid-story and cleared his throat. He hoped the group assumed he was overcome with emotion rather than distracted by thoughts of thoroughly pillaging the structural engineer in the back row.

“I don't like to think about all the lives I destroyed in those days. When I was angry, it seemed nothing could stand in my way. I was like a walking conflagration." The truest words of the whole story. "Eventually I realized this way of life only caused pain, so I traveled the world, searching for a religion or philosophy that could help me find some way to control myself.”

For centuries he'd sought answers from mystics, witches, sorcerers, and scientists to try and lessen his rage, counter the spell, or just mitigate the damage. Not a single one could help him. Logically, Mikkel knew he should leave civilization and go live in an isolated cave far from anyone he might hurt, but hope dragged him back to society whenever he tried. He had to believe the witch's curse had some cure, or that--at the very least--someday someone would find a way to reunite him with his family.

The unfruitful search around the world had its own rewards, though.

"In my travels, I met a lot of interesting people who touched me deeply and really changed how I saw the world." If the support group was mostly men, he'd admit these 'deep touches' came from beautiful women. With Joanna in the audience, however, he held back his vivid descriptions of the women he'd sampled across the globe. What couldn't cure the curse could distract from it. He delighted in their scent, their sensuality, their screams of satisfaction.

His gaze was once again drawn to Joanna listening hungrily to his tale. He wished he had a more inspiring conclusion for her, something to give her hope in her own struggles.

“After a long while, I realized the answer to my problems wasn’t something a monk or shaman could conjure up for me, so I stopped wandering the earth looking for some magical solution. I’m here, dealing with my anger day by day, working the program. It certainly does help that I blow stuff up for a living.” This inspired a few chuckles, “But I am grateful to Tabitha and you all here for supporting me.”

The room burst into applause and Tabitha moved towards the podium, sobbing happily. She grabbed Mikkel by the shoulders and gave him a wet, sloppy kiss on the cheek, leaving a comically large lipstick mark. It always surprised him, but he did feel better.

Joanna's heart was beating so fast she thought the woman in the hippie-skirt next to her would hear it. Her mouth felt dry and her panties were wet with want. It wasn't the story he told; most of it was obviously a lie or half-truth. He could tell a good story, she had to give him credit for that. Usually the speakers at these meetings droned on and on about inane details and never seemed to reach the point. She'd already known he was a smooth talker from their brief exchange at the demolition site. And he was handsome, sure.

Each time he moistened his lips with his tongue, she could feel every flick as if the touch was directly on her clit. He clenched the edges of the crate-podium and it was too easy to imagine that strong grip on her hips as he thrust into her. His t-shirt was tight enough she could see the edges of his chiseled pecs and the small points of his nipples through his t-shirt, just begging to be nibbled. He was definitely fantasy-worthy, but his sculptural appeal wouldn't have been enough to make her want to climb him like a tree if it wasn't for that one thing.

It was his damned dimple. She hadn't been paying close enough attention to his face at the demolition site to see it during their first meeting, but it was impossible to ignore now the podium hid the distracting sight of his abs. Right along the edge of his mouth, the perfect tiny crescent rippled and dipped. It was like an independent creature living on his face, that dimple. He would say some unremarkable detail, like the break-in of his family's home, and that little dimple tweaked up declaring to the world, that isn't how it happened, it was way worse than that.

And then he'd get to a sincere part, like how traveling the world had brought no answers, and that little dimple swiveled down. That little downturn, the despair radiating out of that small little bit of skin, had enough intensity to charge the rest of his body with vibrating passion. It was all she could to do not to slip her hands between her clenched thighs and stroke her sensitive bud. She clenched her fists tight across the top of her knees and willed her flushed cheeks to calm down before she made a scene. Like running up to the podium, tearing off his clothes, and screaming like a banshee while he pounded into her against the refreshments table.

Everyone was clapping and, a half-second too late, Joanna joined in.

"Wasn't that amazing?" Poor Tabitha was going to die of dehydration if she didn't stop crying. She'd run out of tissues somewhere around the uncontrollable rage part, and started using her crocheted shawl to dab her eyes instead. "Thank you so much for sharing, Mike. That was so moving. You are an inspiration to us all. It is so refreshing to see a man so in touch with his feelings."

She clasped her hands tight to her chest and sighed so deeply the large wooden combs holding up her hair bobbed dangerously. "Feelings are what make our lives worth living, and being able to fully articulate those feelings is what will help us all manage our relationships."

Joanna covered her snort as a cough. She sincerely hoped Tabitha was a raging psychopath before she learned to worship at the church of feelings and manage an anger management group. An image of Tabitha attacking somebody on the bus with knitting needles because they wouldn't stand up for the elderly made it easier to like the floral woman. Joanna made the mistake of glancing at Mike to see his reaction to Tabitha's little speech. The dimple danced a disdainful dance as he said, “Thank you, Tabitha. I'm so glad my story moved you."

He sat back down into his seat, stretching out his long, strong legs under the chair in front of him. His face was impassive as the next speaker timidly made her way to the podium, Mikkel's arms loosely crossed against his chest. Just as the lady in the hippie skirt started to introduce herself, he turned in his chair slightly so he could look Joanna straight in the eye. For a moment, a burning heat scorched the air between them like a vivid physical force.

He winked. The dimple thrust in, promising long nights of mischievous lovemaking involving the unapologetic use of teeth and ropes.

The rest of the meeting was a blur. She knew she was supposed to concentrate, but her eyes kept moving back to Mike's cheek like a treasure-seeker going in for one more peek at the cursed tomb. The dimple's reaction to each story mattered more to Joanna than anything else in the room. The hippie chick admitted to punching out a customer at her organic tomato stand when the customer bragged about keeping a photo of Ronald Reagan on a gilded shrine next to an image of St. Matthew, patron saint of bankers and accountants. Mike's dimple jumped with approval. The next guy, who basically complained for five minutes about his wife's crummy cooking, got the dimple's dip of derision.

What would the dimple think of her story? The thought of going up to the podium made a sheen of cold sweat break out along her spine. Hi, everybody. My name is Joanna and I have anger issues. I shoved aside a woman who wouldn't walk when on the left side of an escalator and she sued me for her broken wrist. The dimple probably wouldn't react kindly. Joanna knew she was lucky court-mandated anger management classes and a fine were the only consequences for pushing aside a professional ambulance chaser. Her therapist told her to move past her anger and forgive the woman, but Joanna couldn't quite dredge up the appropriate level of shame. Bitch should know not to stand on the left side of the escalator during rush hour, she thought.

 The meeting ended what felt like three lifetimes later. She nodded pleasantries to Tabitha, got her court card signed, and headed for the table of rock-hard donuts. If she could get a napkin-full of free food and be out the door before Mike recognized her, then maybe she could avoid embarrassing herself too badly by leaping up to run her tongue along his tantalizing indentation.

"Hello there. You're Joanna, right?"

Joanna froze, her handful of napkin-wrapped banana bread halfway into her purse. She turned slowly and found herself eye-level with a pair of very firm pectoral muscles. Somehow she'd forgotten just how tall he was. She tilted back her head to get a look at his face. A tingling heat spread across her neck and chest, following a hot line through her stomach down to the wetness gathering between her legs. She desperately hoped she wasn't blushing as hotly as she felt.

"Hi, yeah, I'm Jo," she said. Their morning confrontation came suddenly flooding back in vivid Technicolor and could feel her face redden even more. "Oh god, I'm really sorry about this morning. I was probably an angry bitch to you. It's something I'm working on," she gestured in a small wave toward the anger management class.

He smiled and the dimple leaped up into a mark of sincere joy that made the passionate heat in her chest melt into something warmer and sweeter. She found the edges of her mouth smiling back.

"No problem at all. I'm Mike, Mike Eld." He held out a hand for her to shake. The calluses on his hand rubbed her palm in a playful friction that sent ripples through her fantasies. She regretted letting go. "As for this morning, you can make it up to me by buying me a drink." He said.

"Isn't it usually the other way around?" she said. Her smile tugged wider like it had a mind of its own.

"Ahh, but I'm old fashioned. I think the one who is most attractive in the relationship should pay for the less-attractive one. It helps weigh out the balance of power."

It took a second for her lust-addled brain to make sense in what he said, but when it did she couldn't help feeling irrationally happy.

"How often does that line work for you?" She asked.

Mike's warm chuckle did strange things to her stomach. "It worked on Joan of Arc, and she was one hell of a tough sell." He said the line with such a deadpan straight face he surprised a laugh out of her.

Weirdo. "Well, worked for Joan of Arc is good enough for me," she said. He held out his arm like a leading man from an old black-and-white movie and she slipped her arm inside, feeling foolish and pleased all at once.

As they walked by, Tabitha waved a little hand at them, her grin far more saucy and knowing than Joanna thought was possible.

"You kids have fun out there," the old lady winked. "And don't forget feelings. Feelings are everything." For a second, Joanna swore Tabitha's eyes flashed a brilliant green, but when she looked again, they were the same placid blue. Joanna shivered.

"Okay?" Mike asked, his voice lower with concern. Joanna smiled back at him.

"Yes, everything is fine."

The night was warmer than forecasted, the humidity heavy like a thick blanket as they walked to the bar making tension-filled small talk. She asked him about how long he'd worked at Firewall Demolitions (five years), he asked her how long she'd wanted to be a structural engineer (since she was 10 and saw a building fall for the first time). They both made the appropriate impressed noises. They talked movies--both were surprised to find the other loved "His Girl Friday"--and weather (yes, very hot out lately). The conversation flowed smoothly, but Joanna could feel the rising heat in her chest impairing her tongue as they neared the bar. Mike's invitation felt like more than a drink; it felt like a promise of an inexplicable more she wasn't sure she could accept.

The closest bar to the anger management group was AUDREY’S; a dive Mike promised was a comfortable hole. A crowd of smokers lingered outside the door, passing jokes back and forth. Mike pulled her a little closer as they neared the crowd. The places where their arms touched tingled with electric attraction. He unlinked their arms to hold open the door for her, placing a wide hand on her lower back as she passed. It should have been an annoyingly possessive gesture, but all she could think about was a hope her t-shirt would rise up an inch and she would feel that warm palm directly against her skin.

The bartender smiled at them as they entered. Rose tattoos covered her exposed chest with thorny vines curling down into her décolletage and around her neck like a choker. Her long black hair was arranged high on her head in a physics-defying array of small ponytails and braids that sprung out from her like an anime superhero.

"Mike!" she called, putting down the glass she was cleaning to merrily wave at him. Joanna hated her immediately and deeply. "How's your fine ass doing today?"

"As firm and bitable as ever, Lola," he replied jovially. Joanna pictured running up to the bar, grabbing hold of those long braids, and using them to pound the pouty-lipped bartender's head into the bar top repeatedly. Her vision edged red.

"That's too bad," Lola said, her face transforming into a comically tragic mask. "Let me know when it's bouncy and rideable and maybe you'll get an invitation to the back room." She winked and turned to answer a question from another customer.

The red edges around Joanna's vision thinned out slightly. She looked up to see Mike's reaction to Lola's dismissal, but he wasn't looking at the bartender. His smoldering gaze was centered on the small peek of cleavage down Joanna's shirt.

"Eyes up here, darling," she said.

"Touché."

AUDREY'S had a friendly lived-in feeling that relaxed Joanna's hackles and made her feel at home. Photos labeled as the owner's--Audrey's--grandmother sprinkled the walls in a black-and-white assortment of improbable hijinks. In one photo, the old woman appeared to be leaping over three school buses using a jet-powered moped. In another, she smiled, sandwiched tightly between the Dalai Lama and a cigar-smoking Fidel Castro.

The L-shaped bar took up most of the space with racks of glasses hanging from the ceiling and large chalkboards listing the day’s special drinks. She wanted to ask Mike if he knew what a "Mountain Ash Wolfsbane" cocktail included, but it sounded like the kind of drink that took itself too seriously. The well-worn couches arranged in circles created intimate spaces against two opposite corners, including one by an unlit fireplace where a circle of college-looking girls giggled. The rest of the floor was taken up by high round tables for standing and sitting on rotating stools. The TVs behind the bar showed a 1950s Doris Day romantic comedy involving a lobster and the Chicago mob.

"What do you think? We could go to the diner down the street instead," Mike said.

One of the college girls started to laugh so hard she fell off her chair and curled up in a small ball on the floor, still laughing.

"Nah, this place is perfect," Joanna said.

They settled into one of the small tables near the back of the bar, the chairs so close together she could feel the slight brush of his knees against hers under the table. Joanna resisted the urge to rub her ankle up and down his shin. Stop it, you're not 13. Calm down, she told her libido. She stood up quickly and gestured toward the bar.

"So, what am I getting you?" she asked. Mike got up, standing so close she could feel the heat of his body teasing her nipples into tiny peaks.

"I changed my mind on the walk over. As we've already established you are the more attractive one, it is only appropriate for me to show my appreciation with tributes of alcohol."

"Can't argue with that," she said. "Although you might want to think of additional forms of tribute later." She wanted to slap a hand over her mouth. What am I saying? Her hormones were taking over, consuming her mind with fantasies of her mouth reaching as much of his skin as possible. "I'll take a whiskey. Double on the rocks, with a splash of Coke and as many cherries as they can fit inside," she said in a rush. Maybe while he's at the bar, I can calm down, she thought, without much hope.

"As my lady wishes," he grinned. His firm and bitable ass moved toward the bar and Joanna sunk back into her chair, willing herself to look away.

Too soon, he returned with her drink. She took a sip, not looking up to see what his dimple was doing. The drink was perfect.