The Colorado Rockies.
From the moment she'd first seen them on a beer commercial as a child, Ainsley had been fixated. It wasn't the grandeur of their size or the majestic beauty of their snow-capped peaks, but something about them drew her. The inexplicable yearning to visit them was a compulsion she couldn't explain or resist.
The longing became all the more compelling when she learned that her favorite rock star lived there. Much to the dismay of her classical music-loving parents, she was obsessed with the hard rock band, Dragon Fire. Not only did she own every album they'd ever made, but she also listened to them day and night.
So when a group of her college friends suggested spending spring break hiking the Rockies instead of partying it up like their classmates down in Cancun, she had jumped at the chance to go. Coming face to face with the frontman for Dragon Fire halfway up Mt. Elbert had been a dream come true.
Dragan Pyrrhus (Dray-gun Fire-us), was a living legend and the most gorgeous creature that Ainsley had ever seen. Shoulder length dirty blonde hair, brown velvet eyes and a neatly trimmed beard that her fingers itched to touch. He was tall and muscular with a decadent voice that gave her chills.
She had stared across the clearing at him in awe, mesmerized by his masculine beauty while he had appeared equally transfixed by her. It had been a magical moment, completely surreal and yet nothing had ever felt more real. She'd had the most insane urge to run to him, throw herself into his arms and never let go.
The breath had lodged in her throat as he had walked toward her, never breaking eye contact, and taken her hand in his. Ainsley had gasped, and his eyes darkened at the sensual awareness that rippled between them at the contact. The air had felt charged with electricity as if something momentous were about to happen.
Raising her hand to his lips, he had kissed it and said, "I am Dragan Pyrrhus."
Forcing her mouth to move, she had whispered, "Ainsley Widmark."
"Mea bella mate, Ainsley," he murmured with a simply lethal smile, the unknown words in his sinfully delicious voice sending chills all over her and scalding heat to her nether regions.
The man was absolute perfection, and she had been completely infatuated with him before they'd met. Once he'd turned his wicked as sin smile on her, Ainsley had completely lost her heart, and she'd said yes when he'd invited her up to his mountain aerie, a medieval castle set so high that it had seemed to float above the clouds.
Dragan had explained that he'd had it shipped over from Europe and rebuilt stone by stone. Its stark beauty was an architectural wonder, and the modern conveniences he'd had implemented were seamlessly integrated into the design. She had loved it on sight and told him that she felt like a princess in a fairy tale.
The gorgeous rocker had given her a look that smoldered with heat and whispered that fairy tales did come true. Then he'd proceeded to prove that by dazzling her with his old world charm and romantic gestures, which included whisking her away to one of his concerts where he had brought her onstage to sing a song to her.
Their days had consisted of fun and laughter while the nights were filled with hedonistic pleasure such as she'd never imagined. The heat between them had been combustible, and she had been amazed that they hadn't set the sheets on fire. She and Dragan had been inseparable and their love for each other all-consuming.
Until the day she ran away.
Ainsley had been terrified that what he felt for her wouldn't stand the test of time. After all, Dragan was a rock star with a jet and a castle. He had fame, fortune, and women throwing themselves at him left and right. She was just a small town girl who had no idea how to fit into the kind of lifestyle that he lived.
Besides, once the novelty wore off and he grew tired of her, dropping out of college would be one item too many on her list of regrets. She had one semester to complete before graduation, and throwing away four years of education over what might amount to nothing more than a fling would be the height of stupidity.
Though she would love nothing better than to remain in the fairy tale existence, Ainsley was level-headed enough to realize that she had to leave. Heart heavy with grief and remorse, she packed her backpack and wrote him a letter, pouring her heart out on paper. If he came for her, she would never leave his side again.
If he didn't… it would destroy her.
The anguish of leaving Dragan was so intense that when she reached the bottom of the stairs, a debilitating pain nearly ruptured her heart. It felt as if it were being cleaved in two. Wave after wave of excruciating despair washed over her as she was consumed by grief so thick that it choked the breath from her body.
Tears were streaming down her face, and she could barely think for the agonizing screams ringing in her head. The sound of her soul crying out at the loss of the man she loved more than life itself. Ainsley collapsed to her knees, hands reaching out, blindly searching for something to ground her.
"Are you all right, Lady Ainsley?" Brendyn Ward asked urgently, concern shining in his blacker than night eyes. He grasped her hands, and raw power flowed from him into her, the letter singeing her tender flesh as a charge of electricity crackled through her veins.
"All hope will be lost," she had sobbed brokenly before she thrust the letter into his hand, ran out of the magnificent castle and gone back to college to wait. The days turned into weeks; weeks became a month, then two and still Dragan did not come for her. Broken and distraught, her only solace had been the child growing inside of her.
The child they had created in love.
The last thirteen years had been pure hell without him, but she had endured, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute with a gaping hole in her chest where her heart should be. But at least she'd had their daughter. Without Ember, she would have never survived the pain of losing the man she loved.
Now here she was, making that same trek back up to the top of Mt. Elbert. But this time she wasn't a happy go lucky twenty-one year old looking for adventure. She was a thirty-four-year-old mother, worried half to death because something was happening to her daughter that she could neither explain or comprehend.
A glance over her shoulder revealed that Ember was right behind her, effortlessly making the climb with the exuberance of youth. Ainsley's energy had run out before they were a quarter of the way up. Not because she was out of shape, but because the strain of fear and worry were taking more of a toll than the altitude.
Sure, she could have driven up to the castle, but then she would have had to deal with the guard at the gate. Right. Like he was going to let a woman and her child enter the compound without an invitation. Not a chance in hell of that happening. She'd seen too many women being turned away during her short stay there.
The only option left was the path that led up the mountain and through a secret doorway into the walled garden situated just off the rear courtyard. This was the way that Dragan had led her into his lair all those years ago, and she hoped like hell that she could remember where the entrance was located.
As if she were being guided directly to it, Ainsley stopped at a section of ivy-covered rock and pressed her hand against a perfectly round stone. The wall of rock swung inward, and her daughter gasped in surprise. Flashing her a grin, she asked, "Pretty cool, huh?"
Ember masked the spark of excitement and the mutinous expression she'd recently adopted covered her face. "It's lame," she countered and folded her arms over her chest.
God help her, these pre-pubescent mood swings were going to drive her stark raving mad. The hormonal changes that her daughter was going through made her moody, irritable and downright anti-social. Her little angel had become a drama queen, and that was before she started sneezing fire.
Swallowing an exasperated sigh, she replied, "Once we get inside I want you to stay in the garden while I look for your father." Hopefully, she could find him before anyone spotted her and they got kicked out. Or arrested for trespassing. She hadn't come all this way to leave without seeing Dragan.
"Whatever," Ember muttered as she stepped through the doorway and slid the backpack off of her shoulders. Ainsley shook her head as she followed and almost plowed into the child when the girl stopped abruptly and said, "Wow."
It didn't take long to figure out what had caught her daughters attention. Except for the fountain in the middle, the garden was nothing like she remembered it. A profusion of white roses was growing everywhere. They climbed the wall trellises and filled every bed; some even grew in containers.
She stared at the beautiful scene in shocked disbelief. Because Ainsley had loved sitting in the garden, listening to the sound of water trickling in the fountain and enjoying the scent of roses. She had mentioned once that the white ones were her favorite and every day after that Dragan had given her a perfect white rose.
"It's like he created your dream garden, Mom."
"Oh my God," she breathed as tears filled her eyes. Was Ember right? Had he created this magical place just for her, some completely irrational part of her brain queried. She brutally squashed that idea as complete nonsense. It was more likely that Dragan had forgotten her name five minutes after she walked out.
At least that's what she'd kept telling herself all these years.
Even though she knew it was a lie.
The love that they had shared had been real even though it had been fleeting. On his part. She had never stopped loving the man with a soul as beautiful as the melodies he sang. Which was the reason why her nerves were shattered. Knowing that he no longer loved her was painful enough without having to see him again.
Because he still owned her heart.
Shaking free of the maudlin thoughts, she slid the straps from her shoulders, handed the backpack to her daughter and instructed, "Stay."
"Want me to roll over and beg too?" Ember responded dryly and sat cross-legged on a bench inside the rose covered arbor.
This time the exasperated sigh escaped as Ainsley walked across the petal-strewn pavers to the wooden gate on the opposite side. Her hand trembled as she grasped the wrought iron handle and pulled it open. Standing on the far side of the courtyard, hands braced against the stone balustrade was the man she had come to find.
As if he had known she was there, he turned his head and looked directly at her. The breath lodged in her throat and once again she had the most insane urge to run to him and throw herself into his arms. Her heart was about to hammer itself out of her chest as she forced herself to walk toward him at a slow and steady pace.
He hadn't aged a day, she realized in surprise. Dragan looked exactly the same as the last time she'd seen him. Except for his eyes. His beautiful brown velvet eyes looked as ancient and somnolent as time itself. They conveyed a depth of sadness that was incongruous with the fun-loving man she remembered.
Without warning, the love she had fought so hard to bury roared back to life in vivid color, along with all of the pain and angst that walking away from him had caused. His solemn expression never changed, and he didn't say a word when she stopped right in front of him and said tremulously, "Hello, Dragan."