As a nature photographer, David is confident he can handle anything he finds in the Polish woods at night, in spite of an old man’s crazy story about the women who wait deep within the forest, looking to steal a man’s soul.
But then he’s lured from the path, where he meets Willa, the embodiment of all his fantasies. When she begs for his help, David instantly agrees to give it, his thoughts too jumbled to wonder why the beautiful creature is so deep in the forest, naked and alone.
After the most sensual night of his life, David knows he is lucky to be alive, but he can’t get Willa out of his mind. He’s addicted, obsessed and determined to find her again, but returning to the forest means David will be punished for his infatuation. Unless Willa agrees to keep him by her side forever…
David checked the camera hanging around his neck and surveyed the inn’s taproom. It was a charming place, if the visitor had a thing for medieval Polish décor. He doubted the place was that old, but it was scenic.
The occupants of the room were just as interesting as the furnishings. A grizzled group of men, a couple sporting matching Goth looks, a cheerful old man waving at him from a corner table. Curiosity caught by the old man’s urgency, David walked over, taking the offered seat.
Blue eyes dancing with interest slid over his face. The old man proved himself sharper than David expected. “You are American, yes?”
“Yes.” David stifled a smile at the eagerness in the man’s voice. “How did you know?”
“You have good Polish,” the man said, “but not good enough to keep my ears from hearing the difference.”
David snorted. “My accent gave me away, did it?”
The man grunted an agreement as he leaned forward to brace his elbow on the scarred tabletop. “What brings you to Poland? What brings you here, to our tiny village?”
“I’m a wildlife photographer.” David lifted the camera. “I’m here to take some pictures of the nocturnal animals for a book that—”
“Nocturnal. You want the pictures of the night creatures?” The man sat back in his chair, his face growing pale before a splash of red coated his cheeks. “Here? In the forest?”
“No, sir. You mustn’t. You are just a traveler, yes? So I will help you.”
“You know of some good places to wait?” David grinned. The locals always knew the best spots.
“No.” The old man’s brows lowered, emphasizing the seriousness of his thoughts. “I will tell you to stay out of the forest completely. It’s not safe. Especially at night.”
David sighed. He’d traveled to many different places all over the world. This wasn’t the first time he’d met someone who was utterly convinced the American couldn’t handle himself. Fear of the dark and creatures with sharp teeth was etched onto the human psyche, and everyone was convinced that their night was darker, their animals more vicious, than anywhere else. Visitors would surely die from their lack of knowledge of the area.
“I appreciate the warning,” David said, “but I’m used to being by myself in the forest. I can take care of myself.”
The old man was stubborn. “Not here.”
“Henryk!” The bartender materialized at the table, his bushy gray brows beetled at the other man. “No scaring my guests!”
“But he wants to go into the forest.” Henryk was mutinous. David almost laughed out loud, but didn’t want to offend the man who was so convinced he was helping.
“I know.” The bartender rolled his eyes and looked at David. “Forgive my friend. He’s telling you the old nonsense our mothers would tell the children. Scary stories to keep the little ones out of trouble. He is an old man now, but this one…ah, he still believes.”
David eyed the empty glass at Henryk’s elbow. “Or you served him one too many.”
“I’ve seen them!” The old man turned to David, pleading his case with fanatical eyes. “There are women in these forests. Beautiful women. Dangerous women who will steal your soul, young American.”
David rose from the table, casting a glance out the window and judging the time to be right. The sun was nearly gone. “I’m not here for the women, sir. Just the wolves and owls.”
“The wolves are protected here,” the bartender warned, “but they stay deep in the woods. You will take care to not get in their way because there will be no help for you if they attack.”
“The wolves and the women!” Henryk jumped to his feet, arms waving wildly even as he lowered his voice to a dramatic hiss. “They will sing to you, dance with you. Then they will steal the breath from your lungs and leave you to a cold death in the forest!”
The bartender snorted. “Nonsense. My American friend, take the trail from just at the back here. Stay on it until you come to a small river, cross it and take the left turn on the path. You will find many animals nearer to the pond down that way.”
“No!” Henryk jolted forward, clutching at David’s sleeve. “You must not.”
David jerked away from the old man, not bothering to hide his impatience. “Unless the women are gun-toting murderers, I don’t think I’ll have a problem. Thank you for the warning, sir, and have a good life.”
The man’s mouth worked, his face mottled with color. David was halfway to the door when he called out, “Only the dawn can save you! The dawn, young American.”
“Henryk!” the bartender barked.
Shaking his head at the foolishness of old men, David shouldered his way out of the inn, and jogged into the woods.
He shifted slowly, not wanting to disturb any animals that may be closing in on the pond. David had waited patiently for hours, but it hadn’t been a great night. There were few things moving through the dark woods.
He stood to scan his surroundings. A glimmer of silver moonlight danced on the surface of the tranquil pond nestled between thick stands of trees boasting a mixture of old growth and young saplings. He breathed in the rich smells of earth, pine and a subtle floral scent that teased his nose. The silence was weighted, as if the forest held its breath, watching him.
An explosion of white broke the stillness, close enough to stir his hair. David ducked, covering his head as he grabbed for his camera. He staggered, fighting for balance, his finger depressing the button before he could aim the lens. Feathers brushed his cheek, a cool whisper against his skin. Through the heavy thud of his heart, he heard the faint sound of flapping wings.
Then the silence returned.
“A swan?” His words were just a breath against the dense night.
The notion took hold of him. Still gripping his camera, he spun. Searching the darkness, straining to catch even a hint of bright color, his eyes narrowed and his muscles locked, freezing him on the bank of the pond. He held his breath, waiting, listening.
A streak of white flashed in the distance. Immediately, David moved after it. His feet made little noise as he followed an overgrown game path until it came to an abrupt end.
He stared at the tangled mess of green that obscured the trail. Crouching, David examined the ground, peering through the small, waxy leaves of a plant he didn’t recognize. Reaching out carefully, he brushed his fingers over the fronds, surprised at their delicacy.
He was forced to backtrack to a wider portion of the trail. Glancing around again, he spied a way forward. Slowly he moved along the new path, cautiously placing his feet to avoid the roots that rose up to trip him.
He was rewarded with another flash of white through the trees.
The forest grew denser around him. The pines leaned toward him, snagging on his shirt, pulling at his hair. A soft shiver worked down his spine as he pushed through the tight confines, adrenaline heating his blood. His imagination ran riot—it was almost as if the trees were trying to hold him back, block his progress.
But he would not fail to find the swan. Excitement sizzled in his skull at the discovery. He’d never seen one fly through a forest at night and he was determined to capture its image for his book.
Holding tight to his goal, he made his way deeper into the woods. Mist rose, swirling along the ground before rising to his calves, making the path treacherous. His feet slipped on loose rocks and twigs, his ankles wobbled in small holes.
The trees became twisted. They bent toward the ground, tangled their arms together with their brethren, and curved their trunks around each other in silent companionship. Their bark was rough and rutted, running with sap that gleamed dully in the dim light.
Laughter tinkled through the gloom, unexpected and beautiful, like small bells. A melody drifted through the woods to wrap David’s senses in wonderment. An accompanying flash of white drew him on. He held his camera at the ready, but uncertainty filled him.
Bushes rustled as he stepped into a small, circular clearing. Here, the moon was brighter, though its time was growing short and its light wasn’t strong. It cast a gentle silver glow over everything so, as his eyes followed the shaking of the underbrush, he had no trouble seeing the woman’s face peering past a tree.
She had wide-set eyes over high cheekbones. Her face was a perfect oval, topped with a long fall of hair the shade of warm honey. Her rosebud lips were full, sending wicked fantasies streaking though his mind. She was exquisitely delicate, lushly sensual.
“Hello?” David took another step forward, but she pulled back behind a sticky pine.
Her face appeared on the other side of the trunk. She stared at him for a long moment, her gaze traveling from his head to his toes. She smiled a sweet smile.
“You are not from here.”
His stomach clenched at the beauty of her voice, his ears demanded he respond so she would keep talking. “No. I’m American.”
She frowned, shrugged. “You speak like me, but you are not from here.”
“My grandfather is Polish.”
Her eyes went dewy and her lips molded into a pout. “Can you help me?”
David stepped forward. “Are you hurt? Lost?”
“Please, come with me. I’ll show you.”
He studied her delicate features, her unlined cheeks, the wide-eyed innocence tempting him. She beckoned but he hesitated. “How old are you?”
She smiled. “Old.”
He shook his head. “Who are you? What’s your name?”
“You can call me…Willa.”
She stepped away from the tree into a swath of moonlight. It coasted over her body with a loving touch, illuminating the perfection of her naked flesh, her honey hair. David looked his fill but held still, grabbing for his control.
She was small-framed, but nearly as tall as him. Her long legs molded into gorgeously curved hips, flaring from an impossibly tiny waist. Her torso was delicate, nearly too small to hold her large breasts, perfectly placed and tipped with nipples of the deepest red.
She was his fantasy, come to life.
“Where are your clothes?”
She waved a long arm toward the dark forest behind her. “There. Please come.” She edged back into the tree line.
Doubts crowded his thoughts, but they were muted, disconnected. She was in need, a pretty woman, naked and alone in the woods. He’d been warned there would be little help this deep in the forest. Who knew how long she’d been waiting for assistance?
She hummed a tune that melded seamlessly into the gentle breeze stroking over David’s arms. The waning moon highlighted the plea in her eyes as she lifted a hand to beckon him again. He followed.