Once Upon a Time in Bliss
Nights in Bliss, Book 8
Print Book: Amazon
About the book
Re-released in a second edition with new content.
Go back in time to Bliss’s first happily ever after…
CIA operative John Bishop arrived in Bliss, Colorado, seeking a respite from the high-stakes game of blood and lies that sent him to the worst corners of the world. A week playing the role of vacationing professor Henry Flanders would recharge his batteries, especially if he found a gorgeous woman to occupy his time.
Nell Finn has spent her life focused on helping others, but when she meets the tall and mysterious Henry Flanders, she can’t stop imagining what he might do for her. When Nell and her mother are threatened, Henry comes to her, offering his protection and comfort.
But as the threats escalate out of control, Henry discovers that the beautiful and innocent Nell is much more than a plaything. Can he save the woman he loves without exposing the secrets that would drive her away?
“What should I call you this time?” Bill Hartman asked the question with an uptick of his lips that let Bishop know he was amused.
He was also naked.
Bill Hartman, former commando and wildly successful venture capitalist, now ran a nudist colony called the Mountain and Valley Naturist Community. It had been a shock to walk in and realize everyone was naked. Really, really naked.
It took a lot to shock Bishop.
“Henry Flanders.” It was his private ID. He’d bought it off a man in Mexico City years before. It was one of three passports the Agency didn’t know about. He was a careful man and knew damn straight that even the best agent could be thrown under the proverbial bus if it suited the needs of the CIA. He didn’t intend to get ground under those large wheels. He’d always had an out if the Agency decided to burn him. His preparedness came in handy when he wanted to walk away briefly.
So he was Henry Flanders for now.
Bill looked him over. “You look every inch the college professor. Where did you get the glasses?”
It hadn’t been hard to change his appearance. He had one of those blandly attractive faces that people tended to forget. Throw on a pair of glasses and a blazer and everyone assumed he was an academic. “They’re not real. The lenses are regular glass. I thought this would be a good cover in a place like Colorado. I considered doing the cowboy thing, but Henry didn’t strike me as a common cowboy name.”
Bill frowned from his wingback chair. Bishop had seen a lot of odd things in his time, but a naked man behind a power desk was one for the books. “I’m glad you didn’t. Our cowboys take their lifestyle quite seriously. If you aren’t prepared, they would figure out your ruse fairly quickly.”
Bishop doubted it. He was exceptionally good at what he did. If he’d created a cowboy persona, he would have written himself a history that no one could challenge. But he’d decided to go the brainy route. Henry Flanders loved history and shit. Maybe by playing the role of a guy who had all the answers, he could find some for himself.
“Are you all right with me staying here for a couple of days?” He sat, patiently waiting for Bill’s judgment. It was an oddly vulnerable moment for him even though Bill was the one without a stitch on. He was waiting for Bill to give him a reasonable excuse why he should find a place in town instead of rooming at his precious resort. It was disconcerting since he hadn’t felt vulnerable in a very long time. Not since he’d been a twelve-year-old kid shuttled from home to home, always being packed up because he knew damn well no one really wanted him.
What the hell was he doing?
Bill leaned forward, his face open and concerned. “Of course. You don’t need to ask. John, my home is your home, son.”
His real name. John. Only a few people knew it. Almost no one ever used it. He’d had so damn many names that he wondered at times if he still existed or if he’d become the ghost the Agency claimed he was. “Thank you, sir.”
It was just for a week. That was how long he could give himself. He’d given his boss the same dumbass excuse of chasing down a lead he’d given Taggart and they’d bought it. He’d been intentionally vague. It would buy him some time. He’d earned back enough goodwill since the incident in Chechnya that got him sent to South America. South America was hopping with all kinds of potential threats, so going silent wasn’t unheard of. They wouldn’t give him hell for a few days.
If they realized he wasn’t where he said he was, that was when the trouble would start, but by then he would be back in the game.
He needed a few days of freedom.
“Are you going to be all right with the lifestyle?” Bill leaned back as though trying to show Bishop how relaxed he was with having his dork hanging out.
“I think I’ll manage.” Running around naked actually freaked him out a bit. Clothes were such a part of his daily ruse that the thought of not being in costume was disturbing. He glanced at the window to his left. Snow was falling lightly, blanketing the ground in a pure white powder. The mountains were beautiful here. Deadly, of course, since all things were, but beautiful. “How do you handle the cold?”
“Well, I wear a coat outside, and I spend a small fortune keeping things toasty warm inside. I wish you had come in the summer. There’s nothing like the high valley in summertime. It’s beautiful and you haven’t lived until you’ve gone swimming in a mountain lake with nothing but the water and the sun on your back.”
Bishop felt himself frowning. There was so much he didn’t understand about his former CO. “How do you do it, Bill?”
“Well, I take off my pants first. Some people will tell you to deal with the shirt first, but really it’s the pants that chafe.” Bill seemed to catch the deeply unamused look Bishop knew he was sending out. “Sorry, I was having some fun with you. Listen, the first few years out of the military were hard. I won’t lie to you about that. Some of the missions haunted me, but I found this place. I came up here with a friend who was in the lifestyle. I think I was a little lost during those first days of civilian life, and he seemed to understand that. I came here and in the beginning, I laughed at everyone. I kept my clothes on. They were idiots. But the days went by and I realized they weren’t at all stupid people. They’d found something that made them happy, a way to live that spoke to their souls. I decided to give it a try. It was stupidly difficult to take off my clothes. Sounds simple, huh?”
No. It didn’t sound simple at all. It sounded slightly terrifying, and now Bishop was wondering if he’d made a mistake, but he nodded and allowed Bill to continue.
“It’s not simple at all. It’s hard. Clothes hide so much of who we are. They’re an armor of a sort. The first time I took off my clothes and joined the group, I actually worried that they could see through me, that they would know the things I’d done.” Bill sighed, obviously lost in the memory. “I was sure they would tell me to leave their paradise. I stood at the edge of the party like some blushing kid. And then this woman, this lovely, amazing woman, walked over and took my hand, and suddenly I didn’t see a dumb hippie. I saw kindness and beauty. When the older couple who founded this place retired, I bought it and now I run this place not just for me, but because I want to make this mountain a place of peace. It’s everything I fought for, got my hands bloody over. This mountain is my reward for serving my country. I thought I had given up pieces of my soul, but this place and that woman gave them back to me.”
Bishop nodded, not entirely understanding, but happy for his friend. If this place brought Bill any measure of peace, then he would never say a thing against it. But he was sure his problems couldn’t be solved by walking around with his junk swinging.
Maybe this had all been a big mistake. Bill seemed to have reintegrated into the world, albeit an abnormal version of it. Bishop doubted he could ever do the same.
There was a brisk knock at the door and then it swung open, a lovely woman with dark hair striding through, followed by three other women. One was roughly the first’s age and the other two were young, possibly in their mid-twenties. Both younger women were brunettes, one with a sweet face and glasses, and the other caught Bishop’s eye.
Rich chocolate brown hair, startling brown eyes, and a mouth created to suck a cock. She didn’t seem to move the way the others did. She was so graceful and light on her feet. Even though she wore a heavy coat, he would bet she had curves and hips and breasts.
That was what he’d been looking for. He’d wanted a distraction from all the crap in his life, and it had just walked in the door.
“Pam.” Bill stood immediately, every bit of his attention focused on the woman who had opened the door. Bill practically fucking glowed looking at her. “Callie. This is a nice surprise. Moira and Nell. Please come in and meet my friend.”
Bishop stood, straightening his jacket. He hoped Bill remembered the cover. This place seemed to have made him soft. His eyes went straight to the girl with the big doe eyes, though she seemed to not even notice he was in the room. She took off her coat. Unfortunately, she wasn’t wearing her birthday suit. She was dressed in a perfectly respectable sweater and jeans, but he’d been right. She was petite but built for sex. He’d bet her breasts were a small C. She had a tiny waist that curved into luscious hips.
“Hello, I’m Pam Sheppard. This is my daughter Callie.” Pam was a pretty woman in her early fifties, he would guess. She didn’t have the gorgeous girl’s problem with clothes. She’d shed her coat and stood wearing nothing but her boots.
Callie smiled at him and her glasses fogged over. She took them off but had nothing to wipe them on because she was also wearing what her momma had given her. “Sorry. There are some drawbacks to the lifestyle, especially this time of year. My glasses rarely fog over in the summertime.”
Bishop tried to keep his eyes on her face. It was increasingly hard with all the boobs and stuff on display.
“I’ve got it.” Gorgeous Girl plucked the glasses from Callie’s hand and quickly wiped them down using the hem of her sweater. She passed them back and looked around the room. “Should I take off my clothes?”
Yes. Yes. Yes. Bishop felt his heart rate accelerate at the thought. It was a bit alarming. He was ice cold. He didn’t run hot, but she was making him warm all over. He was damn happy he had his clothes on. He was getting a woody right here. It proved how perverse he was that the erection was for the girl who didn’t have her clothes off.
“Nell, dear, don’t worry about your clothing. We have much bigger things to worry about.” Moira. She looked rather regal in her turtleneck sweater and tailored slacks. She turned to Bill. “Our cabin was broken into. I’m afraid my past has caught up to my daughter and me. I should never have stayed on this plane. I should have kept moving. I can’t remember if time is faster here or slower. I think it’s both sometimes.”
And the older lady was insane. Good to know Bill took in all types.
Nell flushed, a gorgeous pinkening of her skin. “Mother, please. Let me handle this. We agreed I’m the best person to deal with this situation. And you’re being perfectly impolite. We haven’t even been introduced to the guest, yet.” She finally turned those chocolate eyes on him. She was half a foot shorter, barely coming to his shoulders, and that did something for him. Standing over her gave him the oddest feeling of protectiveness. “I apologize for my mother. She’s a bit odd and not very interested in the social niceties. I’m Eleanor Finn, but everyone calls me Nell. I live down in the valley with my mother, Moira Finn. It’s nice to meet you.”
So polite. She held out her hand. Social niceties. He didn’t have much use for them either, but he was good at them. He took her hand in his, a spark lighting up his skin. He dismissed it as nothing more than static electricity. “I’m Professor Henry Flanders.”
Her eyes held his for the barest of moments before she found a place on his chest to stare at. Nice. Submissive. Perhaps not everywhere, but she would be in bed, and that was all he really cared about. Bill might like the whole nude thing, but Bishop had games he liked to play, too. And he was seriously thinking about playing them with Nell Finn.
Yes, he’d needed a distraction for a few days, and she would do quite nicely.
* * * *
Nell Finn looked up at the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Destiny. She’d wondered about the word, thought at times that it was a silly thing to believe in, but here he was standing right in front of her.
She’d even felt a spark of lightning when he’d touched her for the first time. All the faery tales her mother had told her were true. There really was one person out there for her. Of course because her mother was slightly insane, she’d claimed that the one person out there was likely on another plane of existence and trapped by an evil relative, but she was wrong. He was standing right in front of her and she couldn’t quite breathe.
Henry Flanders. It was a perfectly lovely name.
Why couldn’t he have met her at a better time? Maybe destiny was a cruel goddess. Or maybe she could still save this first meeting. Her mother hadn’t talked too much yet. If she could get Henry out of the room, it might take him a few days to figure out her mom was crazy and thought that faeries were real and god, please don’t let her go into her spiel about corporate vampires. Yes, Henry had to leave because she really did have a problem, and Bill was the best person to deal with it.
She turned to Bill, forcing her attention away from Henry’s chest. He was still dressed, and that was likely a good thing. She was well used to the men of Mountain and Valley and their chosen belief system. She would honor it as she honored all people’s philosophical beliefs, but it would have been difficult to not stare at the handsome professor, and staring at a nudist’s privates was considered quite rude.
“Bill, could we please schedule a time to talk to you about our security problem?” They could go and have lunch in the cafeteria. Mountain and Valley always offered a vegan option for every meal. She could settle her mother down and then come back this afternoon when Henry was off doing activities or relaxing, and then what? How would she see him again? Her mind went in a hundred different directions. She had no idea how to pursue a man. She’d spent her college years learning how to protest. If Henry was a corporation violating EPA standards, she would totally know what to do with him.
Bill sat back down behind his massive, very important-looking desk. Nell loved the desk but worried about how many trees had died to create it. Still, it was well crafted and not some throwaway furniture. It was the kind of desk that could last several generations, thereby making the loss of the trees worthwhile. Someday she would find a desk like that.
She wondered if Henry had a desk like that.
“Nell, dear, if this is a security problem that has your mom upset, why don’t we talk this out now? There is nothing I enjoy more than helping out Pam’s friends,” Bill said.
“It’s okay. I don’t want to bother you when you’re talking to your guest.” The last thing she wanted was for hot Henry to hear her tale of woe. She didn’t have a lot of experience with men. She’d only had a couple of boyfriends, and they’d all been run off either by her dedication to causes or her mother’s firm belief in a reality that didn’t exist. She was pretty sure that most men also preferred women who weren’t high maintenance. They liked independent women who knew their own minds and solved their own problems.
“We were just catching up. Nothing serious.” Henry offered her his chair. Everyone else had found a place. “Please, sit.”
She didn’t want a seat simply because she was female. “Oh, no. You were here first. I’m perfectly healthy. I can stand.”
“Please sit down, Nell.” His eyes had narrowed slightly and though his voice was perfectly polite, there was something about the tone that told her it was better to not argue.
She found herself settling into the chair.
Why had she done that? She loved arguing. She was quite good at arguing. She’d taken whole semesters of it. Arguing 101. She’d been given an A+ and told she was the most annoying woman the professor had ever met. In her world, it was a compliment. “If you insist, but you should know that I don’t think women are any different from men, so there’s no need for the whole gentlemanly act.”
“It isn’t an act,” Henry replied. “And we’ll discuss exactly how different men and women are at a later date.”
He’d whispered the words her way, leaning over the chair she’d just sat down in. She’d been able to feel the warmth of his breath. It shimmered along her skin.
Wow. Nelson Milford, her debate team boyfriend, had never once made her heart pound like that. And what the heck had happened to her nipples?
“Go on, Moira. Tell Bill what you told us,” Callie said in an encouraging tone.
Callie had been the first friend Nell had made when she’d followed her mother to Bliss after she’d graduated from college. The minute she’d walked into town, she’d known this was her home.
Nell turned, praying that Henry had left the room. Nope. He was standing there, his arms crossed over his chest. She wondered what he taught. He looked like a professor. Sharp intelligence sparked from his dark eyes. He obviously had no plans to leave, and his eyes were squarely on her. She forced herself to turn back to the others and held off the urge to ask him to leave. He would say no. She knew it deep down. He would say no, and rather forcefully.
So much for destiny. After Henry heard her mother’s story, he would stay as far away from her as possible.
She loved her mother, but sometimes she was a burden. Damn. She couldn’t think that way. Her mother was a lovely woman. Her mother took care of her. Her mother had said all the right things when she’d needed to. She’d held on to reality in order to save Nell. She couldn’t ever repay her mom for that. And Henry Flanders had been a fleeting dream. She was lonely, and he was interesting.
The destiny thing was nothing more than a flight of fancy.
She would start dating. She could ask men out. Maybe she would ask Rye Harper if he would like to have dinner some time. He was attractive and charming and ate far too much animal flesh. And came with a brother. She couldn’t handle those two even if they’d showed any interest in her at all.
Henry Flanders was the most interesting man to walk into Bliss in forever. That was all.
“Our cabin was broken into by my cousin’s forces,” Moira explained calmly. “He’s finally found us after all these years.”
Bill’s left eyebrow arched. “You’re on the run from your cousin?”
Nell held a hand out, all hope for getting through this with dignity gone. “Mother is talking about her Fae relatives. According to Mom, she’s royalty from another plane of existence. She was forced to flee when I was a baby because we’re apparently some sort of faerie princesses, and her cousin wanted to kill anyone who could possibly claim the throne. But seriously, our cabin was broken into.”
Bill looked to Pam, who shrugged as though to say, Live and let live.
Nell felt herself flush. Her mom lived in her own world. It was seemingly harmless. When she was younger she’d loved the stories her mother had told her, but as she grew she realized how much her mom’s disconnect could cost them.
“Well, Moira, then we need to look into this.” Bill gave Moira a smile. “Don’t worry about a thing. Perhaps for the time being you would feel more comfortable here in the community. We’re gated and have lots of security. You and your daughter are more than welcome.”
Her mother breathed an enormous sigh of relief. “Thank you, Bill. You are such a gentleman. I would feel safer staying here.”
Yes, her mother’s differences had cost them much, but not in Bliss. Tears sprang to Nell’s eyes. She loved it here. No one tried to throw her mom in a home. They let her work and sell her gorgeous pottery in the galleries in town. They let her be part of the community.
Nell blessed the day her mother had met Pamela Sheppard in radiation therapy. Pam had convinced Moira to come home to Bliss with her. Pam had gone into remission. Her mother had not. Nell took a long breath. Nothing was more important than her mom. “Thanks, Bill. I appreciate it. Mom has been worried. Whoever broke in didn’t actually take anything. They just destroyed a bunch of furniture.”
Furniture she would find hard to replace. Her mom had used every last bit of their money to buy their cabin by the river. Nell thought seriously about finding a job. Her writing career was going to have to get put on hold. It wouldn’t be hard. Idealistic, environmentally sound romances did not seem to be selling right now.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a bear, hon?” Pam asked. “Sometimes they get in, and they can make a real mess.”
“It wasn’t a bear. It was Torin, I tell you. He’s found me.” Moira shook her head as though she’d known it would happen all along.
Torin was apparently their tormentor. Yes, she’d heard many stories about the evil faery. “I don’t think it was a bear.”
“It wasn’t a bear, Mom,” Callie agreed. “Bears don’t spell as well as this person.”
Callie was right. Everything on the message the man had left behind had been properly spelled, if slightly vulgar. Bears rarely left behind personal messages. It was one of the things she liked about them. “He wrote a message on the wall.”
“What did he write?” Bill asked, his brow furrowing in consternation.
Nell frowned. She hated this part because she was pretty sure that message hadn’t been left for her mom. “Die, bitch. That’s what he wrote.”
“Did he?” Henry’s voice was ice cold.
Nell had to turn around to answer. “Well, yes. Why would I lie about that? It’s not exactly something I want to talk about around town.”
“Why are you here and not at the sheriff’s office?” Henry leaned negligently against the wall, but there was nothing casual about the look on his face. “This sounds like a criminal act. You should involve the authorities.”
“Sheriff Bryant was fishing,” Nell explained. “And his deputy was on a call.”
“Rye is working a traffic accident,” Callie said. “He’s the deputy. I would really rather Rye look into it than the sheriff. Sheriff Bryant is real close to retirement, and he doesn’t expend a whole lot of energy, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t,” Henry replied. “If the sheriff isn’t doing his job, he should be replaced by someone who will.”
“That’s a very narrow-minded view.” Nell was a little surprised at his judgmental attitude. Maybe he wasn’t the man of her dreams. The man of her dreams would be a bit more tolerant.
“On what planet, sweetheart?” Henry shot back.
“Uhm, Henry, you’ll find things work a bit differently here than the rest of the world,” Bill explained. “The sheriff was voted in, and he can’t be voted out until the end of next year. I’ll put it to you in a way you should be able to understand. Think of it as Sheriff Bryant having tenure. He can’t be let go because he takes the odd day off to go fishing. We take fishing damn seriously here in Bliss.”
She chose to ignore Henry’s glare at that statement. She’d allowed her hormones to rule her very excellent brain. He was obviously like other outsiders. He was judging them, and she wouldn’t tolerate that. No matter how nice he looked. Or how pretty his eyes were. Or how broad and masculine his shoulders happened to be. She wasn’t going to fall for a Neanderthal.
She turned back to Bill and the problem at hand. “So, do you think you can help us? I know you can’t find this guy, but maybe you could help us make the cabin safer for when we go home.”
“I’ll find him.”
Nell was forced to turn again because Henry had said the words, and he’d sounded so very, very sure of himself.
“You want to handle this? I thought you were on vacation,” Bill said, a silent moment passing between the men. “I wouldn’t like for Nell or her mother to be hurt.”
“I’ll take care of them.”
Those five words from Henry Flanders seemed to settle something in Bill Hartman’s mind. He reached over and gripped Pam’s hand, bringing it to his lips. “Then it’s settled. What do you say we go and get some lunch, dear? Henry will take care of the problem. Moira, why don’t you join us? Nell can show Henry the cabin.”
That hadn’t gone the way she’d planned.
Her mother stood up. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. They could still be out there waiting for my Nell. I should go with her. I can trade my life for hers if need be.”
And that was her mom in a nutshell. Nell sighed and walked across the room to hug her. “I’ll be fine. It’s only an hour or so and then I’ll be back here. I’ll bring back your books for you, and then we’ll settle in for a while. It can be like a vacation.”
A vacation where she found a job because her mom’s pottery sales wouldn’t cover fixing up the cabin. She would have to see what she could get for her laptop and pray someone was hiring around town.
“I don’t know.” Her mom looked Bill’s way.
“Henry can take care of her,” Bill said.
“Nell, grab your coat, and we can be on our way,” Henry said. Well, ordered really. He seemed to be a very bossy sort of man. Likely because he was a teacher. Teachers often had to take control, though Nell’s favorite teachers had always been the freethinking ones. Her favorite teacher of all time had been Mrs. Joyce, her eighth grade English teacher, who brought a net to class so she could catch dangling participles. Of course, she’d also taught grammar through interpretive dance.
Maybe she could find a teaching job.
“Nell?” Henry was staring at her.
Yes, he was far too bossy for her tastes. She would simply have to survive the afternoon. She would take him to see the cabin and then head into town to talk to Teeny about where she might be able to pawn her computer. And her necklace. It was a silly thing, a little silver snowflake with the words “You’re One of a Kind” engraved on it. It had been a gift from a friend. She always touched the necklace when she felt down, a way of reminding herself of the words. Now she would have to pawn it. She sniffled as she walked to where she’d hung up her coat.
Henry stood talking to her mom. He’d leaned in, whispering something to her. Her mother stopped, her pretty face settling in a confused mask.
“Will you really?” she asked.
Henry’s face was the same polite blank it had been the whole time. She wondered what it would take for the man to smile. “I promise I will.”
A bright, sunny smile replaced her mother’s previous gloom. “Excellent. I like you, Henry. Take care of my girl. She’s very important to the world, you know.”
She could feel her skin flush with embarrassment. “Mom, please.”
“I can see that.” Henry grabbed his own coat and held the door open for her. “Shall we?”
It was too bad he was so bossy and obviously believed in a patriarchal society worldview because he was quite handsome. She walked out the door wondering what he would look like if he would just smile.
Copyright 2019 Lexi Blake