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Quantum Boxed Set Books 1-4
Get the first four books in Marie Force’s New York Times bestselling Quantum Series right here in one place! Read about Hollywood superstar Flynn Godfrey meeting first-year schoolteacher Natalie Bryant and their love story leads to happily ever after in the first three books, VIRTUOUS, VALOROUS and VICTORIOUS. The story then continues when Flynn’s best friend Hayden and his assistant Addie finally give into their burning attraction in RAPTUROUS.
Virtuous, Chapter 1
Winter in New York City is dirty business. A nasty, grayish hue hangs over the city from November through late March. During my first winter in the city, I’ve experienced everything from slushy puddles that soak through even the most resilient boots to icy sidewalks to the delightful combo platter of fried onions from vendor carts melding with mystery steam from the underground, creating a smell that defies description.
I love every stinky, icy, frigid inch of it. While others hide out inside, I take to the streets with my dog, Fluff, on a leash. Her full name is Fluff-o-Nutter, but don’t judge me. I was nine when I named her after my favorite food group at the time, and fourteen years later, she’s still my most faithful companion and the one tie to my old life that I brought to my new life. She goes everywhere with me, except school.
I tried to get her in there—once—but was stopped at the door by stone-faced Mrs. Heffernan, who told me school is no place for animals. Even after I swore I’d keep her under my desk and out of the way all day, the answer was still no. She cited health codes and rulebooks, her spittle hitting me under my left eye. Taking Fluff home cost me a personal day, and I swear Mrs. Heffernan still checks under my desk every day when I’m on recess or dismissal duty, just to make sure Fluff isn’t there.
Because I can’t take my twenty-pound baby to school with me, I hired a dog walker to care for her during the day. That’s working out well, except for the time Fluff bit one of the poodles. The dog walker was irked, but I’m certain poor Fluff was only defending herself. She was quite indignant and put out by the entire incident. I told her she has to behave herself or get stuck inside all day if the dog walker fires us.
Fluff has behaved admirably ever since.
I’m rewarding her good behavior today with a long walk through the Village. The wind is bitingly cold and snow flurries fill the air on this early January day. It’s the kind of bitterly cold New York day that keeps even the hardiest of souls inside, so Fluff and I have Bleecker Street mostly to ourselves.
As I’m still somewhat new to the city, everything about it fascinates the girl from Nebraska. I love the architecture and the chaos as well as the taxicabs and the bikes that zigzag the streets on even the coldest of days. I love the stylish women who put together amazing outfits I’d never conceive of on my own, the handsome men, the diversity, the dreadlocks, the tattoos, the music, the theater, the piercings and the food. I despise the poverty, the homeless sleeping outside, the grime, the graffiti. Overall, I love a whole lot more than I hate.
My roommate made fun of me for weeks when I first arrived because I gave money to every poor person I encountered. She told me I’d be broke before Christmas if I kept that up. So I stopped, but my heart still breaks every time I walk by someone in need, because I wish I could help them all. Most of all, I love that I feel safe here. If you’re someone who worries the city is dangerous, you’ll think that sounds crazy. But when you’ve survived what I have, safety is relative. The way I look at it, for every one person who might hassle you on the street, there’re a hundred good people nearby who’d come to your aid. I take comfort in that.
I window-shop my way from one end of Bleecker to the other, lingering outside Marc Jacobs before the cold forces me on my way. A first-year teacher can only dream about shopping at Marc Jacobs, so there’s no point going inside, not to mention they’d freak about Fluff being in there.
Standing still is not an option today. My face is so cold at this point, it’s gone numb, and I have the start of an ice-cream headache without the pleasure of the ice cream. I’m thinking about heading home to the cozy apartment I share with one of my colleagues when activity in the playground at the end of the street catches my attention.
“Let’s see what’s going on, Fluff.” We head toward the park, Fluff pulling hard on her leash, though I can’t tell whether she’s hot on the trail of a scent or a sight. I’ve learned to let her investigate these things or put up with her pouting all day. She’s freakishly strong for a little old dog, and I find myself nearly jogging to keep up with her.
I’m not quite sure how to describe what happens next. All I know is one minute we’re trotting along until I slide on a patch of ice, teetering for a moment between disaster and recovery. By the time I regain my feet under me, Fluff has taken advantage of my momentary loss of balance to bust loose. Her leash goes flying out of my hand, and she takes off like a shot, making for the gate to the park on tiny legs that move with puppy-like speed.
Fears of her fragile body being crushed under the wheel of a taxi keep me running as fast as I can, calling her name as I go. She rounds a corner and disappears for a horrifying second before I make the turn into the park and bring her back into view. I’m laser-focused on her and terrified of her clearing the other side of the park and dashing into traffic.
“Fluff! Stop! Stop!” I run so hard my lungs are burning from the cold and the exertion. My eyes are tearing, also from the cold, as well as the sheer terror that my defenseless little dog is going to end up as roadkill if I don’t get to her—fast. “Fluff!”
I hit something hard and go down harder, landing on my back. You know what it’s like when you get the wind knocked out of you and for a whole minute—or even longer—you can’t breathe? That’s me, lying on the ground in the Bleecker Playground, staring up at the cloudy gray sky, unable to get air into my startled lungs.
I actually begin to wonder if I’m dead. Have I been hit by a bus or a cab or a bike or some other vehicle? Am I drifting between life and death? A crowd forms around me, numerous sets of eyes looking down at me. People are always so curious when bad things happen to other people. I hear angry voices. There’s pushing, shoving and jostling around me.
A face appears above mine. A handsome male face. He seems concerned—and familiar. Do I know him from the neighborhood? Someone screams in the background, and I think it might be me.
Then Fluff is there, licking my face, full of concerned obedience. That’s when I know I’m not dead—and neither is she. A flood of relief at realizing she’s okay relaxes my chest, allowing in oxygen I desperately need. The cold air hitting my lungs snaps me out of the stupor I’ve slipped into. I look up at soft brown eyes, a kind face, brows knitted with concern.
“Shut up, Hayden!” the kind face says. He has really nice eyes and dark hair shot through with hints of silver. I want to reach up and push it back from his brow and see if it’s as soft as it looks. His lips are perfectly formed, the kind of lips you want to kiss, and his face is arresting, captivating, lived in, if you know what I mean. “Can’t you see she’s hurt?”
That voice. Something about it is familiar. I want to ask if we’ve met before, but I can’t seem to speak.
“She fucked up my shot!”
“I said to shut up!”
“You shut up! It’s not your shot she fucked up!”
Looking down at me, the kind man rests his hand on my shoulder. “Do you think you could sit?”
I try because he asked me so nicely and because Fluff and I have obviously caused some considerable trouble for these people.
His strong arms come around me, helping me to sit up. He’s so close I catch a hint of his cologne. He smells expensive, a thought that nearly makes me giggle. Except my chest hurts, and Fluff is making a scene, yipping and trying to get my rescuer’s hands off me.
Did I mention she’s a bit territorial when it comes to me?
My rescuer’s eyes bug out of his head as he gasps. “Holy shit, that damned dog bit me!” He waves his arm around, trying to dislodge Fluff, whose tiny body jerks at the end of his arm. The jerking only makes her more determined to hold on. He lets out an ungodly howl.
The other guy, the one who’s been screaming at me, comes rushing over to assist him.
“Don’t hurt her!” My voice returns as they’re about to hurl poor Fluff across the park in their haste to remove her from the arm of my rescuer.
“Get her off me!”
I scramble to my feet and reach for her, my legs wobbling and my head swimming from the rush of moving too fast.
Thankfully, Fluff sees me on my feet and comes willingly to me, dislodging her victim.
“You’re fucking bleeding,” the man named Hayden says. “He’s fucking bleeding!”
I’m not sure who he’s talking to until a team of people descends upon the nice guy, tending to his wounds.
“Does he need the ER?” Hayden asks. He’s crazy handsome—tall, broad-shouldered, with dark hair and ice-blue eyes. He’s also seriously pissed. “Please tell me he’s not going to need the fucking ER. If we lose this entire fucking day—”
“Hayden!” The injured man waves the others away and dabs at the wound with some gauze. “Shut the fuck up! Walk away and take a deep breath.”
“Easy for you to say, Flynn. It’s not your ass on the line to deliver this thing on time and on budget.”
Hayden storms off, barking orders at people as he goes.
I finally take a look around and see cameras, ladders, light poles, electric cords snaking along the ground, a tented area off to one side and a lot of people milling about looking uncertain. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you all were here. Fluff… she got away from me, and I went after her.” I venture a glance up at him, and that’s when it hits me. My dog has bitten Flynn Godfrey. The Flynn Godfrey. Flynn freaking Godfrey.
“You’re… Oh my God. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what got into her. One minute we’re walking down the street, and the next… She’s biting Flynn Godfrey.”
His appealing eyes twinkle with mirth.
“It’s not funny!” I can’t believe he’s laughing.
“It’s kind of funny.”
“It’s not fucking funny!” Hayden shouts across the park.
“Shut up, Hayden,” Flynn says without taking his eyes off me.
“Are you all right? I’m so sorry. The biting is new. She’s fourteen and more of a terror now than she was as a puppy. And I’m totally babbling. And you’re Flynn Godfrey.” I take a step back, wishing for a way to simply disappear before I die of embarrassment right in front of the biggest movie star in the known universe.
I halt, because what else does one do when Flynn Godfrey issues an order?
“Are you all right?” he asks, his own injury apparently forgotten.
Words fail me under the potent glow of his magnetic beauty, so I nod.
“Yes.” I force words past the odd sensation in my chest and throat. “Are you?”
“It’s a scratch. Nothing to worry about.”
“Well, um… It was nice to meet you. I’m a huge fan of your work. Perhaps your biggest fan. But I’m not a stalker or anything.” I’m doing it again. I’m babbling in front of the biggest movie star on the planet. “I’m going to stop talking now. I’m sorry again for interrupting your work. Tell him I’m sorry, too.” I nod in Hayden’s direction. He’s still ranting and railing, and suddenly I want out of there because the guy is kind of scary pissed.
I tighten my arm around Fluff and make a hasty retreat, nearly tripping over a power cord on my way out of the park. That’s when I see the gigantic signs posted on the gates. “Closed Today for Film Shoot.” Great.
Acutely aware of everyone in the park watching me go—including Flynn Godfrey, the biggest movie star in the universe—I walk as fast as I can on rubbery legs.
Behind me, I hear male voices arguing, loudly. Then I hear his voice.
“Hey, wait. Don’t go.”
Is he talking to me? I’m afraid to stop to find out, so I walk faster. Fluff is squirming in my arms, wanting down so she can walk, too. “No way, missy. Your wings are officially clipped.”
She whimpers and continues to fight my hold on her.
“Don’t even think about biting me, do you hear me?”
It’s him, and he’s calling out to me. While everything in me is telling me to run, to flee, something makes me stop and turn. Much later, I will look back upon the decision to turn around as one of those life-changing moments that you don’t realize is changing your life as it happens, but with hindsight you can see how important it was.
He’s running after me. Flynn Godfrey is chasing me.
The few people on Bleecker pause in what they’re doing to watch him. Even in the frigid cold, the sight of the biggest movie star in the universe stops people in their tracks. His breath forms puffy clouds as he catches up to me. The intense look on his face disarms me.
“Don’t tell me you’ve decided to sue poor Fluff.” I go for witty over panicked. “Her net worth is a goose-down bed, a couple of chew toys and a very expensive—and apparently useless—leash.”
His lips quiver slightly, but his eyes… His eyes are deep and dark and determined. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Why do you want to know my name? You are going to sue me, aren’t you? Before you spend a ton of money on lawyers, you should know that Fluff’s net worth is quite a bit more than mine.”
“I’m not going to sue you,” he says, chuckling. “I wouldn’t mind some coffee, though. If you have time—and if you tell me your name.”
“You… you want to have coffee. With me.”
“If you have time, and if you tell me your name.”
I’m stunned speechless, and people who know me will tell you that happens well… never. They call me Chatty Cathy at school because I like to talk to my colleagues at lunch when most of them would prefer a few minutes of quiet.
“You do have a name, don’t you?”
“It’s, um, Natalie.”
“Natalie. That’s a good name. Does it come with a last name?”
“Bryant.” Sometimes my new name still feels funny coming off my lips, but the old name… The old name belongs to the old life, and neither has any place here in my perfect new life that’s just gotten a lot more perfect.
“Natalie Bryant. And Fluff.” He raises his hand as if to pet Fluff, but her growl makes him think better of it.
“That’s her full name. Fluff is her nickname.” I don’t know why I tell him that, but when he laughs—hard—my stomach feels all fluttery and strange. I made Flynn Godfrey laugh. As he wipes a laughter tear from the corner of his eye, I discover I quite like making Flynn Godfrey laugh.
Well, isn’t this turning out to be a rather interesting day?