NocC 021 - Jessa Slade - Dark Hunter's Touch - Harlequin 2012-08, страница 1
Yearning to be free, Imogene has fled the idleness and cruelty of the phae court to hide in the sunlit realm of humans. When the Dark Hunters find her—and they will—she will face the Queen’s wrath. But she is tired of running, and after a chance encounter with a seductively handsome stranger named Vaile, Imogene embraces the earthly passions within her, if only for one night. But has she fallen for a man—or an illusion?
Dark Hunter’s Touch
Nocturne Cravings BPA
The old Lord of the Hunt had finally unleashed his passions, and the phaedrealii—the court of the steel-born fey—ran black with blood.
The Hunter whelp, who was still very much leashed and would be until he had full control of his magics, crawled between the thin, grubby bodies of his young brethren, chained near him. They should have snapped and growled at him for such impunity, and he would have growled and snapped back.
Now, a few groaned, but most of them lay silent and unmoving.
The steel-spiked collar dragged at his neck, but the deadweight of his half-severed wing was heavier, though he tried to ignore the twisted burden.
The agony and dread were heaviest though he tried not to feel that either.
He edged toward the full-fledged Hunter, fallen just moments ago, minus his head, hands still raised defensively. The Hunter had not believed he would be slain by his lord and master. Biting back a whimper that would mean his own death, the whelp avoided the head with its open-mouthed expression of shock.
The old Lord paced. The blood of his rampage was invisible on his widespread ebony wings, but the rusty-sweet scent swirled around him. The violent agitation in every boot step thudded through the ground and made the whelp quake as if his bones were cracking inside him from the tightly bound terror.
“You have brought this upon us, Queen of the Steel-Born, Queen of Lies!” The cry shivered the very walls. Mad he might be, but the Dark Lord of the Wild Hunt had magics to rival the Queen herself.
And now he had turned his might against the phaedrealii.
Too late, the whelp understood why the courtiers who had passed through the compound had circumspectly sought the Hunters’ assurances that their Lord was not suffering from the Undoing. An Undone phae let his sentiments run amok, a lack of restraint forbidden since the Queen had ascended to the Steel Throne centuries ago. The Hunters had scoffed at the courtiers’ fretting. No phae had come Undone since the Hunt began enforcing the Queen’s edict upon pain of death.
But death had come for the Hunters instead, and the whelp knew the unabated gush of blood over his shoulder meant he was on the same path.
He froze as the old Lord swept past. His seeping blood crystallized in jet-black beads from the force of the ancient Hunter’s wrath when the phae bellowed, “Ankha, you vicious bitch. You were my Undoing! Do you hear me?”
“Lord Hunter, every being in the phaedrealii, and the sunlit world too, has heard you.”
At the soft rejoinder, the old Lord turned to face his Queen. His fuming breath frosted the suddenly icy air.
The whelp shivered helplessly and reached for the ring clenched on the dead Hunter’s hand. The steel band froze his skin as he tugged, but the pain of his ripping fingertips was nothing compared to his wing, and the amber stone nestled in the metal was still faintly warm. He clenched it in his palm and dragged his hand to his chest. The stone—the likes of which would have been his one day had he become a Hunter full fledged—returned him a small measure of strength.
The Queen glided forward. With her white gown and her hair in a white corona, she glowed softly in the whelp’s fading vision. Her voice was softer yet, so the whelp doubted any of the phae courtiers gathering in the shadows heard her, aside from himself and the old Lord. “I will not let you do this, Lord Hunter.”
“Call me by my name, my Queen.”
“I told you I would not. This is why.”
The old Lord’s face twisted. “Lies. All lies.”
“And the blood?” She lifted the hem of her pure white skirts—spattered now with black and crimson—to point the toe of her gore-stained slipper. “Also a lie?”
The tangled lines of his face deepened. “The price of true passion. Mine and yours, the phae’s…”
“The first never was, and the last cannot be.”
“Without the Hunters to enforce your ruthless edict, it will be.”
“No,” the whelp whispered. Not that anyone heard him.
But the Queen also said, “No.”
She raised her hands, and the glow around her edges expanded like crystals of hoarfrost. Behind her, the gathered courtiers exhaled as she drew her power through them.
But the old Lord also raised his hand. Though the triangular glass sword clutched in his grasp did not gleam through the blood, its bone handle was as white as the madman’s knuckles. It sang the hunger of the Undoing, and the song was sharp as steel, sweet as blood, bright as starlight in the deepest veil of night.
The whelp ducked his head down into his shoulders to block the seductive sound. The motion wrenched his wing into fresh agony, and he cried out just as the old Lord charged the Queen.
The whelp smashed the amber stone against his spiked collar. Light, shining like the sun he had heard stories of, burst asunder.
He cowered, as the old Lord whirled back with a surprised shout....
The Queen only smiled and loosed her power at the Lord’s back in a boom of thunder....
Half blinded, half deafened, half dead, the whelp drifted for a heartbeat....
Until a gentle touch on his cheek roused him.
“Here now, you mustn’t cry.”
He cracked open his swollen eyes. At first he thought the Queen, white and beautiful, had deigned to speak to a Hunter’s whelp. But no, it was just a silly little sylfana, younger and smaller than him. Her short white wing buds, not yet unfurled, stuck out awkwardly from her shoulders, bared by her palest pink shift. Even at the peak of their power, sylfana could barely fly. They mostly danced and sang and flitted around the court, their laughter as shiny and empty as mirrored bells. When she came into her knack, she would be nothing but a reflection of the idle whims and pleasures of the phaedrealii.
But at least her wing wasn’t hacked half through by the Lord Hunter’s bespelled sword.
“I wasn’t crying,” he croaked.
She wrinkled her nose, easing the strain the Queen’s draw of power had left on her heart-shaped face, and held up her finger. A droplet sparkled. “I won’t let them see.”
He looked away from the startling blue clarity of her too-knowing gaze.
Behind her, phae were milling through the destruction. Some of the courtiers had swooned, drained by the Queen’s demand. No one attended the black-winged corpses though. Even in death, most phae avoided Hunters.
Except this silly sylfana who knelt at his side. Between her bare toes, the end of his leash lay coiled in the dirt and blood. How had she struck the chain? Every other link was pure iron, sapping his phae magics until he was strong enough to control himself. A sylfana should have fled, shrieking, from the metal ore.
Reluctantly, the whelp’s gaze slid back to her. “Where are my brothers?”
“Five are dead, two stayed hidden and w
He closed his eyes. When the patrolling Hunters returned, they would choose a new Lord Hunter from their ranks and deal with the dead. And then they would deal with him.
A wingless Hunter could not hunt. A Hunter who could not hunt was…nothing.
“You were so brave,” she murmured. “No one else stood up to him.”
“I could not even stand.” And now he would never fly.…
“To fly? Is that what you want?”
Had he let the wistful words escape him aloud? He opened his eyes to glare his fury at her. “I am Hunter-born. A Hunter needs his wings to find what he hunts.”
She stared back at him, idly winding a lock of her hair around her finger. The shining strands held all the colors of the amber he had smashed: copper, gold, and bronze. “Do you know what a sylfana does?”
“I know you’ll never reach even the lowest clouds,” he snapped.
“We have the power of wishes.”
The whelp sneered as he had seen the older Hunters do when they complained about the sylfana who served a parallel court function to the Hunt, acting as the Queen’s lures. Where Hunters were the bullet, the sylfana were the hook, wielding temptation and enticement in place of violence, equally merciless but masked in pleasures, the precise nature of which remained frustratingly unspoken around the whelps.
But for the first time, the whelp understood the anger—and the longing—in his older brothers’ voices. He leaned away from the sylfana. “I don’t need your wishes.”
“It is not my wish.” She reached around herself to poise her tear-dampened fingertip over the bud of her wing where the first scalloped edge was just appearing. “It’s yours.”
He shifted. “You can’t do that. It’s magic.”
“Of course it’s magic. We are phae.” She touched the tight furling of white. When she lifted her finger, the tiny scales glittered alongside the salt of his tear.
He watched, warily, as she stretched her hand toward his shoulder where the joint of his wing had been so horribly slashed. He stiffened. “I don’t think—”
“It’s just a wish. Are you scared?”
He was. “No.”
“I am. Just a little.” She smiled at him, and he knew he would never forget the light in her blue eyes. “Ready?”
He wasn’t. “Yes.”
She closed her eyes and exhaled. The sweet scent of her breath and phae magic banished the stink of blood, and he found himself leaning toward her. She touched him.
The fire went through him in a ferocious blaze, a thousand times worse than the prismatic sword’s edge or the Queen’s thunder. He screamed but could not pull away.
“Hush. It won’t always feel like this.”
But it would. He knew he would always feel like this.
She wanted to feel it all. Her body burned. Sweat slicked down her skin, a sensuous tickle, and her chest heaved with each pounding stroke. When she gasped, the taste of salt prickled on her tongue.
Imogene needed her sunlit runs. With her body, mind, and senses so immersed in the moment, she might camouflage her presence from the Wild Hunt. The inexorable path of the sun, immune to any magics, helped keep her on her path, pretending to be a true inhabitant of this earthly realm—but for how long?
She wanted to run forever. That’s how long the Queen’s phaedrealii Hunters would search for her: forever. Creatures who stood with only one foot in the world’s time had that advantage. Though the phae could be blithe and capricious, once Hunters were loosed upon the object of their hunger, they would never falter. The black dogs and their dark masters were so dangerous that the Queen herself chained them when they prowled her inner court.
The sun fell into the streaked clouds over the Pacific Ocean like a fading ember. Its glow burned a red hole through the veil of the blue-gray sky, and the reflection in the water rippled with secrets. A chilly breeze breathed out from the pine forest rising from the rocky headlands beyond the dunes. Imogene slowed to a jog and flapped her oversized T-shirt to let the breeze tickle her belly.
A creep of awareness between her shoulder blades made her glance back.
Down the beach, a dark silhouette closed the distance, tall and menacing. Her heartbeat ramped up again and all her muscles tensed. For a confused moment, a swirl like black wings spread above the figure, and even the ceaseless churn of the ocean seemed to hush.
Then the sun flared out behind the clouds one last time, and Imogene recognized him: just a fellow jogger she had passed many times over the month since she had moved to the Oregon coast. He waved at her again—not wings, just a regular old human arm—and she chided herself for seeing monsters in every shadow.
Still wary, she let him catch up. All the other times, they had waved but never spoken.
“Hey, I think you dropped this.” Still a dozen strides away, he tossed something toward her.
Reflexively, she caught the chain that spiraled through the air. The metal tingled in her hand: steel. From a bezel at the bottom dangled an odd, blue stone—partly clouded but transparent in places with occlusions that caught and scattered the low slanting light. The pendant gleamed like a sky changing from the clear blue of day to the darker blue of evening, a sight she had longed for when she’d been trapped in the halls of the phaedrealii.
With regret, she shook her head. “Beautiful, but it’s not mine.” She held the necklace out to him, looking up.
And her breath, which she had finally caught, escaped her again.
They had always passed each other at a distance—part of her promise to herself to stay far away from humans on this trip through the sunlit realm. She had noticed only that he was dark haired; had a smooth, gliding stride that ate up the beach miles; and didn’t usually bother with shirts despite the chill.
Shirts were overrated anyway—especially if they committed the crime of covering such a perfectly sculpted chest. The hard planes of his pectorals blurred beneath just enough dark curls to declare the undeniable presence of testosterone, and the narrowing arrow of hair over his abdomen commanded her attention down toward testosterone central.
She jerked her gaze up before she could wonder if the ripstop nylon fly of his shorts was rippling from the breeze…or from something else.
Judging by the sly smile playing around his lips, she knew he hadn’t missed her once-over, but the confident tilt of his head said he thought he could take it. No doubt he got plenty of once-overs, not to mention twice-and third-overs. Even the haughty courtiers of the phaedrealii who objected most vociferously to the idea that there might be any shared blood between humans and phae would be willing to claim this one as kissing cousin.
The wicked edge of male beauty had carved jaw and cheekbones in bold relief from his deep-set dark eyes. Salt spray and sweat had frozen his dark hair in untamed tousles. Only the fullness of his lower lip seemed out of place, as if some all-powerful fairy godmother had decided this chiseled work of unassailable masculinity needed a touch of bruised tenderness and had taken a soft bite of his mouth before breathing him into life.
Imogene caressed the smooth, blue stone—still holding his body heat from his pocket—and imagined running her finger over that lip. Desire pooled low in her belly, warm and glowing as the stone. She curled her hand into a fist and crimped the chain in her grip. The slide of metal links through her fingers, each coiling into the next, echoed through her body. Her skin tingled again, not from the touch of steel, but as she pictured his big hands on her.
His jet eyes glittered. “Are you sure it isn’t yours? You seem like you want it.”
She wanted something anyway. For a heartbeat, she reveled in the sensations cascading through her. These were feelings the phae could never understand and would never allow. She would be able to summon this fantasy for months, forgetting the cold, remote, untouchable glory
The Wild Hunt would never suspect such delicious longing in a princess of the phaedrealii. A breeze whisked past her, carrying the tang of ocean along with a hint of the man—a musk that fit perfectly with the salt and pine and coming night.
“I can’t take it.” She couldn’t keep the deep sigh out of her voice. “It’s not mine.”
He made no move to retrieve the necklace, only crossed his arms over that incredible chest. A silvery ring gleamed on his forefinger. “Well, it would look right on you.”
Yes, he would look gorgeous on her, she thought wryly. But she would never entangle a human in the dangers that followed her. She had gotten tougher since she left the hollow illusions of the court, but even a month of determined running instead of careless dancing would not put her beyond the reach of the Queen’s Hunters.
“Someone else must have lost it,” she insisted.
“Tell you what. You keep it, and I’ll let you know if that someone comes looking.”
She cocked her head. “And how will you let me know?”
“I guess you’ll have to give me your name and phone number.”
She shook her head. “I’m not in the habit of giving those to strangers.” Names had power…phone numbers, not so much, but she didn’t own a phone anyway. The phae often amused themselves with human toys, but she wanted only the brazen sensations of the earthly world.
“We’re jogging partners, not strangers.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Partners? More like two ships in the night. And the morning.”
“But this time we didn’t pass each other. My name is Vaile, and you’re the first thing I see before coffee. There. Not strangers anymore.” He smiled in a way that she thought was probably intended to make him look harmless. Instead, she was reminded of the smug wolf in Grandma’s bed.
Despite her own best intentions, she smiled back. After all, she should know how to handle fairy tales. Besides, the phae knew the real story of that particular volken; Grandma hadn’t at all minded being eaten.