PART I – Darkness
The near future…
“The queen is missing.”
Whispers from a fading dream ripped through her body, startling her from a restless sleep. Sitting up in the middle of the stuffed cot, she used the back of her hand to swipe away a heavy layer of sweat and oil from her brow. She looked down and saw that her hands were shaking. Her breath was ragged and she could barely breath. Her chest was heaving high with deep sobs that refused to release from her lungs. Silent screams were the worst. The burning behind her breasts was nearly unbearable, like the flare from a blowtorch was crisping her skin to shriveled shreds. When she realized what was causing the pain, she immediately recoiled. Her thin legs lifted from the edge of her shabby mat and yanked them back so that she could hug them to her chest and pin herself at the head of the bed.
With her back against the cool plaster of the wall behind the bed, her eyes watched the cause of her mania. The last beams of daylight were slipped through the thin slit used for ventilation and slid across the tiny single room quarters. Even the muted illumination of the pale orange was strong enough to cause a gnawing pain behind her eyes, forcing her to coward deeper into the darkness of the corner she was now trapped in. She shut her eyelids tight and buried her head between her knees, seeking desperate relief from the glow spilling into the assigned room of the apartment building. There was at least another full hour of torment to endure before the last drops of late twilight disappeared from the sky then sweet relief would finally come.
This was not the same world she had been born into. Somewhere along the way, everything had flipped. Night was day, and day was taboo – forbidden, dreaded, to be avoided at all costs…even lethal, like now. After so many years of hiding in the shadows, even the darkest skin was white as smoked ash and the palest skin was nearly transparent. A society of vampires? Hardly. A pack of ravenous heathens condemned to dwell in darkness? Very possibly that is what they had all become.
For the next hour, while the last embers of sunlight slid into a merciful twilight, she fought off panic and tried to ignore wispy strips of pain ebbing across her skin. The moment purple overtook gold in the eternal struggle for dominance of the sky, the first howls pierced the air. Strangled high-pitch screeches fill the early night. Time to move. And move fast.
After a quick birdbath from a small basin of chilly water stashed in the opposite corner of the room, she pulled on her work uniform – a tattered black halter top, battered mini skirt, tall leather spike-heeled boots, and elbow-high leather gloves with the finger coverings removed – and made a dash for the dive hall she called home seven nights a week.
Rule number one: Never let your guard down.
Keeping to the center of the cracked asphalt streets, she kept her steps small and quick. She set her pace so sleek and stealthy that she could barely hear or feel the soles of her boots tap against the hardtop. Her path was straight, never steering too far left or right of the nearly blackened nightscape stretching out before her.
Her eyes darted swiftly in all directions. Small barrel fires flickered every few hundred feet. Whenever she came within ten feet of any of them – and their unseen keepers – her pace quickened and she diverted her path slightly to the opposite direction. The more space, the better. She could feel the gaze of wicked wraiths peering at her from the cover of blackness just beyond where the flames licked the cold night air. Even at night, light could signal death. She could sense that she was always only one breath shy of merciless torment at the hands of whoever might be cloaking themselves deeper within the inky blackness of the shadows crawling behind the shimmering veil the red and orange flames created.
A woman’s worst nightmare was being dragged away into the shadows, never to be seen or thought of again. Scream. Scratch. Struggle and fight. None of it would matter. No one would come to your aide. No one would care that you’re gone. No one would remember who you were when day broke. The moment the greasy hands clutched your skin, you became a twin with death. When your meal card goes inactive for twenty-four hours, it would be canceled and the credits cycled back into the ward’s general account. Whenever the monitors took note that your quarters were empty, they get reassigned. The crack of a neck. A push of a button. Like you never existed. In reality, you could be in the wasteland keeping company with dear agony.
Three steps past the last fire barrel and a whistle breezed past her ear. Low snarls soon followed. Flight or fight. Instinctively, she kept moving. To freeze for even a second too long could be one second too long past permanent midnight. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as the patch of skin covering that spot began to prickle with terrible anticipation. She sensed too much heat hovering behind her. Nowadays, probably for the last fifteen or so years, human – Could you still call them that? She honestly wasn’t sure – body temperature ran a little lower than the previously standard ninety-eight point six degrees. Even though she and everyone else in this forsaken land had banished by the light, a small part of her hoped that she wasn’t a complete monster. But now was not the time for such silly thoughts. Whoever or whatever was hovering behind her, not more than twenty paces away, was spilling enough heat for it to warm the full fold of her neck and shoulders. Even weres don’t spit out that much heat, and especially not from that distance. The creature was at perfect stalking range and closing in.
Her legs flexed into a run. She made quick work of bounding up the stairs that led to the entrance of The Lare. The open palm of her right hand and the clenched fist of her left pounded on the frosty metal door.
“Hey!” She yelled with every breath in her body. “Open up!”
She paused only long enough for a quick listen. No answer. No turn of the complicated locks. She resumed her banging.
“Open up! It’s me.”
The second the jury-rigged door swung open, she pummeled over whoever had just unlocked it and dashed into the safety of the dark cavern on the other side. Before she could disappear into the thick mass of writhing bodies stuffed into the wide gallery ahead, big arms grabbed her by the shoulders, causing her to tumble back against the bristly hairs of a massive, fur-covered chest.
“What’s up with you, Shay?”
“Hey,” he said sharply then shook her slim body, rattling her back teeth and bringing her back to reality. “You in there?”
“Let go’a me,” she hissed through clenched teeth. While spitting the short bristly hairs from the mat plastered on his chest out of her mouth, she tried to snatch her arms out of his grip, but it was useless. He was stronger than a bear and twice as hairy.
His dark, glazed eyes glared down at her. When he flicked his pink tongue across his dark lips, a violent shudder raced down her body. A wicked gaze slid down to her exposed cleavage. She wasn’t ashamed of her body – no one ever was, not anymore – but that didn’t mean she wanted anyone to have free range over it either. So far, she had kept her intimate secrets to herself. How long that would last was anyone’s guess. She had been lucky, but one day that well would run down to the mud and she knew when that day finally came, it wouldn’t be pretty. Thankfully, it wasn’t today.
“She’s late,” another male voice boomed in. “Just let ‘er go. We need drinks in hands and tongues wet. New boss in town and we don’t want him t’see an unhappy crowd. She’s the fastest bar maid we got, so just let ‘er be.”
A nasty grin smeared across the bear’s fat face. Now that he had her scent, he would be on her…constantly, so she needed to watch her back at all times.
After he unhooked his grimy nails from the sensitive skin on the underside of her upper arms, she took off like a race hoarse, making sure to lose herself into the thick crowd. No looking back, just ahead.
Rule two: Never look back. Always meet the end face forward.
The moment he stepped into the dismal arena – The Lare, his new dominion – the scent hit his nose. Impossible. Above the stench of human sweat and body oil, plus heavy doses of alcohol and excrement, a lovely aroma wafted into his senses. His body was immediately drawn toward the trail. The further he moved toward the crowd, the more intense the taste became. A delicious flavor floated across his pallet. He licked his lips, nearly panting to inhale a deep, overdosing whiff of that smell, that intoxicating aroma that was driving every muscle in his body toward ravenous heights. The source was so close now. Maybe a yard away, no more. He paused as he honed in on his target. Again, he had to question the reality of this moment. How? After so long, how was this happening?
Naked bodies moved in-sync with the blaring, bass-heavy music, grinding sweaty, filthy flesh together, swaying in hypnotic rhythms. Only one caught his eye. She wasn’t in a drug-induced trance. She wasn’t being consumed by the raw energy of the live band’s performance. She was running…fleeing through the mass of tangled human corpses. A hand reached out to grab hold of the thick braid hanging down her back. Her head arched back with surprise. She was trapped. Or was she? The man tried to pull her back into his lecherous grip. A big palm reached down to jerk up her thin mini skirt. Right after he palmed her ass, she whirled around and used a small fist to push the tip of his nose in an upward direction. He could almost hear the bone crack from where he stood admiring her foreplay. Blood spewed down the punk’s face. Agony washed over his features. She watched her handiwork. Her hard scowl transformed into a…smile. Even under the dim flicker of the house lights, he saw her dark eyes light up with excitement. She enjoyed the pain she had caused. He felt her rush flow under his skin, experiencing the thrill as though it were his own. Pure delight spawned from deep fright.
When she rushed past him, he froze. His blood blazed in his veins. Her scent sparked an unfamiliar shiver inside the dark recesses of his black heart. Right then, he knew. As sure as he was destined to extinguish the power of the sun forever. It was her – the keeper of its paralyzing flames. And she would belong to him.
With only five steps until she could reach safety behind the bar, a vice grip wrapped around Shay’s upper arm.
This was the third time in less than five minutes that she had been grabbed and she was getting sick of this shit. She whirled around, fist balled up tight to deliver another painful bomber, but a giant palm opened and caught her blow mid-air. The stunned girl froze, her dark eyes widened with surprise.
In one gasping moment, her mind and body were suddenly sucked into a stupefying haze. Crisp, electric eyes pinned her in place. Her slim weight went limp under the intense pressure of his gaze. With one hand still gripping her arm in a brutal grip, the towering barbarian’s other arm snaked around her small waist, catching her before she dropped to her knees. He lifted her until the tips of her toes dangled on the floor. Trapped by his brute strength, with her breasts pressed against his hard chest, her insides began to twist with bizarre pleasure. Unable to break free of his hold, Shay had no choice but to allow him to take free range to rake his eyes over the length of her body. The cold tip of his nose dipped into the curve of Shay’s neck then pressed deep into her cool flesh causing her nipples to pebble against her will. The air lifted from her lungs as he inhaled a long whiff of her scent.
“Mmmm,” he breathed out. His warm breath sent licks of hot flashes scattering across her prickling skin.
When he pulled back with unnatural quickness, hair the color of tinted wheat fell forward and slipped down to cover most of his face. Only the tips of his ears and the glow of his eyes were visible behind his long wavy locks. Chilly, ice blue eyes peered down at her, causing Shay’s thin blood to run as cold as the color of his powerful stare. Wickedly sexy lips curled into a sensual grin.
He moaned again, sending the heat of his breath trailing down her neck. “Mine.”
With one word – one demanding command – Shay knew that she had received the death sentence she had always dreaded. She was doomed, soon to be condemned to the fate she had been running from for most of her young life.
He bought his face closer to hers. The tips of their noses touched, sending a shiver down her spine. The ice pouring from his eyes made her body shudder. Heat radiated between her thighs and spread up into a heavy pool at the center of her flat belly.
The arm he had her pinned with gripped tighter, bruising her sides and squeezing her ribs until her lungs began to empty of precious oxygen. His head angled to the side, as though he were leaning in to capture her trembling mouth and steal a flammable kiss. Not once had his eyes blinked, and the power pouring from them filled her with conflicting emotions of horror and lust beyond thought.
Just before those crimson lips bruised her own, her eyes caught a flash of midnight. A tall, dark-haired man rushed by their frozen bodies and abruptly shoulder-checked her captor. In that one blessed moment, the spell he had wrapped around her was suddenly broken. As he turned his full attention away to seek out who had dared to touch him, Shay used the opportunity to wiggle free of his grip. While she fled from his presence, she stopped only long enough to witness one swift motion. The stranger reached his hand out and grabbed for the first throat nearest him. After one quick, devastating yank of his folded fist, he twisted the other man’s neck at a sickening angle. A nauseating crack hit the air and then the body of his victim hit the floor and crumpled beneath the pulsing crowd, never to be thought of again during the frenzied rave.
Returning her attention to escape, Shay’s legs carried her to what she hoped was a sanctuary from the mob and from the villain who had nearly stole her last shred of decency in the middle of the dance floor. After three quick bangs on the security gate, she dashed through the enclosed bar’s iron gate as soon as she was buzzed in. She didn’t stop to allow herself a breath of air until the door slammed shut behind her and the thick bolt slid into place.
With her back pressed against the cold iron of the bar’s metal cage, Shay finally exhaled the breath she had been holding. Her lungs were begging for oxygen, but all she could draw in was one short ragged sip of stale air.
Jimmy raised a dark, bushy eyebrow in her direction.
“ ‘Sup with you?”
Without sparing him another glance, she walked over to the warped hard wood counter and started setting up her station.
“Drunken bastards tried to take me.”
“And that would have made me late,” she snapped at him.
“You’re late, you’re fired,” he grunted.
“Exactly.” Her jaw clenched.
His lack of concern didn’t surprise her. It wasn’t unusual for a man to strip a woman naked and force himself inside her – even if she had already refused. In fact, toward the close of every night in this putrid little establishment, right after the crowd had reached a fevered frenzy and just before the alarms blared a warning signal to announce the approaching dawn, several brutal violations might occur all at once. No one cared. No one stopped partying. Everyone pretended they didn’t see a crying, bleeding, naked woman crawling across a gritty tiled floor. And Shay was no exception. How many times had she turned a blind eye to the sight of weak arms flapping around, desperately seeking salvation from someone – anyone – only for that poor girl, whoever she may be, to realize, with what must have been sickening horror, she was all alone in a room crammed with people?
What did stun Shay was that, after all these years of working here, for one brief, unforgiving moment, she was stupid enough to think he might have cared even a little if something bad were to happen to her. Then it occurred to her. Nothing bad every happens. Anything goes. If there was no hope to balance despair, no rules to forbid depravity then everything was as it should be. Evil did not exist and violence was instinct…it was the air they breathed every moment…it was survival. So why was she so upset?
“Order up,” he said gruffly.
Dragging her thoughts back to the present, she slammed a shot glass upside down on the counter. A crackling sound signaled that she had probably splintered its rim. By the time she stomped her high spike-heeled boots toward the new arrival, her nerves had calmed somewhat. Remembering that she was standing behind the heavy rusted metal bars restored her sense of dominance over the chaotic atmosphere. No matter what, the bar was always secured. It’s valuable contents were to be protected at all times from the shitty riffraff that filled this dank and dismal place. The House had to ensure that no one robbed them of their precious supply of euphoria-inducing liquids.
Without looking up at the stranger standing on the other side of the counter, she reached for a glass. All drinks were served in only one size – small – so whatever he wanted was a perfect fit for the container she was grabbing for. Afterward she nudged her chin in his direction. When no response came, she was forced to look up. The last thing she wanted was to have to look into another pair of cruddy eyes, but since the cat ate his tongue and she didn’t have all night to learn sign language, Shay smothered her aggravation and gave him the attention he seemed to desire so much.
He held up a single finger. It was long and broad, and she was suddenly imaging what deadly arts he might be able to do with that stiff digit. But that wasn’t all that held her attention. Even under the twirling strobe lights she could see the faint tan clinging to the skin visible below the cut-off sleeve of his black fitted tee. Even though the shirt was grungy and ripped in all the right places, revealing teasing flashes of the corded muscles he was hiding beneath the thin material, it only served the purpose of making him look severely overdressed in a building crawling with nude bodies. She couldn’t see him below the waist, but she already assumed his manhood was probably also well-concealed. She, too, was dressed – in the barest threads – although she didn’t stand out as much as him, because it wasn’t out of the ordinary for bar staff to have on more clothing than guests.
She resisted the urge to study him further. Instead, she filled his glass with a tonic – a mixture of a mild aphrodisiac and tap water. It was the House special. If you didn’t specify what you wanted – and most people were too wasted to even slur a single word well before they arrived at this spot – that’s what you got. House special mandated by House rules. So chug up and get back to the usual groping and sexing.
After slapping the bottom of the drink onto the counter, Shay held up the scanner and waited for him to show her his wrist. Instead, he tossed two gold bits down. Another quick glance at him, directly into those scowling hazel eyes, and her sense of dread returned. His steady gaze revealed a self-discipline that kept his face stern and unrevealing. Her next move should have been to hit the silent alarm, but she didn’t. Without cat-like quickness, she reached out and discreetly scanned the three-striped bar code tatted on the wrist of the guy that was shoved uncomfortably close to the wastlelander’s right side. The dark stranger didn’t visibly exhale a sigh of relief, but she saw the hard edges of his eyes relax ever so slightly.
You’re welcome, asshole, is what she thought, but what she said out loud, clear enough so that he could hear her above the drone of the bass and drunken revelry of the club, was “Get out.” While you can, was how Shay silently ended that command.
He gave a barely perceptible nod then grabbed up his drink and turned to leave. A bang on the bar’s gate halted his movement and pulled Shay’s eyes toward the noise. Two patrolman were waiting at the entrance of the locked gate. Jimmy buzzed them in then nudged his head in her direction. Her eyes darted toward the man again. Who knows why she looked. For help? Out of frantic desperation, most likely. Since she had just done him a huge favor, she supposed she was hoping he might do the same for her. Cause a scene. Yell. Scream. Anything to give her an extra second to think of an escape. When patrol dragged you away, you were never seen again. At least, not alive.
To her surprise, in place of dark eyes, ice blue ones flashed at her. The stranger had vanished into the heavy mass of bodies that surrounded the bar. Her captor from earlier had taken his place. His cherry lips stretched into a sneer. Gotcha. That’s what his grim, slightly appeased, stare spoke to her.
Seconds later she felt the brush of massive, brick house bodies on either side of her. No escape. She never thought it would end like this. For some sad reason, she never thought it would end at all. Her granny had instilled such hope in her that she would be a survivor. That she would be one of the last ones to see the dawn again. Could is be so simple to steal her last dream?
A casual nod of his blond head in her direction sealed Shay’s fate. Take her, was his silent command.
Big hands wrapped around her thin upper arms, holding her in place before she could struggle against their brute strength, then a bolt of shocking electric stung the side of her neck.
Could it really be so simple? Her last thought before the end came. Darkness and silence followed her into the tunnel to nowhere.
Ethan stared at the slender frame lying on his chamber floor.
When his men had arrived to deliver the girl, they didn’t feel a need to carry her any further than a few inches past the door. And, for the moment, neither did he. The pretty package would remain exactly where they had dropped it.
His eyes studied the sleeping figure. It was impossible for him to drag his glare away from her. The desire to touch her was undeniable. Just like earlier, a magnetic pull drew him closer to the living doll. Without any conscious effort on his part, he bent down to kneel beside her. Posing with her back curved and her knees pulled up to her chin, she looked like a discarded angel. Her face was peaceful, calm. His fingers reached out and ran a slow pace down the length of the thick braid hanging down her slim back. With the tips of the dark strands tangled around his fingers, Ethan leaned in close and used the tip of his nose to trace a line along the curve of her neck.
There was no need to distance himself, she wasn’t filthy like the others. She also didn’t reek of liquor and sex. Even if she did, he probably would have been helpless to resist the impulse that was dragging him so near. Her scent was achingly familiar, yet his mind was having a hard time remembering what it reminded him of. So sweet…too sweet. She didn’t belong here, not in this broken and filthy hellhole. Rat City. That’s what the natives called it. A wayward finger found its way to the cool skin of her leg then floated over her outer thigh. When the roaming digit reached her hip, Ethan’s fingers slid beneath the hem of the thin cloth wrapped loosely around her waist. He stopped his motion and hovered at the soft pad of flesh covering the bone there. As he pressed his fingers deep, a sliver of excitement raced through their tips. His manhood instantly hardened. Like a man in a deep trance, Ethan’s eyes slid closed as he allowed himself one free moment to revel in the sharp, sensual electric pulses flowing over him.
The bolts of energy flowing between them must have awakened her. In an instant, the girl’s lips twisted, her features wretched, and her lashes flew open. Wide eyes stared up at him. Fear. Mixed with…something more…something like…Before he could figure out the depth of the last emotion splashed over her face, the terror resurfaced. She shuffled to her feet like a pussycat trying to scramble away from danger. For her, danger was inescapable.
The more she tried to scurry away, the more urgently a sudden and possessive need to control her swept up from the pit of his stomach and forced him to react to her attempt to flee. Her very essence riled up a desperate lust beneath his hard skin. The fevered frenzy pushed him forward until he cornered the frail female. Her back pressed against the bolted door while the weight of his body pinned her in place. She was trapped exactly where she should be…under his complete dominance and control.
The conflicting emotions raging within him were surreal. Ethan could feel her inner light flowing from her pores and trying to sink into his. He wanted to possess her power and extinguish it forever. He wanted to test her strength, bombard her willpower with his own. How much of his torment could she resist? He needed to see if she was worthy of him and of what he would eventually demand of his queen. Strangely enough, he also felt compelled to prove that he was worthy of her as well.
He had to feel her, to mold her within his grip again. His hand instinctively wrapped around the soft skin just beneath her chin. With the width of one palm, he cupped the underside of her face and the curve of her small throat. With ease, Ethan used his giant’s strength to lift her small body from the floor. Barely retrained terror filled her eyes – her gorgeous, dark eyes. The innocence hovering in the gaze glittering beneath long lashes sent a chaotic pulse running through his veins. His lips parted. An urge to kiss her was unbearable. Time…slowed…to nothing. Watching you…watching me…Wanting you…wanting you to want me. When he was close enough to feel the warmth of her weak breath sweep across his open mouth…Thud…his heart slammed inside his chest. The pounding became so hard, he feared it might suddenly stop beating altogether and he would be dead and forgotten before ever claiming her.
Her struggling against his hold broke the trance. Fear, not attraction spurred her reaction to him. Her whole body shuddered at his continued touch. Ethan could see that she was afraid of what he would do next. Had he really discovered such a rare treasure on the first night of his reign over his new kingdom? It made the question running through his mind inescapable…How had she kept herself pure for so long? He shook the concern away. It didn’t matter. She belonged to him now…to please him in every wicked way that he so chose – but not just yet. There was no such thing as coincidence. Timing was everything, and her appearance signaled only one event. One final sunset stood between him and consuming his sweet caramel temptation.
To stop her useless floundering, Ethan tightened his grip around her throat, forcing the girl to lift her legs and wrap them around his waist. When she did so, he settled his muscular frame further between her thighs. Later, when the time was right, this is the position he would use to finally claim her body. Again, he had to calm his raging lusts and remind himself that his passions would not – could not – be satisfied tonight. If he made that mistake, everything would be ruined and he would, quite possibly, be dead before the next nightfall.
With her tangled around Ethan’s much-larger body, the female’s movements paused. Once she stopped fighting him, he released her airway. When she drew in a gasp of much-needed air, their eyes locked. The curious expression from earlier resurfaced. What was it she was feeling? And why was he so frantic to uncover the truth and match her gaze? Like her scent, those eyes, the color of onyx, stirred up a tempest from deep within. The closer Ethan moved his face toward hers, the more he began to tumble into the pull of a distant memory. Where had he seen this face before? The fingertips of his free hand trailed down the side of her cheek. A layer of light moisture from her skin slid beneath their tips.
Then the connection finally struck him. Like a hammering shock, it reached out, punched past his black heart and revived the last spark of life swirling within his deadened soul. In an instant, he was child again, barely seven years old, sitting in the front row of a church of all places. The word caused Ethan to shudder inside, but he resisted the urge to physically cringe. He refused to allow his concubine to see any weakness within him. In the waking dream, the wandering eyes of the boy-child floated to the next row and were met by a pair of bright, flashing eyes. A girl, not much younger than him, met his gaze. They silently studied one another from across the aisle.
An uncontrollable shiver ripped through his convulsing torso. Ethan’s mind blacked out the rest of the horrible tale. With his attention returning to the present, his eyes flicked up and locked with hers. Hate and brutality had become his first reactions to any feelings of vulnerability. His grip tightened, causing her legs to release his hips. She thrashed wildly. After a moment, when her air supply went short, her legs went limp and dangled a few inches above the floor.
He released its grip on her throat and she dropped to the floor then crumpled into a pile at his bare feet. At the sight of her injured form, a frightening urge to lift her up and cradle her within his arms scratched at the surface of his burning palms. Frozen and undecided, Ethan continued to glance down at her. The tingling need to feel her skin again filled him with dread. Protect the dynasty. The razor-sharp whisper settled the matter. He balled his hands into tight fists and forced himself to turn away. Without further delay, he destroyed the impulse to comfort her before it could work its way any deeper beneath his skin.
After a very long and dark pause, Shay finally reemerged into the world.
He moved one foot forward, away from the door and closer to where Shay remained in a stiff sitting position. At the sight of him approaching her, and with feet as nimble as a wood nymph’s, she jumped and ran toward the furthest corner, far away from her captor. Her chances of escape were narrow. The man who had arranged her kidnapping barred one path while the raging monster who had nearly slit her throat probably still hovered near the rear exit. For the moment, Shay stood perfectly still, her back against the chilly wall, muscles coiled and thighs ready to sprint. She waited…watched…tried to anticipate the blond’s next move. Bright blue eyes twinkled at her, but Shay saw no smile accompany the shimmer hidden within them.
“There’s no need to fear me.” There was amusement in Ethan’s tone as his voice trailed off. Ironic words from someone who had attempted to strangle her a few moments ago.
His words touched Shay’s mind and caused a soft echo to bounce in her thoughts. A curious way to address her. Instead of advancing toward Shay, as she was anticipating, the blond turned away and moved toward a large bureau at the opposite end of the room.
“I have so much to share with you.”
As he turned to face her again, a small gasp escaped Shay’s mouth. Ethan stretched open the palm of his hand and held out his first offering toward his future bride. Shay’s eyes locked on the crimson object. The apple was so red that her eyes nearly deceived her into believing its skin had been dipped in blood. The dim light from the chandelier hanging overhead glinted off the curve of the delicacy. She had not seen or tasted fruit in many years, not since she was a small girl. The saliva was already starting to pool on her tongue. In truth, she could not recall the last time she had eaten…An hour? Two? Twelve? A quick glance around the room revealed nothing that would hint at the time or if darkness still cloaked the outside world. It must. Her veins still pumped furiously, there was no weariness weighing down her bone and muscle. Still, it could simply be that the adrenaline racing through her body was overriding the effects of the sun, which had the power to drip its debilitating rays into even the darkest crevices. There was no way, however, she had been asleep for more than a day. Even so, her stomach grumbled in protest. The sight of the rare treat had sparked an insatiable demand to feed. The instinct bubbled up from deep within her and threatened to overpower her sanity. The true question was which would satisfy her more? The taste of the apple? Or the feel of her handsome host’s rose-pink lips tasting her own?
Without another thought, her hand jerked. One step. Then two. Then four more paces brought Shay dangerously close to returning to within striking distance of the entrancing figure watching her so intently. The barest trace of a grin touched one corner of his sensual mouth.
Remember the garden.
A whispering voice snapped into her thoughts and broke her strides. Faint remnants of a myth her grandma once told her began to circle her mind, but Shay could not pull the full memory together. A sudden rush of hunger, stronger than the fear and trembling the clipped memory tried in vain to evoke in her, urged Shay to accept what her kidnapper presented to her. After all, how dangerous could he be? The more she considered her circumstances, the more she realized how much the odds were in her favor. Instead of being assaulting her and then tossing her into the wastelands, he had brought her to a suite, arranged for her to be pampered – albeit by a maniac – and was now giving her a peace-offering. Against the nagging warning to refuse his gift, her desperation betrayed her willpower to resist. Reaching out, her fingers within a teasing inch of their goal, Shay let her guard down – and, in that one vulnerable moment, Ethan sprung his trap.
The apple dropped from Ethan’s hand and landed with a soft thud against the carpeted floor. Without giving her time to flee, he pulled the female into his grip then twirled her until her back was pressed flat against his stomach and chest. The dampness of her wavy hair caressed the delicate skin of his nipples causing a low hiss of arousal to tumble from between his lips. The sensation urged him to hold her tighter. The need to feel every soft inch of her skin covering his own nearly overwhelmed him. Their connection sent a sharp jolt zipping through the thick muscles of his tense biceps and flooded Ethan with the heat of a primal need to claim her here and now as his bonded mate. Her shiver of fear only served to drive his lust to boundless heights – All Ethan could sense was Shay’s presence. The only sound he heard was the beating of her pulsing heart. The smell of her sweet innocence flooded his nostrils, drowning out any other scent. The feel of her slick skin skimming across the tip of his tongue as he used it to lay a delicious path along the curve of her neck made his manhood instantly harden.
Danger. Her instincts crept in again, on highest alert.
Another current, nearly as intense as his thirst to devour the feminine essence of his woman, disrupted his thoughts. With great reluctance, Ethan pulled his lips from her quivering skin. He had to wait until the cycle of the moon was completed before taking her to his bed. The temptation to taste her, to arc his back and shoulders so that he could wrap his full form around her frame and consume her within his spiraling passion was dizzying. Never before had his attraction to a female compelled him to disobey his masters. No woman had every tempted his lust, his mind, his body and willpower…his heart…so thoroughly, nearly to the point of madness. He was so close to succumbing to the pressure of wanting her so badly that Ethan had no choice but to push the female away from him with one strong thrust.
One moment she was shivering with erotic anticipation from being held so tightly within the bulging strength of his arms, and the next she was being expelled from his hold and shoved forward. The motion was too sudden, causing Shay to lose her balance. Just before she tumbled down hard, a pair of hands caught her by the waist and lifted her to a standing position again. When her bare feet were planted firmly on the floor, one of the big hands that had just saved her from her fall moved in search of her fingers then twined both pairs together.
“Come with me,” Ethan said, as he gently pulled her across the room with him, “I have something to show you.”
The blond ushered Shay through the back entrance of the cavernous dressing room and into a connecting bedroom that was more massive than the last impressive space they had just exited.
Shay followed his lead, unsure of what witchery he had cast upon her. This was her third encounter with him, and each had a more unnerving effect on her than the one before. One moment he was seducing her with blazing eyes on a crowded and smelly dance floor. Then later she had awaken to him pinning her against a door and trying to strangle her back into unconsciousness. And now…now the swirl of warmth his touch caused in the pit of her belly worried her the most. Instead of her mind plotting an escape, she found her thoughts drawn toward basking in the mild currents passing between the tips of their interlocked fingers. Sharper than an electrical pulse, more arousing than the deepest kiss she had ever tasted. What was this magic he was weaving around her? And why was she reluctant to fight it off with every ounce of her strength?
Ethan led her through the vast space of his new master bedroom, which would soon become their bridal suite. He kept the details of their arrangement to himself for now. There was no need to reveal all to her in one confusing rush of explaining requirements and rituals. Soon, she would understand her place by his side. However, not as fast as he desired. For the time being, he would appease his impatience with one more small pleasure…another grand gift for his bride-to-be. He yearned to see a smile, even a tiny one, lift her full and lovely lips.
Pulling her along beside him, Ethan’s strides were as casual and confident as those of the king he would someday become. Still mildly surprised that she followed him without resistance, Ethan crossed the threshold separating his personal quarters from the garden terrace beyond its walls. The glass doors that separated the two spaces remained open. The time of year was very early spring, so sunrise would not come for a few more hours. He and Shay were still both very safe from its devastating effects on their skin and muscles. When the first rays of sunlight peaked in the distant horizon, a barrier of heavy iron and thick curtains would seal the room like a tomb and prevent the sun’s intrusion until the next moonrise. Once they had walked into the cool night air, he released her hand and watched with silent pleasure as a small twinkle sparked in her eyes as scanned the lush beauty surrounding them on all sides.
Green. So much green. Shay’s first thoughts as she stepped outside into the crisp pre-dawn air. Everywhere she looked, blooming life overflowed. Trees, just saplings, really, but still real and flourishing, not the burnt remnants of bark and stump she had grown accustomed to seeing scattered throughout the city limits, were reaching out to touch her. Not just trees, hanging vines, overgrown wildflowers and plants filled the arching outline of the stone balcony. Wandering away from her captor’s reach, her mind in a haze of amazement, Shay strolled the full curve of the wide terrace, making sure to run her fingers along the surface of every fresh leaf and to inhale the aromatic scent of every multicolored flower her eyes and her curiosity drew her toward. Her mind was so fixed on absorbing the refreshing essence of the lost oasis, Shay barely noticed the sting from the cold stone beneath her toes. Her eyes glanced down at her feet, and so did the blond’s. She could have easily dismissed his reaction, because he was yet to cease at watching her with unblinking blue eyes. Yet, she did not. There was a connection hovered between them. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but Shay was convinced that, somehow and in some strange way, he had shared her sensation.
Her mouth opened to question him, and Ethan quickly clipped her words. Not too much. Not too soon. He needed to gain her trust, her complete obedience before telling her any more than necessary.
“You’re not that fast.”
While he had been momentarily side-tracked with thoughts on how to woo her into submission, Ethan suddenly realized Shay’s gaze had shifted and her attention regarding the depths of their bonds had slipped toward a new focus. He had chosen to sit, as he allowed her the freedom to wander around and explore his terrace of delights. This meant that he was several feet away from the open door leading back into the bedroom. From where she stood beside the apple tree he had picked her earlier treat from, Ethan saw that Shay’s eyes were now firmly locked onto that route of escape.
“I’ll be on you before you take two steps.” His eyes dragged along the silhouette of her body. The light of the three-quarter moon cast a surreal glow all around her slim figure.
Shay kept a poker-face and tried to remain unaffected by her surprise at being caught eyeing the call of freedom that beckoned to her.
“I wasn’t gonna’ -“
“Your thoughts betray you, Shay. And so do your eyes.”
“How did you know – ” She stopped short. There was no need to ask a silly and unnecessary question. Of course the three-striped bar code tattooed on her wrist and the tag, implanted deep beneath the tissue there, would give him access to her public record.
He sat in an oversized chair with a high back and covered in what looked to be thick, overstuffed dark cushions. Her gaze fell to his wrist. His hands were laying on the armrests, so his wrists were turned down and there was no way she could see whether or not he was branded. Even so, Shay decided to take the bait he was laying down, she thought of a way to keep their discussion flowing. Her host seemed so intent on making conversation with her that she knew, eventually, his curious friendliness could work in her favor.
“You’ve got the advantage,” Shay said in a calm voice, trying to disarm his suspicion. Actually, he had several, but there was no need to howl over trivial details. Besides, she was tired of calling him ‘the blond’ and this was the perfect time to ask the bastard to supply her with a replacement. “You had me snatched so fast, I didn’t getta’ chance to grab my scanner from the bar…so I don’t know your name.”
He didn’t respond. He didn’t blink. His lips remained as tempting and as sensual as the very first time she laid sight on them. There was no doubt he had heard her, yet Shay wondered if she should make another, more subtle attempt at coaxing the answer from him. She poised her mouth to speak then nearly crumpled to her knees as a heavy pounding sensation made a blunt stab at the temples of her brow. Her hands immediately flew up to try to shield herself from the invisible invasion that was trying to stamped through her mind. When the pain became too much, she felt her legs about to buckle. It was then, from the corners of her blurry and watery eyes, that she saw him react to her agony. In seconds, he was there holding her up within the sturdy embrace of his arms. Burly biceps tensed and balanced her while the mental assault continued, though each wave came with less and less discomfort until Shay began to hear a distorted murmur behind the pounding. The towering man pulled her closer, held her tighter, bonded their bodies until not a slip of space existed between their two forms. Leaning his solid figure down, he pressed the smooth surface of his forehead against hers, as though he were willing her to accept some part of him. At the exact moment that their skins touched, the pounding ceased. The echo grew louder – eeee – stronger – eeeett – much clearer – eeetthh – than before. Glittering and hypnotic shades of azure from his eyes mixed with silver from the overhanging moon and pinned her into a deep trance, until finally the fluttering static became a bold announcement within her thoughts – ETHAN.
Shay snatched in a sharp breath. What the hell had just happened? With her balance now restored, although her mind remained in confused tatters, the blond – Ethan, his name was Ethan, she was sure of it, as sure as she felt the quickening of her pulse at how she had received the knowledge – released her and stepped away.
“Now you know.”
Yes, now she had gained more understanding than she could be trusted with. Nonetheless, his slight bending of the coven’s strict rules that governed a rare pairing such as the one he shared with Shalise was the least of Ethan’s concerns. Their bond was stronger. She was stronger. From here, after receiving her first round of conditioning, their minds, their thoughts and spirits would link and entwine so deeply – one in unbreakable sync with the other – that it would be as if they shared one voice…even one heartbeat. Ethan had always supposed he would dread this day, when he would have to surrender the last portion of his soul to another. But, it was not the case. Strangely, he strained to keep himself from forcing the connection faster than she could handle their bonding. He wanted…no, needed…approaching the borderline of obsession…for this invisible line to bind them together. He wanted her. And he wanted her to want him with the same fierce intensity. He sensed it within her. The power to raise him to the heights of a living deity, far superior to any other man roaming the earth, and the power to bring him to his knees with crippling desire from needing her touch. It was all too much for him to consider at the moment. All too soon, they would be overwhelmed with crowds of people coming to celebrate their union and, for a little while longer, Ethan wanted to keep her just for himself.
Grabbing her hand within the grip of his much larger one, Ethan pulled Shay over toward the edge of the terrace. She allowed him to position her body in front of him, while he placed his arms on either side of her on the ledge of the cobblestone balcony. Upon looking out at the scene, she held back the shudder that threatened to rack through her. This was the very first time she had ever seen Rat City from this point of view. One glance and she received the confirmation she had been seeking. They were no longer at the bar. Instead, this compound stood far away, no less than a mile from the center of the urban wasteland. How had she never noticed this place before now? Probably because she had always been so focused on keeping alive and unharmed by keeping her attention trained no further than twenty feet in every direction all at once. From this position, no more than one story high off the ground floor, she could see that his property was circled by meandering paved pathways lined with large fruit trees as well as wide hedges and bushes that exploded with crimson long-stemmed roses. She also noticed many other details from her vantage point. One of which was the devastated city scape that lay beyond the perimeter of her kidnapper’s fortress, which was surrounded by a very high steel gate. It was then that Shay realized she was being held prisoner in a garden among ruins. What cruel trick of fate was this?
“Your kingdom.” As if to answer her unspoken question, the cool breath from Ethan’s whispered reply caressed the tip of Shay’s ear.
Ethan moved his hand from the stone railing of the terrace, and used it to brush Shay’s long, dark hair away from her right shoulder. The feather soft tresses had dried in to lengthy spirals that his fingers ached to run through over and over again during lovemaking. Without hesitating, he laid a kiss as soft as the wings of the butterflies he had once chased after as a boy on the curve of her delicate shoulder. After several more, she turned toward him with such teasing slowness that he was sure she felt the same heated desire now filling the expanse of his chest and the growing bulge of his groin. He thought she would loop her arms around his neck and bring him down to her for a searing kiss. He thought he saw a glimmer of affection reflecting back at him in the onyx-colored pools of her irises.
He had thought all wrong. With a sudden swiftness Ethan had not expected, Shay lifted her crooked arm then used the bony tip of her elbow to send a devastating blow to the bridge of his nose. He had not anticipated the hit and had not been prepared to block it, so the shock of the crackling pain prevented him from immediately reacting to block her daring escape. With cat-like agility, he watched in blinding rage as she hopped up on the edge of the balcony and tossed her legs over and, with one smooth swoop, disappeared into the blackness below.
You belong to me now…and forever, words whispered into her mind as she tumbled into her destiny.
©2018 Lenise Lee Pubn. All Rights Reserved.
Note: Revised and Reposted from Original version 2013