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|Damien(Nightwalkers #4) by Jacquelyn Frank|
She did not respond. Instead, she flicked her mismatched eyes over her surroundings in a quick, succinct inventory. "You came after me?"
Her voice was hoarse, her throat bruised by burst vessels from within, a result of the strangulations she had suffered.
"Once I realized what had happened," he told her.
He was instantly curious. Windsong and Lyric were still singing robustly in the background, yet she did not seem affected by it like she should be. It was a possible mark to her own mental discipline, but he found that hard to believe in her weakened and battered state.
"I thank you," she said on a sigh, closing her eyes and trying to shift herself slightly. She winced, a wholly slight response considering the magnitude of the pain she must be feeling.
"There is no need for you to move," he said soothingly. "You are being well cared for. Wait until you have healed some more before attempting to do so."
Her eyes opened again, this time a little wider, her awareness of him and her other surroundings clearly increasing.
"Where are we?"
"Brise Lumineuse," he told her, knowing she was familiar with both the place and who lived there.
It had been Windsong who had saved Siena from severe sun poisoning a little over a month ago. He could tell by the expression in Syreena's eyes that the Princess understood she was now doubly beholden to the generous Mistral.
Her eyes flicked down to the hand he held, and he followed her gaze. Damien realized with surprise that he had continued to stroke her softly as they spoke. He felt an incredible sadness as he looked at the wounds once more. He met her unusual eyes, not caring that she could probably read his emotions within his own.
"I am sorry," he murmured softly, his fingers replaced by the warm press of his palm.
"For what?" she asked.
"For taking so long to find you," he said.
He had nothing to apologize for, Syreena thought as emotion ravaged her features. Such tender sensitivity and concern from so unlikely a source stirred up the turmoil she had kept under tight control since this ordeal had begun. She could not stop the tears that leaked out of the corners of her eyes, but she turned her face away from him as she tried to regain control over her feelings of fear, anger and…and so many others she could not even face.
"Do not do that," he said suddenly, his fingers reaching to turn her face back to him. "Do not be ashamed of what you are feeling."
"This from one whose species feels very little and expresses even less?" she retorted, a bit of the fire he was used to snapping into the remark. It made Damien smile.
"This from a woman who has met a total of two Vampires in her entire lifetime?" he countered. "What you know of us from your Monks and your books varies greatly from what we truly are," he informed her.
Syreena was already beginning to realize that. But she did not like feeling so vulnerable and exposed to so utter a stranger. It had been a knee-jerk reaction to try to irritate him. She could deal with the barbs they tossed between them better than she could this wellspring of concern she had never thought him capable of.
Then she finally took note of his state of dress, or rather undress, and it occurred to her that he might be hurt as well. She recalled that there had been an explosion and the backlash of a great deal of magic when he had arrived for her. It must have been an extraordinarily painful ordeal, one that only someone as powerful as he was could possibly survive.
Her searching eyes roamed the handsome planes of his face, the long, loose length of his blue-black hair, and his bare flesh over the span of his shoulders and chest.
"Are you well?" she asked at last when she saw no visible signs of harm on him. In fact, he looked far too healthy for a man who had been through so much in one night. She envied him his quickly healed body and the clearly robust health accented by his precisely defined musculature.
"So far, so good," he responded rather cryptically.
But the mystery of the comment disappeared in the next instant as she was flooded with sudden memory.
Syreena sat up so suddenly that she took him by surprise. She pulled her hand free of his and reached to take hold of his shoulders. The Princess repeated her scan of him, trying once more to find some sort of damage.
"Damien," she uttered in a voice full of shock and comprehension. "Are you well?"
He immediately understood the difference between her first question and then the repeat of it. He reached to take her hands from his shoulders, a soothing sound clicking off his tongue.
"Yes, I am well," he assured her, urging her back into a resting position.
She shrugged off the attempt, her pupils radiating her disbelief in his statement. "Why would you do such a thing? You could have been killed!"
"But I was not," he reminded her.
"You risked your life for mine as if you had no responsibility to an entire race of people! It was a foolish and ridiculous thing to do!"
"It would have been my mistake to make," he countered sharply. "I am not used to people criticizing my actions, Syreena."
"Well, perhaps they should! I would never have allowed Siena to do such a foolish thing!"
"Oh, really? Just as you prevented her from almost dying for the sake of her husband?"
It was a twisting knife in a very tender spot for her, and he knew it instantly by the expression in her eyes. It was only then that he realized she did indeed blame herself for her sister's near encounter with death that recent October.
"Was I supposed to let you bleed to death, Syreena?" he asked quietly, trying to take back the pain he had caused her with the balm of his words. "Why are you so eager to value my life above your own?"
"Because I am not so special that an entire people should be deprived of their monarch for my sake!"
"Lucky for you, I disagree with that assessment."
Damien understood, however, that there was baggage beyond her statement other than the immediate disagreement. Still, it did not measure up for him. She had never struck him as the type who devalued herself.
She looked at him as if he were completely insane for a long moment, her confused eyes searching over him for an answer and a logic that just was not within grasp. Then, without knowing why, she leaned in and kissed him.
Damien was shocked for a moment at the forward and illogical act, his hands reflexively circling her arms as her warm mouth pressed gently to his. Her unbandaged hand came up to lie against the side of his face, her contrary eyes sliding closed for a long, painful moment.
He felt, and then tasted, the salt of her tears.
She pulled away, only a couple of inches, her body trembling beneath his hands as he looked into her eyes with a confusion of emotions and sensations struggling through him.
"Why did you…?"
"Because," she interrupted with a sob catching at her words. "Because it is a fairy tale, Damien. And in a fairy tale, the Princess always kisses the Prince who rescues her."
It was an enchanting and ingenuous thing for her to say. She was a woman of great learning, amazing strength, and a sense of logic that negated any illusion of naivete, yet she was willing to expose herself as a hopeful idealist in order to express her gratitude. He realized that it was a preciously protected streak in her makeup that very few people were allowed access to. It subsequently meant more to Damien than the most profuse and eloquent words of any language.
"Syreena…" He paused to clear the coarseness in his throat. "I am no hero," he told her with rough quietness. "You should not make me into one."
She defied the statement by forcing it into silence with the cover of her mouth.
This time Damien saw it coming, but it made him no better prepared. This time it was not a quick and simple expression of impulsive gratitude she was reaching to express. This was a little different, and on an instinctive level he knew it.
Completely in spite of the soundness of reason that rang stridently in his head, Damien allowed himself the luxury of the feel of her lips. Caught less off his mark and having had a moment to think about it, he returned the intimacy with equal warmth and measure. From one heartbeat to the next, his hands found their way into the hair at the back of her head, his fingertips sliding with careful languor, mindful of all she had suffered and been through and in no way wanting to cause her even a moment of additional pain.
Syreena was also sliding her fingers into a position that held his head to her, just in case he thought to argue with her any further about her desires in this matter. His darkening eyes were looking directly into hers, seeking for things beyond both their comprehension. She met his searching gaze with eyes full of surety and strength. She knew what she wanted, amazingly enough without a single doubt or second thought. This moment, those fascinating eyes messaged to him, was to be precious for them both. The next moment would come soon enough. But this moment…
This moment was for thanking, for gentleness, and, most of all, for feeling something that had no pain, struggle, or immediate ramifications to it.
It simply would be what it was.
A kiss between a man and a woman.
Not Nightwalkers. Not a Prince and Princess. Not a Vampire and a Lycanthrope.
Simply a man and a woman.
Damien's eyes closed as the keen purity of that ebbed into him. He seemed to suddenly realize that her mouth was a soft, heated fullness that had nothing to do with bruised tenderness. That she had flavor, in both bouquet and taste, and it was like tasting heated syrup. She was liquid and soft solid and every other essential that was natural to life.
At the same time, he understood that she had never kissed a man before.
Never in all of a century of life.
I have lived in a cloistered setting, forbidden any opportunity to form attachments or affections outside of a student-teacher relationship. What I was starved of at first, I was soon too complacent and numbed against after so many years of deprivation. So I never sought it.
These were her thoughts, easily read even if he had not been able to study them.
So the kiss was also an act of total bravery. A baring of her soul and her vulnerability because of her inexperience. It ought to have been awkward, but it was not. She moved against his mouth in delicate increments so that there would be no clumsiness on her part. As with all things she had taken on in a lifetime of being a student, she gave an exemplary performance of her quick ability to learn and adapt.
Damien's lips stroked against hers, opening slowly until she was mimicking him perfectly. She anticipated him, though, her little tongue touching his lips before he could seek it out himself. His breath fell quick and hot against her, the reflex automatic in spite of its lack of requirement. She exhaled into his mouth as he reached deeply for her, perfecting the hungry seal of their mouths.
He lost sense of everything but the exquisiteness of her kiss and the piquing interest of his own body. She smelled of lavender and those indefinable perfumes that had led him over miles of land and sea to find her. The exposed nails of her other hand skimmed down the thick column of his neck, making his throat convulse with an uncensored sound of pleasure. She slid her tongue over his, letting them touch and twist together in an erotic dance of sensation and curiosity turning into a purer appetite.
Damien loosed a hand from the cling of her hair, drawing it down the back of her neck and the bare track of her delicate spine. She shivered under the caress, the shudder pulling her in closer to his chest.
The Vampire Prince broke from her mouth when her bare torso connected to his, the heat of her naked skin unbelievably intense and almost bracing. He struggled for equilibrium, touching his forehead to hers as his gaze fell down onto their touching skin.
He had never known how much depth there could be to so seemingly simple a bodily contact, the most remarkable thing being the intense heat that emanated from her and into him. It brought back memories of the taste of her blood, the way it had bled hotly into him, the way she had writhed beneath the intrusion of his bite and the subsequent feeding.
Damien groaned, the sound mutating into a soft growl full of desire, sensuality, and frustration. He pulled her forward so her cheek was pressed to his, taking a moment to appreciate the heat of her flushed face before he had to move away from her.
"Don't," she begged him on a whisper, her hands tightening to hold him to her.
"I have to," he argued roughly, his fingers betraying his actual wishes as they stroked up the supple skin of her bare back.
"Why? Why do you have to?"
"So many reasons," he sighed into the soft, feathery tresses falling over her cheek and ear.
"Are there any reasons to stay?" she asked.
"So many more," he confessed, but he pulled back from her all the same. "You have thanked me, Syreena, expressing your heartfelt gratitude in wonderful measure," he said kindly, his tender thumb brushing at the traces of moisture from the kiss that had been left on her enflamed lips. "But this is where gratitude must end. Anything beyond this…must come perhaps another day…for other reasons entirely."
After delivering that truth, Damien extracted himself from her hold with patient but persistent gentleness. After a moment, she let her hands fall away from him and allowed him to lay her back against her pillows while he pulled the quilt up snugly around her.
He hovered over her a moment, nose to nose with her as he mined her thoughts through her eyes. Syreena wondered if he was even aware of the way he was absently stroking her sensitive hair.
"There is one thing a Vampire of great age enjoys more than anything else in the world," he told her, "and that is to be deeply and delightfully surprised. You, sweetling, are a veritable bundle of surprises."
She smiled at that, feeling his sincere bafflement at his realization. Then the Prince drifted a brief kiss of his lips across her forehead and left her bedside.