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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Ashla wanted to obey his command to leave with all of her heart. She wanted to run fast and hard until the entire world fell away from her and snapped back into the normal, sane place she was used to and craved so very badly.
But despite all of that, she couldn’t find it in herself to leave him like he was. He was obviously injured, and very badly at that. There weren’t many things she could count herself any good at, but she had the potential to help him if she had to.
“I’m not going to leave you here without any help,” she said with a firm bravado they both knew she didn’t feel. She lifted her chin and met his eyes, hoping this would make her determination more convincing.
He chuckled, a dry, breathy sound that went eerily well with the amazingly faceted darkness of his eyes as he looked at her. “There is no help. You’ll learn that soon enough,” he said.
His defeatist words slid past her barely noticed. She was caught up for a moment in the wondrous way his irises nearly matched the black depths of his pupils, except there was something like starlight in those dark centers, and the black coffee color surrounding them gleamed like painstakingly cut precious stones. She found it impossible to look away until his long, sooty lashes fell over them with his waning consciousness.
Ashla shook herself to the ready.
“Who knows, you could be right,” she muttered as she leaned over him. “For all I know, that’s because you went around chopping all their heads off. And me being the idiot I am, I’m going to try and help you so you can get strong enough to lift your scary sword again and…and…”
The implication was clear enough. She didn’t need to voice what she clearly couldn’t. It shouldn’t have affected Trace one way or another, what a wraith thought of him, but for some reason the taste her remarks left on his tongue was deeply bitter.
“Look,” he growled on labored breaths, indignant emotion fueling him for the moment, “I said I’m not going to hurt you.”
“That’s what the bad guy tells every stupid woman in all those stupid movies, and she always ends up dead or worse. Which I guess makes me really, really stupid.” She peeled back the fabric of his torn shirt and turned extraordinarily gray right before his eyes as she took in the scope of the cuts and slices he’d received from both Baylor and the plate glass he’d come through. “Oh, God, I…” She gagged low in her throat and reflexively went to cover her mouth, but an inch short of the mark her eyes focused on the blood from his wounds that was soaking her palms and forearms and the movement screeched to a halt. The rusty smell of fresh, abundant blood must have hit her a second after that because she flung herself away from him and vomited violently.
But to Trace’s surprise, she turned back to him as soon as she had minimally composed herself. She began grabbing clothing from nearby tables using them to wipe away the blood on his chest. She then applied pressure to the worst of his visible wounds, all the while, continuously weeping huge, silent tears. It was as though the emotional woman and the physical one were acting completely independent of each other’s reactions. He was compelled to reach for one of her slim wrists, grasping it and holding it firmly even when she startled hard in his hand. Tears rained off the slopes of her cheeks as her worried eyes flicked up to confront him.
“You do not have to do this. You have every right to be afraid in this strange world you no doubt have little understanding of. And anyway, these wounds are nothing. The mortal blow was in my back, and there is nothing to be done for it. These others are incidental. Listen.” Trace squeezed the remarkably small hand he held gently, overcome with the idea that he could shatter her small bones if he pressed too hard. Strange he should think so. The women in his world were strong and powerful, sturdy and bold. He hadn’t thought he would even know how to treat a female who might be so delicate, not to mention overly sensitive, as this one surely was. “There’s nothing you can do here.”
She was already shaking her head in vehement negativity. The defiant stubbornness it signaled simply floored him. What was she thinking? She spoke truth of logic, that from her perspective she had no way of knowing which of the fighting males had been the more just and honorable, that she was likely setting herself up for trouble. She was plainly scared to death to be near him and wanted absolutely nothing to do with his bloody, gored body, and yet she would not take the surcease he offered to her. She wouldn’t leave him.
The woman was clearly an idiot.
Ashla was completely convinced of her own stupidity as she remained firmly by the injured man’s side. On the plus side, his kind attempt to release her from obligation had helped her to control her remaining weeping, ratcheting the infernal weakness down to a series of sniffles. As she did so, she began to think more clearly. Ashla slid carefully to Trace’s side and bit her lip a moment as she inspected her choices.
“I have to roll you over to see your back. It’s going to hurt.”
“Yeah. It is. Look, I already told you…”
“Well, just humor me! It’s not as if you’re late for a date or something.”
Trace watched her shove at her hair in her pique, her fingers streaking blood through the fair gold strands. He didn’t point it out to her, not wishing to potentially bring back her nausea, and simply braced up a knee to help her roll him onto his right side. He didn’t need to hear her gasp to confirm what he could already feel. She peeled off the remainder of his shirt to see a river of blood oozing in swift, pulsing rushes down the span of his back. The hole Baylor had left behind was probably an inch or better in width. While the other ’Dweller had been only a fair swordfighter, with his weapon of choice, the dagger, he had always been an absolute killer. The proof being that six inches of steel in Baylor’s hand had killed Trace long before Trace had managed to kill Baylor in return.
Ashla bit her lip hard, trying not to react to what she was seeing any more than she already had. The knifing was bad, it was true. It poured out his life in rapid pulses. But just as shocking was the evidence on his back that this had been far from his first such fight or injury. She had uncovered a canvas of scars. Or what should have been scars. They looked strangely smoothed and without texture where they should have been jagged and ridged. They were scars nonetheless, ripped bright pink and pale through the palette of his dark skin, tearing a path up the length of his spine as if some animal had clawed him over and over again. There were other marks as well, a testament to the abuse he had subjected himself to.
But she had to ignore all of that dramatic history and focus completely on the most recent damage. Ashla probed the bloody wound with unsure fingers, gritting her teeth against the feel of the fluid that so quickly became tacky to her touch. She drew a shuddering breath as she realized he was not exaggerating. The wound was horribly mortal. Just the amount of blood he was losing in those few moments told her as much. No medical degree required. She could even feel the warmth of his skin fading beneath her touch as the chill of impending death crept over him.
Something about that struck a fire to a store of anger Ashla hadn’t even realized she’d been harboring. Ever since she had awakened to this dark version of the world, she had been unable to escape the feeling of being chilled through. His body warmth was the most comforting sensation she’d experienced in…so very long a time. Even in her terror as she had been trapped beneath him for those few minutes, she had wanted to cry with relief just to feel any kind of human contact again. Perhaps it had helped that his had been a powerful and vital contact, a heated energy and dominance that had soaked right through her.
Her instinctive fury was only fueled by the logic of knowing that, just her damn luck, he was going to end up dying on her. She would be left all alone again. Not just lonely as it had often been the case in her lifetime, but well and truly alone. Devastatingly alone.
Ashla had learned to be afraid of a great many things in the world, perhaps even to a degree beyond reason, but the idea of being abandoned in this place again for months or longer…the thought of it propelled her beyond a lifetime of cautions and concern like nothing else could possibly have done.
She could help him. She knew she could. Or at least she hoped she could. There were so many factors to consider, not the least of which was that so many things didn’t work here as they were supposed to. But how could she not try? How could she allow doubt and questions to stack against the possibility of saving a life?
Ashla spread her palms against the section of his broad back that housed the wound. Her fingers framed the ugly hole, the nails she had painted a ridiculous violet in her previous boredom looking morbid and garish in that moment.
Then she closed her eyes and propelled herself back twenty-two years. She couldn’t seem to help herself. It happened every time she did this. She was instantly transported to the very first time she had discovered she could heal with the touch of her hands…
…and how it had been one of the most horrific experiences of her life, just like every time she had dared to exercise the ability since. The first time, though, that was the one that would never shake free.
She had been only five years old. It was actually one of those cute stories of childhood. Everyone had them, didn’t they? A story about a child finding a poor, injured animal and that child’s desire to make it better. This in spite of her parents’ blunt warnings that the small baby bunny the family dog had dropped triumphantly at her feet would never survive the shock and fear of being mouthed by the retriever. This was to say nothing of the bloody wound in its foot caused by either a canine tooth or the process of the chase. But like any child in that position, she had simply wanted to fix it. She had wanted it with all of her heart. So she had held the rabbit in her hands, against that heart that wanted so badly to help, and felt the small creature go from a distressed ball of limp, shuddering fur to a warm, living animal full of energy and life. It had been an utterly amazing transformation to her.
It was the work of the devil to her family.
Her mother had called her Satan, screamed and wailed as if she was dead, and they had…
Ashla closed off the memory, her breath rasping and coming short as if metal was closing around her throat to choke her again. She shut it all away, because if she took the time to think about what this man would do to her when he realized what she could do, she would completely lose her nerve. But her life, her pain, all meant nothing when the only other option was to allow herself to become a murderer by neglect. If she didn’t do what she could to save him, she might as well have stuck him with the blade herself.
Trace lay surprisingly quiet. It was surprising to him because he was in a great deal of pain, and while he was known for his patience in most things, agony wasn’t one of those things. It was probably his curiosity getting the better of him. He was trying to figure out what she was up to as he listened to her mutter under her breath. To him, it sounded like she kept telling herself to stop thinking.
“Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think.” A litany. Over and over again. Then, aloud to him, “Listen, this is going to hurt, but you have to trust me, okay?”
Frankly, Trace didn’t see a point to any of it, whatever “it” was. However, he couldn’t put up much of a protest with his back to her and weakness weighing down his whole body. All he could manage was a listless, unimpressed shrug of his exposed shoulder. What did it matter? Hell, she could strip naked and tap-dance for all the good it was going to do. At least he’d get some entertainment out of it.
Or so he thought until she stabbed her finger deep into the wound Baylor had created. Trace bellowed in agony and tried to haul himself off the floor and out of her sadistic reach, but all of a sudden the little blond mouse who shook at every word he spoke had found the strength of a dozen Demons and kept him forcefully in place as she wriggled her finger down as far as she could into his body.
“By the Dark, are you insane?” he roared, fumbling at his back for her hand. Before he could reach her, however, she yanked it out and shoved him hard onto his back again. He was so heavily occupied with his pained shouts that she climbed up over him without any argument from him that didn’t come in the form of curses she probably didn’t understand. Not unless she had happened to learn Shadese, the Shadowdwellers’ native tongue, in the past five minutes or so.
On a visual-sensory delay of sorts as information filtered through the haze of his hurt, Trace absorbed her actions as she yanked up the long skirt she was wearing, soaking it with bloody handprints while she threw her leg over his hips and settled herself over him as if she were about to ride him into the ground. The fact that he was in too much pain at first to protest, despite the image she made in her strange, pale sort of beauty, only made him angrier.
“Get off!” he gasped at last, reaching for the waif with his jellied arms. He was as weak as a kitten, but he would be damned if he couldn’t throw off a sadist bitch no bigger than a ten-year-old.
When she swatted him away as if he were a pesky fly, Trace was ready to explode with frustrated fury.
And then she did the oddest thing, the mere shock of it cutting off his torrential emotions at the knees. The peculiar little blonde ran her splayed hands slowly up his bared belly and chest as she leaned fully forward, just until her eyes were gazing down into his, and her lips were touching his mouth by the space of a hair. Trace caught his breath, holding back his reaction merely by the power of his surprise. He stared up into eyes of blue, so unique to someone like him, and felt her breath and its incongruous warmth as it spilled in rapid rushes over his face. He became aware of her scent again, but this was probably because it was everywhere, warm and weighty and pervasively sweet.