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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Normally, none of this would have been likely to help him as he looked for a Lost woman in Shadowscape, but this woman gave off very real heat and quite vibrant energy.
Still, he was hit with a bolt of surprise when he immediately caught sight of a slight-figured female less than half a block away from where he stood. She had returned to the scene of the fight as well! As delighted by that as he was, Trace couldn’t help but wonder why she would do that. Was she looking for him? Or was she merely gawking at the scene of his gruesome act like so many humans always seemed so fascinated with doing?
There was only one way to find out, and because he didn’t know for certain how he would be greeted, he approached his target with all the stealth his species was born with.
Ashla walked away from the ruined store at a clipped pace, muttering under her breath at her absolute foolishness. Of course he wouldn’t be there, she reprimanded herself. No one would stay in such a mess, and surely there were many more places of better comfort to be found in New York City.
The trouble was, she couldn’t keep from feeling like she had acted like a total ass. Fear and disorientation had been no excuse. She ought to have kept her cool and shot down his ignorance and prejudice. Why, he had no right whatsoever to look down on her! Especially considering that she had saved his miserable hide! She could have kept her secret and just as well let him drop dead in that store like he’d expected. But no, she had thrown herself open—risked herself, even—and his thanks had been condemnation?
The more she thought about it, the angrier Ashla became. She was frustrated that she had no one to take it out on. She was even more frustrated that she was so desperate for the company of another human being that she would have probably sacrificed all of her righteous indignation if he would only promise to keep her company.
It was this thought that made Ashla realize her solitude was truly getting to her. She would rather keep company with a man who beheaded people than be alone? Talk about desperation!
She had been the lonely, isolated sort even when there had been other people milling all around her, so she knew the meaning of desperation quite well. When that kind of solitude became too much to bear, she would cut herself away from her normal routines and take a wild chance on something, like going to a New Year’s party even if it meant driving on the most frightening night of the year.
At that subconscious trigger, a wild rush of sudden illness overran her body. Chills and queasiness overwhelmed her and she had to stop and brace a hand against the wall for balance as her head spun nauseatingly. Her knees seemed to disappear and in an instant she was sinking toward the ground.
She nearly screamed when strong hands abruptly halted her collapse, their warm power drawing her back against a muscular and sturdy body. Even though she was dizzy and sick, she looked up over her shoulder and into curious dark eyes. His brow creased with clear concern as he jogged her a bit more firmly into his hold, a solid arm crossing her ribs to pin her tightly to his frame.
“I’ve got you,” he assured her in a richly rumbling murmur that seemed to vibrate against her ear and all down her neck. She couldn’t seem to help the little shiver the sensation provoked, reaching to grasp his forearm instinctively. The crisp feel of male body hair at his wrist tickled her fingertips, and Ashla was suddenly overwhelmed with a strange sense of intimacy. Discomforted, she tried to squirm loose even as she snatched her hands off him and made fists out of them.
It was a command, plain and simple. The sharp jerking of her body in his grasp made that quite clear to her. And that was to say nothing of the dark heaviness of his voice and the way it seemed so obvious that he was used to having his commands obeyed. Considering his talents with a sword, Ashla could see why no one would be compelled to argue with him.
And there it was, beneath the long black coat he wore, the thick buckle of the belt that held its sheath pressing into her backside from where it was slung at a low angle across his hips. This was what made her realize her feet weren’t touching the ground. There was no way otherwise, with their disparate heights, that she should find herself within such intimate fitting with him. Ashla’s face was washed with an upward wall of heat and embarrassment, her complexion burning as she gasped in a breath.
Coincidentally, as her thoughts were occupied by all of this input that pushed aside her slightest memories of New Year’s Eve, her feelings of illness were quickly brought to heel. She took a deep breath, wanting to demand he put her down, to get furious with him, to just explode with all of the stormy emotions she’d been besieged with ever since she had encountered him.
But she didn’t do any of it. Ashla simply turned her face away from him, her hard, stressed breathing the only thing being freely expressed as she said softly, “Please, let me go.”
“Really?” he asked, his richly resonant voice a prelude to his breath washing warmly over her face. “Because a moment ago I would have sworn you couldn’t wait to get your hands on me.”
Ashla gasped in a soft breath, trying to twist around in his hold so she could see his face. The way he said that…it was almost as if he were suggesting…
She squirmed angrily. “Let go!”
“I would,” he mused, “if I wasn’t worried you’d collapse to the ground. Also, I think I rather like you this way. It keeps you in one place long enough for me to get some questions answered.”
The truth of the matter was that Trace was enjoying the way her temper seemed to swell and grow with every wriggle of her body and every denial he handed her. Not that he was being mean or anything, but it was intriguing to see the streak of fury that ran through his frightened little mouse. It fascinated him that as angry as she clearly was, she refused to unleash herself on him, as he no doubt deserved.
“Please,” she begged him, suddenly relaxing into a limp little creature of defeat. “Please don’t.”
“Don’t?” he questioned. “Don’t what?” Trace reached up to cup her small chin in his palm, his fingers sinking into the softness of her cheek with such ease that, for a moment, he feared he would bruise her unintentionally. He tilted her chin up, her head falling back against his chest until her pale blue eyes were blinking up at him. The shine in her overbright gaze warned him she was near to tears, so he was infinitely gentle as he looked down on her. “I’ll not hurt you, jei li,” he promised her. “What makes you think I would repay my debt to you in such unfriendly ways?”
Ashla laughed at that, fully aware of the edge of hysteria in the sound just by seeing him frown darkly at it. “Because I saw you use that sword to kill someone,” she countered with a shudder as her eyes flicked down to the weapon on his hip.
“Is that what worries you, jei li? That I am armed?”
Trace reached down immediately for the buckle of his weapons belt. He slid his hand between their pressed bodies, and he found himself by accident gliding his knuckles along the curve of her backside.
She was wearing another dress, but this one was light and thin, some sort of calico or gauze cotton that barely provided a barrier to his touch. The impression was validated when he realized he could feel every stitch of the fabric of her panties. Trace unbuckled his belt and let it, the sheathed katana, and the slightly smaller wakizashi sword fall with a careless clatter to the pavement. Had Magnus seen him treat his weapons in such a disrespectful manner, Trace would have gotten an earful and, potentially, a hard refresher on the subject. The priest had forged the weapons himself, signed his name to them, and honored Trace with the gifts. Magnus very rarely bestowed his masterful weaponry on others. This one had even been specially designed for Trace’s unique left-handed style.
But all of that importance faded with surprising speed as the vizier’s full attention became quite riveted on the sweet warmth and shape of her provocatively nestled rear. The charge of sexual awareness that crashed through him so suddenly simply took his breath away. He was no stranger to sexual magnetism and all of its energizing benefits, but to find it so unexpectedly in so muted a package completely amazed him.
She was Lost, he tried to remind himself. By all rights, he shouldn’t even be able to feel her. Anomalies notwithstanding, she was a ghost, merely the apparition of a woman who most likely lay in a human hospital somewhere connected to those brutally cruel machines that kept bodies alive well beyond sense and grace. Far beyond all dignity.
But it was so hard to reconcile all of that with the lushly heated woman he held against himself; the one who squirmed provocatively whether she knew it or not; the one whose scent changed abruptly under the attentiveness of his keen senses, telling him he wasn’t the only one affected by all of this.
Drawn in, Trace lowered his nose to her neck, running the tip lightly along the length of it as he drew in a slow, searching breath. “There,” he said softly into her fair hair, his gaze fascinated by the gleam of gold and platinum in every flip and wave, “no weapons.”
Ashla was quite unsure about that. Her heartbeat raced in response to the way he held and stroked her. Every touch was both completely innocent and outrageously provocative. Perhaps it was the tone of his deep voice as it caressed her skin, or the way he seemed to breathe deep of her, but Ashla was also quite aware that there was so much more to it than that. She had felt it when she had covered his body in her touch to heal him. She felt it even more now that she was locked against him under his power. Her body instantly responded, a flush of awareness congregating with long-denied hungers inside her. She blushed with dreadful embarrassment when her nipples hardened into prodding points against the arm that still held her close.
“Tell me why you ran away from me before,” he suddenly asked, his coaxing query sounding half distracted. Ashla didn’t realize that Trace’s attention had been snared by the reaction of her body, and that it had made him realize that she wasn’t wearing a bra, merely a chemise, the lace of which was quite obvious beneath the scant material of her dress. All it would take was the lifting of his thumb to prepare her for his teasing stroke of touch. Trace was floored by the power of his yearning to do just that. How in all that was Light had this gone from seeking her out to thank her to becoming an exercise in sensual temptation?
More importantly, how was it that he of all people would be feeling this way? For years he had held on to such bitter memories that he could barely stand to touch or be touched by a woman. And now…
He shook his head in denial. How could any Shadowdweller even feel in such a way toward a human?
Half a human.
Trace let go of her suddenly, stepping away from her as she stumbled in her sudden, unexpected freedom. Ashla turned around slowly and he could see the shaking of her hands as she ran one through her short, soft hair. She didn’t realize that Trace had lost track of his own question as he tried to plow some kind of order to his jumbled thoughts. So she caught him off guard when she answered.
“Because you…you shunned me.”
Why did you shun me?
I never shunned you!
The haunted whispers of a half-realized memory swirled through Trace’s brain, even as he responded with knee-jerk indignation. “I did nothing of the kind!”
“You did! You said ‘what are you?’ like…like I was some sort of…of demon!”
“Because I thought you were…”
He trailed off before he could tell her he had actually thought that very thing. Not a demon, but a Demon, a Nightwalker race of elementals with great powers. But he had certainly never thought of her as the human incarnation of “demon,” some twisted beast damned and deceptive. Trace was actually insulted by the idea she would think him capable of such a disparagement, forgetting she had no way of knowing otherwise about him.
“Look,” he said irritably, “I have seen things a lot stranger than you, little mouse. Some human girl who can heal may be unique, but certainly not strange enough to make me forget how to treat someone with decency!”
“Then why did you ask it like that? And—” Ashla stopped short, jerking her head and shoulders into a tight sort of attention as her pale, pretty eyes narrowed on him suspiciously. “What do you mean, ‘some human girl?’ What other kinds of girls are there?”
Oh, Light and damnation, Trace thought with an inner groan at his own massive stupidity. How could he have made such a mistake? Then again, how often did he ever speak with humans in the first place? It wasn’t as though he was well practiced in guarding the uses of his language outside of the Shadowdweller society.
“Please,” he said, his tone lowering to a coaxing level. “I feel as though we have misunderstood each other from the start, and all I want to do is fix that so I can thank you for what you did.”
“You want to thank me?” she asked, her suspicion seeming to deepen. “No questions? No curiosity? You don’t find me strange, so it begs the question what have you seen that you do classify as strange.”
That was when Trace realized that for all her bundles of fear, little blond Ashla was ounce for ounce as sharp as others might be brave. What she lacked in courage, she clearly made up for in intellect. He had underestimated her in that respect, and now would have to either pull off some dazzling damage control, or…
Trace was quite good at telling creative truths. He was even better at flat-out lying. He had to be. Not a single ruling body on the planet that he knew of could function on a completely open and fully honest governing style. Secrets were a necessary evil, especially when it protected vital information and key negotiations between touchy cultures; especially when the telling of truths would leave opportunity for enemies to plunge their daggers into the hearts of the monarchy.