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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Yet now that he was faced with upholding one of the more crucial lies his people perpetuated, the one that secured their anonymity as a race in order to protect them from hers, his tongue seemed to freeze against it. He found himself trapped in a pair of fair blue eyes the likes of which amazed him, the lightness of them completely mesmerizing. What was more, he couldn’t escape the feeling that she had had more than her share of liars and betrayers in her life. Trace shook his head, trying to tell himself that he was applying his own impressions onto her without a single shred of proof, but it didn’t sway the overwhelming cry of his instincts. How could he force himself to ignore them when he was so used to living by them?
Ashla saw him hesitate, however, and her face wrinkled with distress and pain. She was so ready to think the worst of him, and probably anyone else as well. It amazed him that so young a woman could be so jaded. He wasn’t an expert at judging human age, but he estimated she was not yet out of her third decade. If she’d had the longevity of a Shadowdweller to look forward to, she would have the time to grow out of this bitter stage while still in her youth. She would learn how truly vast life could be, and how insignificant some things became in the face of it.
“Don’t bother saying anything if you’re going to lie,” she said heavily, shaking her head as she turned away from him.
“I’m not going to lie,” he said sharply, grabbing her arm and turning her back to him.
“But you thought about it,” she accused as she stumbled awkwardly in his hands. She gave a strange little hop before daring him to deny it with the glare of those uncanny eyes.
“Yes. I thought about it,” he admitted with a stiff nod. It burned him to confess it to her, and the unfamiliar guilt of it sat very ill on him. He was completely baffled as to why this would be so damn hard for him, but without a solution he had no choice but to be as honest as he could. “Look, there are things I just can’t talk about…”
“Is one of them the fact that you’ve talked about thrones and traitors when there are very few monarchies left in this world? Very few of anything, for that matter,” she added, gesturing to indicate the dark world around them.
This was when Trace caught the first sight of bright and dark reds streaking her palms. Far too familiar with the look of it, Trace plucked one of her hands out of the air, pulling her forward with a hasty jerking motion that was far rougher than he had intended.
Ashla gasped and squeaked out a startled sound of protest when the dark male so suddenly manhandled her, bringing her with a harsh tug against his chest as he pinned her to him at the back of her waist with one hand and drew her hand to his face with the other. She could swear she almost felt him shuddering with some tightly contained emotion, but his expression was grim and shadowed in the darkness. She felt his heated breath on her palm, the flow of it rushing over the tender cuts and deeper gashes that were there.
His deeply black eyes glittered as they turned to hers, and she got the thorough feeling that he was furious with her for something. She found that rather rich, considering he was the one with a lot of explaining to do after admitting he was more inclined than not to being dishonest with her. But the truth was, Ashla was tired of lies and liars. She was tired of being judged and found wanting. She was mostly tired of feeling like she was the only one in the world who didn’t have a clue what was going on. And considering that the world as she knew it consisted of herself and a man who was keeping secrets, she could hardly be wrong.
With a sudden feeling of vertigo, she felt his hand shoving her against her breastbone, pushing her back off balance. She was next aware of the powerful strength of steady male muscles as he simultaneously dipped her and sank to his knee. The way he moved, she realized suddenly, with such ease and vigor, it was as if he had never been injured at all. He couldn’t possibly have healed to such a point in the hours that had passed. Even with her healing, there was just no way. She had only taken him so far before she had run from him, and as soon as she was no longer touching him, the effect of her ability would have worn off instantly. As it was, she needed as much skin-to-skin and body-to-body contact as she could manage to pull off a healing of that magnitude.
She clutched his coat at his shoulders as he brought her down to the ground, allowing the cold of the concrete to seep through her skirt against her backside. But the chill was washed away in an instant when she became aware of him catching her dress by its hem and jerking it well above her knees. She yelped a protest, quickly snagging the material and shoving it back down, but all she managed was a hard meeting with his hand as it caught her mid-motion, stopping her in her tracks. More impressive was the softly spoken snarl of displeasure that gave voice to the anger in his eyes. She had never heard a man make such a sound. This time her chills developed larger chills of their own, and she simply froze under the cold of it. Petrified, she started to shake as he pushed her skirt back once more.
She watched with wide eyes as his gaze drifted down over the length of her exposed legs. It was as if the man had more than two hands as he touched her in one jolting shock after another. First on her thigh, then behind her knee as he pried her legs apart, and then her ankle as he raised her shin to his studied inspection. By the time his fingers danced along the sweep of her instep, she could barely catch her breath, and she had to tell herself quite firmly that it was a product of fear as he continued to control and overwhelm her.
Ashla became less convinced of that, however, as he bent over her like a tiger crouching over prey, but only touched her once more, this time with fingers filtering through the hair at her temple. His expression never changed, that black, fearsome glitter still flashing in his eyes, but she no longer felt it in his touch.
“The glass from the shop,” he ground out in a guttural voice, the tone reminding her of that primal sound he had made not too long ago. “Your hands, shins, knees, and feet are shredded. Why are you walking around like this? Drenna, this must scream with agony, Ashla. Why would you be so foolish…?” He shook his head sharply. “Can you not cure yourself, little healer?”
Ashla didn’t know how to respond at first. She had been second-guessing and fearing his every action since the moment she had first laid eyes on him, and nothing about him had prepared her for the potential of his concern. For her, no less.
Trace watched her blink dumbly at him from those big blue eyes, the frosted blond of her lashes seemingly dusted in sparkles the way his eyesight interpreted the lightness of them. His tongue was still flooded with the vile taste of his self-disgust as he realized he had been so preoccupied with himself and the damage being done to his own world that he had easily dismissed any potential damage that had been done to her. He had given up the search for her earlier far too quickly and with far too little effort. It had been wrong and thankless, and he despised himself for it the more his gaze tracked over her torn skin.
“I can, but…but I…”
She hesitated heavily, peeking up at him through the glistening veil of lashes, her shoulder hitched up in a prepared cringe as if she expected the worst of everything from him. And why shouldn’t she? What had he shown her of himself, besides thoughtlessness and cruel disregard for anything not important to his own selfish needs?
“Stop,” she whispered suddenly, a trembling hand rising to lay gentle fingers over his mouth. “I can’t bear it!”
Trace didn’t understand what she was talking about, the action, for a moment, as confusing as every other thing about her. Then, all in a rush, he realized that she wanted him to stop berating himself so harshly for his failures. As though she could hear him and it hurt her heart, she was begging him to cease.
“By the blessed Dark, you can read my thoughts!” he whispered fiercely, not even able to conceive of what to feel about that. Trepidation and anxiety were natural, given the vulnerability it left him at, and the people whose deepest secrets he had a hand in protecting, but…
“I cannot! What a ridiculous thing to say!”
“Then explain that remark!”
“Explain yours first!” she spat back, tears burning hot across her eyes and infuriating her even more. “T-the ‘human girl’ the…the ‘monarchy’…t-the strange…” She was making no sense, and they both realized that, but Ashla was too upset to clarify her garble of thoughts.
“Why haven’t you healed yourself?” he demanded of her, the tattered condition of her body winning out over all the issues that pressed down on him.
She covered her mouth and shook her head, as if she needed to physically repress her feelings and to speak would shatter the last shreds of her control. Trace had never before felt so many emotions jumbled all together inside himself. He hardly blamed her for being overwhelmed when he was wishing he himself could give in to the urge to shout that was racing through him again and again. There was something stirring deeply within him, like a part of himself he had never really met before, and the near savagery of the sensation made him want to send it back where it had come from, banishing it to the oblivion of the place where he could continue being unaware of it.
“Dark and Light, this is crazy,” he rasped as he ran a hand back through his hair, his other palm curling in reflexive possession around the back of her calf. For a moment he considered he might be feeling the beginnings of Shadowscape euphoria, but quickly dismissed the idea because he knew he had only been there a short time and that effect took at least two days to settle in.
That left only one variable that had changed between this time and all the times before.
“My name is Trace,” he said as he moved closer to her, hovering over her half-prone body. She quickly tried to put distance back between them, but the only way to do it was to lie down completely. Ashla’s heart thundered beneath her breast as he came so close she could feel his body heat everywhere against her. “I tell you this because I believe I have failed to do so before,” he informed her, his words coming as though he were choosing them very carefully. But in spite of his politeness, and contrary to his efforts at a neutral, explanatory tone, Ashla could hear that quality caressing the lower register of his voice that sounded a great deal like the animalistic sound he had made before. “I am a man of importance, intellect, and reason. Do you understand me?”
She nodded quickly, but her gesture only darkened his expression into a storm of annoyance.
“I mean that I am not prone to emotional whims! I don’t chase ghosts and engage in fruitless behavior, because I know better! I create my world around me. I shape the progress of my life and the lives of many, many others!”
“Please,” she squeaked as he loomed brusque and intense over her. Instinct put her hands to his chest, pushing at him as if her twiggy arms could make any kind of impression on that wall of muscle and masculinity.
“Tell me why you do not heal yourself!”
“Because I can’t!” she shouted back at him in response to his demanding growl. “I burned myself out healing you and I won’t recover for days! I’m exhausted. Weak. Weaker, I mean. I’ve always been weak. Always! Too delicate and fragile to give a big jerk like you a decent black eye without breaking my damn wrist! And here! Try this on for size!”
She reached for the buttons lining the front of her dress and, without bothering to free the antique silver shells, she tore it open in two violent jerks that sent silver flying in wild scatters everywhere. This act instantly revealed the chemise she wore beneath, as well as the shimmy of the breasts beneath the silky fabric. She gathered the hem of it and yanked it up, making Trace’s entire body stiffen in shock and, undoubtedly, a rapid-fire response of eager anticipation that he had absolutely no hope of controlling, never mind expecting it in the first place. Trace watched as she swept the midnight blue fabric up between her breasts, keeping her modesty somewhat intact even as she bared her entire midriff from the bottom of her sternum to the low line of her panties where they crossed her hips just barely above her pubic bone.
And while that tempting little flash of feminine decadence snared his attention almost instantly, it was quickly disrupted with a scream of subconscious denial in his own brain as information glimpsed from the corner of his dark-sharpened eye roared for notice.
Trace held himself still as a statue as he let his gaze creep up the amazing light and pale plane of her belly, raw emotion roiling to a head the moment he saw the first angry furrow of a wound marring the delicate canvas. Then there was another and another; jagged evil things, fresh and wildly cut as though without rhyme or reason.
Trace knew the pattern far too well.
He had hold of her in an instant, lurching back onto his knees as he drew her up off the ground. He heard her suck in a single breath and then there was just the fierce grinding of her teeth as she clenched her jaw. She stoically bore him reaching for the back of her dress and stripping it down, her eyes tightly closed and her cheek resting against his biceps where, unknown to her, dual metal bands tried to contain the swell of muscle he was using to support her weight against himself. Ashla let him do these things to her because she knew what he was looking for.
They both knew what he would find.
There, as sure as sunlight, was the exact same dagger wound that had once been in Trace’s flesh.
“Aiya.” Trace whispered the exclamation in horror and in the hope that his eyes and thoughts were deceiving him. Was this really happening? Was any of this truly existent? His entire psyche’s first instinct was to reject every single morsel of information. She wasn’t real, therefore the injuries could not be valid, and therefore he should feel no guilt because there was no actual pain inflicted.