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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
He wasn’t actually talkative at all, but he had a way of responding to her nervous chatter with single, well-thought sentences that always made her slam on her mental brakes and think. Trace was also a man of great conscience, she came to realize. It mattered a great deal to him that she had suffered because of him. It was clear the idea of it rubbed him raw. He stubbornly refused to listen when she tried to reassure him that she felt fine, and he insisted on taking care of her every need at every moment.
She felt his commitment to repaying what she had done for him in the focused way he performed even the simplest acts. He would serve her a meal, but with a detailed display on her tray of all the best food groups and an emphasis on those foods he swore would help her heal faster. Reading was one of her favorite pastimes, but she couldn’t read in the dark. He said his eyes were better than hers and he took all the time she wanted to read to her, unwittingly letting her take far too much selfish pleasure in the sound of his uniquely smooth and deep voice. He was obsessively tidy, she thought, always making sure to put things back where they belonged as quickly as possible.
He could spend hours sitting quietly with his own thoughts.
This was actually one of the creepier things about him. He could sit in the darkness hardly moving, or he would absently toy with his sword and its strangely designed scabbard. Equally eerie was the way he would polish it meticulously. He slept with it within his reach at all times, as if he expected to be attacked at any instant.
Less creepy, but somewhat more chilling, was when he slept.
He had nightmares.
They were awful, violent things. She could tell. She had a front row seat to his nighttime struggles because he insisted on sleeping on the floor of her bedroom so he could be near at all times if she needed him. Only his virulent stubbornness could have won out over her vehement denials and lifelong lessons of mistrust. And because it had, she bore witness each time he fell asleep to the weight of his memories.
Ashla had no doubt that it was memories. She was too familiar with the vulnerability that sleep left someone open to, whether they wanted it or not. She had peeped over the edge of her mattress at him, biting her lip in empathetic distress as he had thrashed in place as if tied fast to the floor. He slept without a shirt, so she had seen every single muscle and vein distend beneath his tension-taut skin. His hair would become drenched with the sweat that made his skin gleam. He would grind his teeth or grit out low words in that foreign tongue.
Sometimes he would burst out in a horrific shout, a sound like nothing she had heard before. He would inevitably wake himself up with these, and she had to duck quickly back to feign sleep. Then Ashla would listen to Trace as he struggled to calm his breathing, to calm his thoughts. She could feel them racing and churning, wild and painful, like pins and needles on the edges of her skin. At times like those, she felt like an intruder. She felt like she was invading a deeply kept place of privacy that she hadn’t earned the right to enter. She thought of her own secret horrors and how she would feel if he were to come upon them uninvited. It was like…letting a total stranger watch a pornographic film you had starred in once when you had been young, foolish, and fancied yourself in love with your co-star. It was raw and embarrassing, out of context and poorly representative.
Ashla opened her eyes and looked across the room at the object of her obsession. She found him doing his creepy sitting thing, except at the moment he was watching her with very careful attention. The hilt of his sword spun absently between his fingers, the tip of the scabbard nestled in the rug that alleviated all friction as the entire sword flashed and spun with dizzying speed against nimble fingertips. Ashla couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking about.
Trace was toying with a great deal of danger.
On about three different levels.
The first was, of course, the mental gymnastics he had been forced to perform as he had somehow avoided all of his clever charge’s probing questions about topics he felt were too sensitive to discuss…either for her benefit or for his own.
The second was that he was closing out his second day in Shadowscape. He would be lying to himself if he had claimed not to notice any effects yet.
Which led him to his third point of danger.
He narrowed his eyes on the svelte and fair Ashla as she screwed her eyes shut and thought very hard about…whatever she was thinking about. She was always near windows, as if she couldn’t bear to be closed within the dimensions of a room. Even a room as enormous as this one was. He imagined that in her other life, she wouldn’t live in Manhattan. Not unless she was incredibly rich. Only the well-to-do humans could afford large spaces in the city. He couldn’t see her living in anything like the tiny apartments New York offered to everyone else.
But he lived around wealth, so he was able to recognize someone who wasn’t used to it. She would discover little details about the suite that amazed or amused her, and the fact that her entertainment was sometimes lost on him told him he was far more used to higher-end amenities than he had realized. It told him that she was not.
But it wasn’t these nuances that troubled him just then.
What disturbed him was…
His fist clenched closed, suddenly catching his sword mid-turn, the sound penetrating her daydreaming enough to make her twitch just a bit. She wrinkled her small nose, her bottom lip pouting out in an expression of some consternation. Trace watched the moue with a tightly focused stare, noticing every small detail, from the tiny brackets it caused at the edges of her mouth, to the glint of moonlight on the moisture on her full lower lip.
He had never known a frown could be so stirring.
But then again, lately, everything about her seemed to stir him. He was like dust to her wild wind. She toyed with him exhaustively, twisting him one way one moment—like when she thought she was alone and took to dancing around her room to stretch her sore body, unaware that he could see her through the walls in brilliant infrared vision—and another way the next—like when she made him read to her for long periods of time and took so much pleasure in it that her body flushed warm in places that…
Trace released his death grip on the katana and began to spin it even faster than before. This time, he didn’t even pause to think of how horrified and furious Magnus would be to see him treat it that way. He didn’t really care. Instead, all he found himself caring about was something crafted far more beautifully than some piece of steel.
He was convinced that she was made from light itself. It was the only explanation for how toxic her mere presence had become to him. Her scent when she passed by, her heat when she squirmed in response to his voice, the curve of each and every spot on her body that somehow seemed so exquisite; they were all like light poisoning, burning into him fast and deep until he all but shouted with the gorgeous agony of it.
The worst part was that he couldn’t blame it all on Shadowscape euphoria. No. He had tried that. Then he would remember in quick flashes of heat and memory the way she had felt as she had straddled him in the boutique to heal him, or the feel of her bottom nestling provocatively against him only minutes after last stepping into the ’scape.
Now, however, he knew he was in serious trouble. He knew it by the wild racing of his heart. He knew it by his ever-sharpening senses that fixated on her every detail. And most of all, he knew it by the savage, surging impulses he had to just…to just…
…plunge into her.
And then, just because it was the way his luck had been running lately, she had to pick that very moment to turn and look at him. She flashed those hypnotic blue eyes at him, her lips parting a little when she caught him staring at her. Trace’s jaw clenched, his entire body tensing against the rushing high that was his desire for her as it pumped through him.
Then he was on his feet, his katana switching hands so he could secure it to his belt on the right side.
“I have to go,” he said gruffly, silently cursing himself for the predatory pitch of his tone.
Ashla leapt to her feet, the spry movement telling him how much she had healed in the past two days. She hurried forward, prompting him to throw out a hand of warning to match his barking command.
She came up short, doing as he demanded. Only an idiot would have ignored the warning radiating out of him in huge, overwhelming waves. But she wasn’t able to control herself completely.
“Please don’t leave!”
She had promised herself for two days that she wouldn’t beg him when the time came. Now here she was doing just that without even a semblance of an effort at bravery. Then again, bravery had never been her strong suit. Neither was solitude, despite her inherent mistrust of others.
“I have no choice,” he said tightly as he finished securing the sword and looked around himself in a moment of wild confusion. It was actually unnerving to see him this way. He was always so collected, his actions measured and purposeful, always as if they had been thoroughly thought out. That she, a veritable stranger, noticed the difference was terribly disturbing to her, and she knew it would be to him as well.
“Can…can you come back?”
Trace looked at her suddenly, the fierceness of his black eyes making Ashla’s breath catch in her throat. He could hear the sound of it hitching from where he stood. How was it that he knew just how difficult these questions were for her? There was desperation lacing them, but it was how much she resented her need to ask them that screamed out to him. She was ashamed of herself for her fear of being alone.
Trace had taken two strides toward her before he realized he was moving and drew himself to a halt. He closed his eyes briefly, his hands gripping into tight fists as he struggled for control—and to take in a deeper breath so he could get beyond the lilac scent of her body wash and reach the purity of nature.
“Can you?” she asked more softly this time, taking a step that all but closed the remaining distance between them. After all, he had moved first. He had broken his own barrier.
“I shouldn’t,” he whispered, probably more to himself than in response to her query. But he was right. He shouldn’t. He had repaid her for her help, albeit not nearly enough, and the pressures of his world now took precedence. But those pressures paled in comparison to the intensity of need roiling up from inside him as he finally caught that thread of warm feminine aroma he had been craving.
Trace had flirted with euphoria on more than one occasion, so he was familiar with the effects. The sharpening senses, the shortness of patience, and the urge to give in to impulse were the norm in their abnormality. But he had never felt or heard of anyone else feeling this intensity of primal sexual behavior.
Ashla was taken completely by surprise when a large hand snatched her up by the back of her head and another snaked under her arm to seize the back of her waist. She was swept up against him, lifted to the very tips of her toes to shorten the distance between their heights, and before she could make a single sound, was sealed mouth to mouth with him.
When she gasped in a breath, it was his breath. When she made her sound of protest and surprise, it slid past his parting lips. Ashla reached to anchor herself in any way she immediately could, finding herself latched on to fistfuls of black silk from his shirt.
And after all obligatory reflexes were satisfied, she simply stared up at his eyes as he kissed her.
It was the raw trepidation amidst her soft sky blue gaze that tempered his savagery to passion. What would have brutalized and bruised, gentled just enough to be worthy of a creature so delicate. By forcing him to slow down, by nibbling at what remained of his conscience, impulse mutated into craving. Now the truth of what was between them surfaced, like the explosive puff of flame first put to tinder. Trace’s hold on her tightened as his final sense, his sense of taste, was indulged at last. He had obsessed for hours over the question of her flavor, and now he was beginning to know. Just beginning.
He did not actually have the patience for finesse, but skill was automatic as he kissed her immobile lips. He was challenged by her unresponsiveness, an urge as old as time goading him to win her over. Trace did so with the touch of his tongue, the slowest little flicks of sensation that satisfied his need for her essence temporarily while he coaxed her into relaxing for him just a bit. Her stillness and stiffness were proven a lie, however, when she suddenly drew a breath between parting lips, the act full of response and willing surrender despite its simplicity.
Then he was spearing himself deep inside her mouth, filling his dizzy mind with the sweet wetness of her taste and the vibration of the little moan that escaped her. He felt line after line within himself being crossed, then erased; all he had forbidden himself was suddenly fair game as an explosive bolt of light seared him from head to toe, flash-boiling his blood and burning his breath in his lungs until he labored to exchange it with the cooler air of the room.
It was a fruitless effort because it was all sweetly tainted with her scent, each deep draw of oxygen sending him spiraling into an oblivion of action and reaction. He had no sooner begun to explore the fantasy of her mouth than he was turning her away in his hands, spinning her back to his chest so he held her captive against him exactly as he had when he had first held her two days earlier. He ran shaking fingers down the length of her throat, the adrenaline crashing through his body making it impossible for him to hold steady.
Ashla was panting in an effort to catch her breath, but had just as much success as Trace had. She was trapped against him by that steeled arm full of muscle and demand that crossed her ribs tight beneath her breasts. She was still licking the tantalizing taste of him off her lips when she felt his fingertips gliding along the line of her pulse. To further inundate her senses, his hot breaths burned over her ear and neck in wild bursts, and his entire body stood hard as marble against the back of hers.