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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“You were all but dead in my arms,” he informed her hotly. “Every suffering breath you drew, I suffered as well. I thought I would never speak with you again! I thought I had sent you to your death in order to spare my father’s life!”
“Trace, your father is the backbone of the religion your people need for strength and guidance. He runs the institution responsible for all of the education in this city! I knew all of that when I offered to heal him. You didn’t ask and you didn’t beg. You didn’t force me, either. I would have forced you to let me!” She took a breath. “Did it work? Tell me it worked, please.”
“Yes,” he breathed, his hands curving around her precious face with exquisite care. “He is resting. And so must you. Ashla…jei li, you are with my child.”
“I know. I wonder how that happened,” she said, her eyes flashing with wicked amusement.
“It had to be in Shadowscape,” he realized. “But I don’t see how…when your body was not completely present.”
“It was present enough, I guess,” she returned, reaching up to touch his mouth, rubbing away his consternation.
“Drenna, can you imagine if Magnus had not sought you out? You would have been pregnant in both ’scapes…with no explanation for it in Realscape. Your mother and the hospital, they probably would have…”
He swallowed loud and hard, unable to put words to the understanding. His sensitivity touched her heart. “It’s okay, Trace,” she soothed him softly. “I am here now. Safe and sound in your protection.”
“Some protection,” he sighed as he gathered her up and rolled her to him. “I tucked you into the nest where vipers lay waiting. I knew it, too. I came to watch over you, but I should have brought you to be with me here at the palace. I just…I didn’t want to overwhelm you or pressure you. I wanted to give you the opportunity to heal and choose fairly.”
“I see. I totally got that feeling when you demanded I marry you for the sake of your honor just now.”
Trace saw no irony in that whatsoever, of course. “It is the right thing to do. The only thing. If I speak to Tristan, this could perhaps remain quiet between us. My father wouldn’t have to know, per se.”
“He’ll know,” she reminded him.
Trace sighed heavily.
“I know. You’re right. And I’m sure it seems pretty foolish to you.”
“Actually, once you stop panicking, I think you’re probably going to be pretty sweet about it.” She paused to nervously tug at his shirt a moment. “I am, of course, scared shitless.”
Trace smiled at that, sympathy in his eyes. He knew exactly how she felt. “Me, too,” he admitted. “For many reasons. This combination of DNA has no guarantees to it, and that worries me. I have never entertained fatherhood before. Aiya, until a few weeks ago I wasn’t even entertaining the idea of a woman.”
“Given the choice, you wouldn’t be doing this,” she noted softly.
“With threat and treachery all around us? No. Absolutely not. But there is no choice, and that’s okay. We will make this work.”
“There’s always a choice,” she reminded him. “I could go back. To the human world, I mean. Trustworthy hospitals there, too, by the way.” She had already gleaned his feelings on other choices, so she didn’t voice them.
“Full of light and sunlight! You would birth my child into that hell?” He was aghast, and when he put it that way, so was she.
“No. I’m sorry. I wasn’t…I just don’t want to force you into anyth—”
“Force?” He grasped her chin and met her eyes. “I am never forced to do anything,” he said roughly. She remembered his history and winced at her word choice. “Gestating or not, I would have you, Ashla, be assured of that. You have crawled into my heart and my soul, picking off parts of me day by day and making them your own. Your heart, your goodness, your sheer generosity—they are all I could desire in a woman and more. Your passion,” he continued, the change coming over him on the single word both obvious and alluring, “leaves me breathless, and mine for you simply can’t be measured. What, in any of this, do you read as being forced? Unless…”
It finally occurred to him that she might not want to be with him. She could tell by the absolute fear and panic that flew through his eyes. Ashla would have loved to mess with him just a little bit, but she didn’t have the heart to torment him.
“Yeah, okay, but can I please have a drink of water first? I’m dying of thirst here.”
Relief warred with amusement in his expression, and she smiled at that. She didn’t want to see him endure any more pain. He had been through more than enough. He got up, fetched her cold water twice before she slowed down to breathe, and then helped her into the bath when she begged him to. He lowered her sore little body into hot, soothing water and talked softly to her as he helped to bathe her.
“I know my ideas seem old-fashioned and silly to you at times,” he said, “but we do things with precision for good reason in this society.”
“You are a very careful and thoughtful culture, Trace. I can see that, and I can see the good in that. I am hardly complaining.”
“You should be,” he said with a frown. “I trust no one outside of the upper echelon in the palace. I can’t bear to think of you in childbirth at Sanctuary when it is rotten with creatures like Karri who would do you harm.”
“Karri!” She thought he was putting her on for a millisecond, but his face told the stark truth. “Karri?”
He carefully explained the confusion of emotion and deceit as they had best understood it from Karri’s reprehensible mind. He edited some of it, for the sake of his father’s honor, but it made an impact on Ashla just the same.
“But she was so nice to me. She was always spending time and…”
Trace looked at her with sympathy as she understood why Karri had no doubt paid extraordinary attention to her.
“She was a spy,” he said gently, “and she did what spies do. She gathered information from wherever and whomever she could. As Magnus’s handmaiden, she was set high in the most critical goings-on in Sanctuary and in the palace. He spent as much time here with Malaya as he did there. No doubt, over time, we will discover just how widespread her treachery was. Darkness knows, this could have been going on for years. I am hoping, however, that the recent rush of activity against this household is indicative of it being a shorter time span than that.
“I am almost certain that whoever was twisting her to his needs is also in Sanctuary. Who else would have access to a handmaiden? It is hard to say, though. I take nothing for granted in this. But now it is up to Magnus to find the truth. You and I are done risking our lives for the time being. I would keep you safe, my pretty love,” he promised her with soft intensity as he nuzzled her cheek with a warm kiss. He dipped the sponge into the heated water, drawing soap and warmth up over her shoulders. “You and my child.” He closed his eyes after he said it, exhaling slowly. “I have to be ready for this. I…I have to be ready.”
“Luckily, you have nine months to get ready,” she noted. “And please tell me you aren’t going to freak out all of the time like this because, honestly, you’re supposed to be the strong and brave one in this setup. I’m getting a little scared.”
“I’m the brave one? Jei li, you sell yourself cheaply if you think you are not brave. You have taken on new worlds, new peoples, and self-alterations with an impressive aplomb. I am so proud of my courageous woman who would gamble her life for the sake of others.”
“I did it for you,” she said, turning to face him with a soft slosh of water in the unusual shell-shaped tub. She reached out to run tender fingers through the crisply short hairs around his ear. “I think I would do anything for you. Especially have this baby, even though it terrifies me.”
“Why do I think we’re afraid of two different things?” he asked her, catching her hand and kissing the tips of her fingers slowly, each in their turn.
“I’m afraid of everything, remember? Is it ironic to say a Shadowdweller is afraid of her own shadow?” she joked weakly.
“Just tell me what you’re afraid of,” he coaxed her, his light kisses including each knuckle on the back of her hand now.
“I’m afraid she…she’ll be different.”
“Jei li, everyone is different.”
“You know what I mean,” she said, looking away from him so she could toy with droplets of water on the edge of the tub. “She could be like me. White-skinned. Blond. She would…it would be hard for her, wouldn’t it? Harder for her to use Shadowdweller methods, harder to socialize—just harder. It feels like it wouldn’t be fair.”
“Jei li, it’s true that you’re a curiosity and that people need to get used to you, but it’s just curiosity. It’s not hostile or unwelcoming. It isn’t intolerant like it can be in the human world. Our troubles have always been clan related. One clan versus another and the prejudice that comes with it, or hard feelings from issues of the past. This is not going to be an issue for you because you have no clan affiliation. And anyway, the clans have mostly dissolved since the war ended. It will take more time, of course, before they truly are a thing of the past, but it will happen.
“I have faith that no matter what she looks like, our child will meet with a tolerance that will make me proud of my people. If there are troubles, she will have a very powerful father to set things better. Don’t you trust me to take care of her?”
“Of course I do,” Ashla said, a little mortified that she sounded as if she were questioning his ability to protect their child. “I love you, Trace. You are a good man. I feel like I have won some sort of megaprize just by finding you, never mind somehow getting you to love me. I’m very fortunate.”
“Aiya, jei li, Drenna knows you deserve such fortune. Your life has been hard enough to start. Relax and enjoy this now. Let me worry about all of this for you. Let me love you and keep you safe.”
He reached to kiss her, a painstakingly gentle kiss that kept her engaged for several long, sweet minutes before she finally drew back for a breath. She looked into his dark eyes and smiled when she saw the slow-rising passion readily burning for her there. But they both knew he would not say or do anything about it just now. She had healing left to do, and Trace’s sense of honor would not let him cross any more lines than he already had in his history with her.
“Magnus will join us once you are fully recovered,” he told her. Then he seemed to rethink his rather dominant tone. “I mean, that is what I would like.”
“I would like it, too.” She smiled. “Unfortunately, you will have to extend all the invitations. I don’t have any family or friends any longer.”
“You will. And quite soon, at that. Although I should warn you that gestation for Shadowdweller females is, um…somewhat different than for humans. It will be hard to say which you might tend toward.”
“What do you mean ‘somewhat different’?” she asked, her eyes narrowing on him when he tried to act a little too nonchalant about it.
He shrugged. The casual movement simply looked wrong on him. It reeked of evasiveness, and he was not by nature an evasive man.
“Okay, remember the part where I asked you to stop scaring the crap out of me? Well, you’re doing it again!”
He had the nerve to look surprised and aghast at the idea. “No, jei li! Don’t be afraid. Different is just different. It isn’t bad. I just know you’re not fond of unpredictability.”
“You know, specifics would be good here,” she said coldly.
“Honestly,” he said, sounding very sincere and convincing, “it’s just minor things. For instance, it may be a bit longer than nine months. This is true of most Nightwalker breeds.”
“Longer?” She gave him a dirty look. “Like a month?”
“Or three. Possibly four. It varies.”
She gasped in a stunned little laugh. “Oh, is that all? Just a month or four here or there, right?”
“Now, see, you are looking at this the wrong way. It gives us more time to prepare, right?”
“What else?” she asked.
“Honey, it’s nothing for you to get upset o—”
“What else?” she demanded.
“You can’t enter Shadowscape for more than the briefest times while pregnant. Euphoria sets in too quickly for gestating women.”
“Oh. Well, I can’t Fade yet anyway. I don’t even know if I can do it again.”
“You can. You will. I can tell.”
“Oh.” She licked her lips nervously. “Well, that’s okay. I don’t need to go into Shadowscape, do I?”
“We will try to avoid it, of course.”
“Of course.” She rolled her eyes. “Anything else?”
“Not really. Except…well, I am certain this won’t apply to you since you are so pale, but there are the skin tone changes.”
“The what what now?”
Trace knew this was just going to get worse by the tone of her voice and the increased use of human idioms. He sighed and wondered, for a moment, if this was any sign of how she was going to react to the traditional wedding practices of his people.
He decided he wouldn’t get into that until much, much later.