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|Noah(Nightwalkers #5) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Even sitting as he was, there was no mistaking the grandeur of his height, nor the sculpture of a physique just as artistically molded as his mind was. He was not a warrior by nature, but neither did he remain on the sidelines in a soft, padded throne while others went into the fray for him. Isabella had fought by his side and she knew how strong he was, how cunning, and, above all, how merciless he could be when he faced an enemy that threatened the things he held dearest to his heart.
However, she felt she knew him better this way, cuddled up with her daughter in his role as a foster uncle who had probably spent as much time with the darling little girl as her own biological parents. Bella had barely given birth when it became very clear that Noah and Leah were going to be inseparable in their adoration for each other. He showered the child with love, attention, and blatant favoritism. All of this in spite of the fact that he had more nieces and nephews of his own blood than Isabella could count.
Bella didn't look too closely at the great fortune of this adulation the King had for her child. As with anything, there were hidden layers to it all, most of it redirected emotions from a man who sat in a position of power, and that kind of enormous sovereignty could be all too lonely. All Bella could see at the moment was that Leah looked diminutive in Noah's embrace, somehow no longer seeming to be growing too fast and too darn independent, as she had been complaining to her child's father just the night before.
Leah was truly in no more danger from the King's power than she was when her Earth Demon father separated the child from gravity and sent her squealing and giggling into the air with barely a backhanded thought as they played. Isabella realized that she was still prone to the occasional human foible of fear, a knee-jerk reaction that was habit more than anything. However, she was always able to overcome her trepidations quickly. All she had to do was think of her Demon husband's highly moral nature, his powerful sense of justice, and the fact that this intense compass also guided many of the Demons in high positions in their society, a category Noah defined even as he fell into it. He made a point of setting the example he intended all others to follow.
"Well, your fairy tale is apparently a great success," Isabella whispered, reaching down for the book with clear curiosity.
Noah turned suddenly, grabbing her wrist and deftly removing the journal from her hold.
"Thanks," he said, tucking the book protectively into a pocket on the inside of his jacket.
Isabella frowned slightly, rubbing her wrist where he'd grabbed her a little too enthusiastically, clearly having forgotten his own strength. It was nothing to her, really. After all, she wasn't human any longer. Well, mostly not. She was a hybrid of ancient Druid and modern human genetics, and since she'd developed significant strength with her other freshman abilities, she'd barely even bruise from the King's rough handling. Still, if she'd been wholly human, that grip would have broken her wrist clean through, and it wasn't like Noah to be so unthinking.
"Time for me to get going," Noah said, gaining his feet quickly and reaching to plant a fast kiss on her still cheek.
With a twist, the Fire Demon morphed into a column of smoke. The column collapsed and scattered across the floor, scudding in all directions for cracks and crevices leading to the outside of the manor.
He was gone barely a second before a storm of dust swept violently into the room, surrounding Isabella's tiny figure. It snapped suddenly into the shape of her husband, his arms already wrapped tight around her and her wrist coming under immediate inspection.
"What the hell is the matter with him?" Jacob barked, his displeasure over the King's rough, thoughtless handling of his bride all too clear in his tone and expression.
Since Isabella had become his Imprinted mate those three short years ago, Jacob had found himself with little tolerance for other men touching her, never mind causing her even the smallest of harm. His possessive temperament was part of the nature of their particular Imprinting.
Until Bella had arrived and threaded herself deeply into the tapestry of Jacob's soul and of his existence, the Imprinting had been so rare that it had only ever been talked about in Demon fairy tales, like the one Noah had been reading to Leah. For the male Enforcer, the intensity of knowing what a rare treasure it was they shared made him irrationally overprotective at times. Still, he was better now than he had been at the start of their relationship. Of course, facing his wife's exasperation and frustration after each excessive incident had played its part.
"I don't know," Isabella murmured in reply to what had been intended as a rhetorical question. "Jacob," she said suddenly, turning in his arms and wrapping anxious fingers around the loose fabric of his burgundy shirt where it was tucked tightly against his lean waist. "I'm afraid." She laid her dark head on his chest, burying her pretty face against his shirt until she could feel his warmth pulsing against her cheek. "I'm afraid that someday soon our friendship with Noah is going to be tested in the worst possible way."
Jacob frowned even more darkly, his entire countenance a dark storm of intense, overcast emotion. Troubled clouds scudded over his heart as well.
He didn't pretend to misunderstand her. He was the Enforcer. He had been so for over four centuries, elected by the King himself to keep Demon law in strict alignment. Every time the Hallowed moons of Samhain or Beltane neared and passed, any Demon who was without an Imprinted mate could be tempted into straying toward the frail humans or other vulnerable races. These innocent, unsuspecting creatures were not likely to survive the passion of a Demon trying to satisfy dark, clawing hungers that were as primal as the need for food, water, and breath.
The intensity of the effect only grew worse with each passing year. Each Hallowed moon that progressed saw those who, no matter how strong and how self-disciplined they were, slipped back into the more ruthless, animalistic nature that Demon ancestors had long ago been born to. When this type of chaos blossomed, it was the duty of an Enforcer to see that it did not turn toward innocents, and if it did, to severely punish the offender.
Bella and Jacob were the only Enforcers. That meant insane behaviors would always end in a confrontation with one or both of them, a confrontation that the temporarily insane Demons always lost as the lucid, organized Enforcers tracked and trapped them.
Then there was the terrible punishment to follow. This duty rested solely in Jacob's hands. Isabella had not developed the stalwart, armored heart that was required to mete that punishment out, and he hoped she never would. It was a responsibility he took on gladly because he would rather her heart stay sweet and unburdened. Punishment for a Demon was an unspeakable thing, and the humiliation of it tended to stigmatize the one who suffered it for a long period of time afterward.
In the end it meant that neither of them could pretend not to see the indications of a Demon who was pressing at the edges of sanity, their sense of civilization and moral sagacity rubbed raw with the growing phase of the moon. It was little details, ones that made an aura vibrate with high-strung tension, or the occurrence of aberrant behaviors that were ever so slight but that warned them that the Demon in question was struggling with his own volatile nature. These were the sparks that indicated a fuse was lit and growing ever closer to a deadly moment of explosion.
Apparently Isabella was seeing those signs in the Demon King. If he were going to be honest, Jacob would have to agree, although the very idea of it made his stomach churn. If they were forced to battle so respected and powerful a man, so beloved a friend…
Isabella looked up at him with sad, understanding eyes. She was his spiritual mate, and as such had telepathic access to all of his thoughts, but even if she hadn't been able to hear his wishes, she would know what Jacob was praying for.
That Noah would find his destined mate as soon as possible.
It was the only thing that would prevent the inevitable juncture of confrontation the King and his Enforcers were heading toward. Destiny, whom all Demons revered for both Her diligent forward motion as well as Her capricious sense of humor and irony, intended the Imprinting to be the Demon race's salvation. Jacob would never fear the potential of his own madness during the Hallowed moons again. That potential had been whisked away when Bella and the Demon prophecy about Druids like her had fallen into his lap. That was when they had all learned that it was possible to find soul mates in the Druids lying dormant and hidden in human society. It promised to rescue an ancient species trembling on the brink of madness.
It also had the potential to diminish the need for the Enforcers. One day, home and hearth would take up more of their time than hunting and being harbingers of punishment. However, there had been very few matches in the past three years, which certainly didn't make up for centuries of the nearly absolute absence of the Imprinting. Bella and Jacob's relationship was a small drop of fortune in the vast bucket of turmoil that the Demons swam in each Hallowed season.
Jacob bent over his petite wife and pressed gentle lips to the inside of her slightly damaged wrist. As a Druid, she would heal quickly enough from the injury to allow her to forget it by morning; as her Imprinted mate, Jacob felt even the slightest of her pains far too keenly to ever forget them that easily. And though he knew she saw his thoughts clearly, he sought to soothe her troubled heart.
"I think you fret overmuch," he chided her gently, smiling when she absently curled her fingertips over the contours of his cheek in reflex to his kiss. "Noah is tense, I agree, but you can clearly see he understands what needs to be done to divert himself. He has survived six and a half centuries of Hallowed moons without ever stepping out of line. Noah hardly needs a little snippet like you, hardly three decades old, trying to mother him."
Her violet eyes widened at the insult, her mouth opening slightly before she recovered, her gaze lighting with understanding.
"You are trying to get my back up on purpose so I won't worry," she countered. Dark lashes fell to shadow her gaze and she leaned into him to press her cheek over the beat of his heart. "I love you for that," she said, sighing deeply and softly.
Jacob's hand came to the black curtain of her hair, stroking it top to bottom, knowing the caress soothed and contented her. She relaxed against him, making a small sound of pleasure. "We both see the straining at Noah's spirit, little flower," he told her with infinite gentleness, "but we will trade our friendship with the King away if we spend it watching and waiting for him to self-destruct."
Isabella nodded gravely once and then reached for her husband's mouth with her own parting lips as she buried comforting fingers into the charcoal-and-chocolate hair sweeping over the nape of his strong neck.
"You are right," she sighed, kissing him tenderly again. "You are absolutely right."
The scent was sweet, like spun sugar that flew in threads through the air of a successful carnival. The innocence of it belied the overwhelmingly mature sensation of heat and pure animal hunger that washed over him. It was a craving he knew, and yet had never known its equal in depth. He was blinded by it, clenched tight as if his entire body were a single flexed muscle of awareness and anticipation.
She had fought him every step of the way. She always did. Sometimes he thought she did it just to vex him, but mostly he could sense her hostility was all a part of a power struggle she felt she needed to win, whatever the cost. He suspected she was too young a creature to be so jaded, yet it rang true in the antagonism with which his arrival was always greeted. This was the one thing he could be certain of, if nothing else besides her cotton candy scent and long, pristine white hair.
But she was meant for him, chosen by Destiny whether she wanted to be or not. All of this emotional static of resistance was eventually pushed aside as she was overwhelmed with other feelings that spoke to her soul, bypassing her learned behaviors and well-enforced mental barriers. He ruthlessly used this to his advantage, countermanding her enthusiasm for jockeying for power until she was made to realize that the Imprinting was a force which neither of them could ever hope to do battle against.
His fingers and hands curved around firm, feminine flesh that was of a supernatural texture. She felt like the petals of a flower, but so much silkier, so very much more vital. She exceeded the simplistic adjective "soft" in hundreds of ways. Yet there was no mistaking the strength beneath her silken skin. What would she do, he wondered, to make herself so strong? What would she look like when his sensual and emotional war on her forced the inevitable surrender?
He craved answers to all of this as he heard her breath, close and frustrated, rolling thick and slow over his nerves and skin like a mist-laden Louisiana breeze in high summer. He felt her hair, a heavy mass of whitewater silk that poured haphazardly over his too-hot skin in such a way that he felt bound by the tangle of it.
Hard as he tried, powerful as he could be, he could not see her face. He tried to ask her name, but was speechless. The paralysis of his vocal cords extended at times to every extremity. He could feel, but not touch. Then he could touch, but only hear her response. He could look and not truly see. There was nothing but the gleaming white blond of that endless hair. He gritted his teeth with unfathomable frustration, fighting the mystical binding that held his dominant will a prisoner.
All he wanted in the world was to see her face.
Noah woke with a jerk and a staggering intake of breath.
He sat up with the sudden violence of the freedom of reality, his long, strong fingers entwining around covers that were already tangled around his bare hips and legs. As he tried to feed himself with sharp intakes of oxygen, sweat skied down the aristocratic slope of his nose, beading and dripping off it, accompanying those skimming nearly every other surface on his skin. His dark hair was drenched. The pattering sound of the droplets coming off slightly curled ends and dropping onto stiff sheets was identical to that of rain on a rooftop.