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|Noah(Nightwalkers #5) by Jacquelyn Frank|
As he gathered his bearings, the Demon King brought the sheet up to his face to swipe at the moisture that nearly blinded him. That was when he realized the fabric was scorched stiff, as if someone had left an iron on it for too long.
And that, in spite of its burnt state, it still carried the scent of sweetly spun sugar.
Corrine looked up when she heard the polite knock on the front door of the home she shared with her husband, Kane. Her russet brows drew together and she tilted her head. She put aside the book she had been reading, uncrossed her long, slim legs, and stood up slowly.
It was unusual for the people she associated with to bother with such a commonplace courtesy as knocking. The Demon society her husband came from didn't have the same sense of privacy that humans did. Considering that her husband's friends and family were just about the only people she associated with nowadays, the knock was more than just perplexing.
It was worrisome.
There was danger that came under such guises. Things that seemed terribly ordinary, yet were out of the ordinary, sometimes heralded equally unique hazards.
The Demons were currently, as they had been upon occasion in the past, at odds with a sect of misguided humans who hunted them using deadly force and black magics. These humans had taken it upon themselves to rid the world of all the Nightwalker races. Vampire, Lycanthrope, Demon, and Shadowdweller…they would probably even hunt down the gentle, delicate Mistrals as well if they only knew about them. All that seemed to matter to these types was that these races had power that they did not.
And fear always led to prejudiced actions. Being formerly human herself, Corrine understood very well the cruel, brutal things human beings tended to do when faced with things of great differences that they didn't understand. To make the situation far worse, about two years ago a very powerful Demon female named Ruth had taken leave of her morals and senses and had joined ranks with these self-appointed butchers. She had provided them with information that had led to the increased vulnerability of the Demon race. Ruth had held nothing back, especially since the death of her beloved daughter, which she blamed on Noah and those highest in power.
Corrine shuddered with the chill that crossed her soul as she recalled the attack on her own sister Isabella, which had almost killed her and the unborn child she had carried at the time. Corrine herself had fallen victim to these forces once already, snatched from under her very own roof. Coupled with some of the gruesome reports Kane had discussed with her, it was clear that no one would be truly safe until Ruth and her companions were all neutralized.
Ruth's revenges had too often begun with a simple knock on the door. Kane was constantly warning her to think carefully before she moved anywhere outside the circle of his protection. Now, though he was always close to her in spirit and could always use his power as a Mind Demon to teleport to her side in a heartbeat should she need him, she still felt enormous trepidation when she realized she was pretty much alone and facing the unknown.
The faint call sent a wash of relief through her, forcing an involuntary sigh to escape her. She moved hurriedly toward the door after hearing the familiarity in the voice coming from the other side. She yanked open the portal, smiling when the promise of the voice was fulfilled with the handsome visage of the Demon King. Her welcoming expression warred with the urge to scold him for giving her such a clear case of the heebie-jeebies.
Noah smiled at the slender redhead, noting that, as usual, she was mostly composed of a riot of abundant coils of hair. She was taller than her sister Isabella, more willowy and leggier than his little Enforcer's decidedly compact and curvaceous figure. In fact, if it were not for their attitudes and Bronx accents, Noah felt there would be nothing to suggest they were at all related.
Noah did take note of the relief on her face, however, and felt the kinetic energy of her residual fear like a tepid breeze. It was then that he realized he had given her a scare, and he kicked himself for not giving his actions more thought.
"I am sorry," he said softly to her, reaching for the hand that gripped the door frame, taking it warmly between both of his after prying it free. "Did I frighten you?"
"Scared the daylights out of me, is more like it," she declared, her Bronx enunciation heavier than usual due to her ruffled calm. "Since when do Demons knock?"
"Since Druids who are part human with very human foibles started joining our ranks," he rejoined, chuckling under his breath as he placed a soothing, chivalrous kiss on the back of the hand he cradled. "I am trying to set an appropriate example."
"Your efforts are appreciated," Corrine commended him, blowing a coil of her hair off her face with exasperation, "but next time, warn me before you make attempts at non-Demon behaviors. I had visions of pissed-off magic-users about to bounce me into the ground. Or worse."
She finally relinquished her fear, stepping into his offer of peaceful affection, hugging him with warm, familiar welcome. He put soothing energy and tenderness into the embrace, pushing it into her until he sensed her heartbeat slowing down from its frightened flutter. He had come to seek solace, to free himself of a torture that had gone on too long already. He hadn't come to thoughtlessly frighten her to death.
"You are looking well," he said, almost at the same time she was thinking that he wasn't looking quite like himself.
Even under the worst duress and circumstances, Noah would always look as powerful as he was. As a Demon of Fire, his energy resources were virtually unlimited. He could borrow from the energy or life force of anything that lived or sparked in order to revitalize himself. Corrine suspected that, were it not for the lethargic compulsion of the sun that all Demons fell under, Noah would not even need to sleep to replenish used resources of the day.
But it was no secret to Corrine, or anyone else who had even the slightest familiarity with the Demon King's usual easygoing nature, that Noah looked more than a little tense around his edges.
"So," Corrine said, this time infinitely more relaxed as she did so, "what brings you to our little corner of the world?"
"Oh, just visiting," the King said lightly, linking his hands behind his back as she stepped back to allow him access into her home. "Kane is not here," he noted.
"No. He's visiting Jacob at the moment."
She watched the King's smile automatically grow wider at the mention of her brother-in-law's name. Corrine thought, with no little amusement, that the King's fondness for Jacob was obvious. Unlike humans, Demons weren't constricted by the confusing rituals that preceded the revelation of one person's feelings for another. In fact, it was safe to say that they wore their hearts on their sleeves, embroidered in wild red, with indicator signs flashing in neon that said point-blank the value one person had within the heart of another.
It was one of those things in their complex culture that she'd come to appreciate and enjoy. Still, Corrine was amused by the way Noah made his favoritism for Jacob so evident. But she understood that Noah and Jacob had a very special sort of friendship, one that could only be formed between two men of outstanding and distinct power.
However, she was puzzled as to why Noah had dropped by her home. Though her sister and brother-in-law were extremely close to Noah, his affection didn't naturally extend just by familial association. To say she and Kane were special friends with the King would have been an exaggeration. Oh, they were as welcome and loved by Noah as any other member of Demon society, but it was rare for the monarch to single them out without there being a purpose behind it.
So Corrine watched him with no little curiosity as he wandered into their comfortable home and looked it over with interest. He'd been there once before, though not in a circumstance that would have allowed him to take much note of the decor or the warm, feminine trinkets that Corrine had added to it. Still, you didn't rush a King to reveal his business, and for the moment Corrine was content to simply visit with him and let him come to it in his own time.
"Why are you not visiting your sister while Kane visits with Jacob?" the King asked conversationally, his rich accent a denser, older version of her husband's. Noah was more than a half millennium older than Kane was. Kane's verbal affectations had come from being raised around the inflected English-Jacob's inflected English, to be exact. Like Jacob's, Noah's elegantly distorted English had come from the Ancient Demon language itself, learned long before English had fallen from his tongue.
"I see her often enough," she assured him, leaning casually into the archway that led into the living area Noah was inspecting with singular fascination. "I'm actually taking a day off from watching my rather rambunctious niece. Leah is going through the Demon/Druid version of the terrible twos, and believe me when I tell you, I deserve some time to myself. Especially with Samhain not too far around the corner. Once your Enforcers get busy Enforcing, I'll be babysitting quite a bit."
"Indeed," Noah agreed, his tone a little more grave, whether he was aware of it or not. "And I believe Leah is a Demon. Although she is part human and part Druid when you see her lineage in her parents, their children…that is, any children born of Demons and Druids can only be one or the other. It is why the races were able to remain separate for generation upon generation. Of course, we cannot know for sure until she comes into power as a Demon does or remains dormant as a Druid does…but the Prophecy speaks of Leah as a new breed of Demon-" Noah cut himself off, drawing even more of Corrine's curiosity as he fidgeted with a small statuette in a manner that was very much out of character for the unflappable King. "Your sister will be busy these next nights. I had wondered who she would entrust Leah's care to, considering that Demons can never be fully trusted around Samhain and-"
He broke off again, wrestling with intense private thoughts. Of course Corrine was quite familiar with the drawbacks that came with Demon holy days like Samhain and the phases of the moon around them. Just as she was familiar with the benefits of them.
It had been a full Samhain moon that had brought her and Kane together, giving her a blissful new life filled with passion and love. However, it had come very close to completely destroying her in the process. Corrine could appreciate Noah's trepidation. Also, the King wasn't married, or mated as the Demons called it, and that made it all the harder for him. Corrine hadn't noticed any signs of Noah losing control, but it wasn't exactly her area of expertise. What she could see was his disturbance of the moment.
Noah's restraint was legendary and unparalleled, and his nature was consistently serene. It was only ruffled when his family came under threat. Even a threat to his society as a whole couldn't disturb him to the depth that a threat to those dear to him could. So to see him disturbed in any way incited concern as well as curiosity.
Despite the soft warning in the back of her mind, Corrine threw patience and protocol aside with a sigh. "Noah, is there something I can help you with?"
Noah looked up from his distant study of the figurine, his jade eyes with their clouds of gray meeting hers in that way that only someone of royalty or great position seemed able to manage. Noah wasn't a cruel or overtly strict monarch, but he was a man used to the privileges that came with his position, a position he'd earned the hard way. Demons selected their royal leader on merit alone, not entirely because of lineage or fortune of birth.
"Come on," she coaxed the King gently, advancing into the room and purposely putting the warmth of her body into the influence of his personal space. It was a trick she'd learned from Kane. The best way to soothe the sometimes volatile temper of a Fire Demon, he'd told her, was to bring the warmth of her energy and its good intentions so close to them that it had a soothing effect. "I'm aware you care for me and Kane as much as anyone else, but you're not in the habit of dropping in just to shoot the breeze. You love my sister like that, not me."
Noah looked down at his feet and chuckled softly, a short sound followed by a rueful shake of his head. "You shame me," he said quietly. "I never realized I played favorites so obviously."
"Frankly, I prefer to be ill-favored," she teased him with a pretty, flirtatious smile. "When you love someone, Noah, you elevate them to remarkable status in your circle of advisers or in your army of defenders. By all means, Noah, love my sister and leave me the hell alone!"
Finally, Noah truly laughed. He threw back his head, the reddish highlights within the ebony fall of gently curling hair gleaming sharply in the muted gaslight that lit the room. The sound of his laughter was infectious, and it made Corrine laugh with him. It also eased her to hear it, to see him relieving himself of the seriousness of whatever it was that was on his mind.
"You know something, you may have just thwarted your own effort, Corrine. Until now, I do not think I have truly appreciated the warmth of spirit and heart that runs through your family. I have credited one sister, while overlooking the other. For that, I beg your forgiveness." He gave her a smart, cordial bow, and she stepped back from him with a chuckle.
"Damn it, if you make me a Council member or something, Kane is going to freak out," she joked.
"Sorry. Only Elders are allowed on the Great Council."
"Then explain my sister!" she demanded, reminding him that Isabella was barely thirty years old, not the requisite minimum of three hundred.
"Well, that is different. She is an Enforcer."
"Yes, yes." Corrine waved that off the way only an older sister could wave off a younger sister's accomplishments. "Don't make me accuse you of trying to change the subject again, Noah."