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|Noah(Nightwalkers #5) by Jacquelyn Frank|
She laughed cordially when he did, coming to stand on the opposite side of the coffee table that sat before him. She looked quite refined in her simple silk dress with single-roped pearls around her throat. But as she braced her legs apart and cocked one hip ever so slightly, Sands could see the tight pull of well-honed muscle flexing up her calves and thighs. There was no mistaking what lay beneath the feminine glamour.
"Well, Ms. Irons, that's what you're here for, after all," he agreed affably.
Sands leaned forward to place a small box on the glass coffee table, using two fingers to slide it across to her. She waited until he sat back again before she reached down with a single fingertip to lift the cover of the box, revealing the money within it. She closed it immediately.
"You don't count?" Sands asked.
She glanced up at him from beneath lashes as white as her hair, her almost translucent blue eyes training on him.
"Do I need to?"
"Of course not."
"Why not?" she asked casually.
Sands laughed. "Are you kidding? Anyone who would try to cheat you would have to be insane."
"And that's why I never have to count," she rejoined, picking up the box and tucking it into her purse. She shouldered the leather accessory with ease, as if all it had within it was a comb and lipstick, not nearly a quarter million dollars in cash.
"We'll be calling you again," Sands said cordially.
"I would imagine so."
Sands stood up, wiped his palm on his kerchief, and extended the hand to her. Kestra merely smiled politely and kept both her hands on her purse strap.
Jim had always accused her of having a sixth sense so uncanny that it gave him the willies. The shiver that suddenly walked up her spine, resting with a sharp tingle at the base of her hairline as it was doing right now, had never failed to alert her that something wasn't quite right. She preferred to think of it as her subconscious putting together telltale clues that her conscious mind didn't take direct note of.
She lowered her thick white lashes until they all but obscured the blue diamond irises of her eyes. She glanced around the room yet again, as she had been doing since stepping into the unknown territory. This time she caught the slightest shadow of movement in the hallway behind Sands's back.
She sighed, long and regretfully, flicking open her icy eyes so she could give him a cold glare. "Whatever you're planning," she hissed chillingly, "let me warn you it isn't a good idea."
Then, without waiting for a reply, she swung out with her now heavily weighted purse and clocked Sands upside his head. He hadn't expected to be the one taken by surprise, so he fell like a dead tree in a winter forest.
Kestra popped out of her heels and made a mad dash across the room. Heading for the door would be a mistake, leaving her too open if the person in the hallway was armed, so she dove over the breakfast bar and into the kitchen where she would be out of his or her line of sight. Unfortunately, it put her far from the only exit from the penthouse.
She reached into her bag for her gun, dropping everything else as she cupped it in her hands and laid her finger over the trigger. All the clues to trouble were now in the forefront of her mind, making her curse herself for missing them at the outset. Sands's sweaty palms. His question about whether she would kill for money. He'd been nervous and feeling her out about how dangerous she might be. What he'd failed to take into account was that she didn't consider self-defense murder, and she wasn't above taking the life of anyone who threatened to do the same to her.
She glanced toward Sands as she eased into the kitchen entrance. He was bleeding heavily into the formerly pristine carpet, still out cold near her abandoned shoes. Her mind turned to the question of how many others were possibly hiding in the enormous suite. She didn't usually meet for payment in a private place, and now she recalled why that was a very good rule to adhere to. Also, she'd dismissed Jim from his usual duty of monitoring her safety from a nearby vehicle.
It wasn't the time for self-recriminations, however, so she put her bad choices aside and concentrated on getting out of the situation alive and preferably unwounded.
In reality, she was screwed, and she knew it.
A reality that set in a second later as the wall near her head exploded. She yelped as drywall was flung everywhere and in rapid succession as someone shot through it from the opposite side. All she could do was drop down to the floor as the wall shattered above her, raining plaster and, after a bullet struck a pipe fitting, water down onto her. She had no choice but to get out of range, crawling back into the living room area quickly.
She barely had both knees on the carpeting before a huge hand grabbed her by her braid and jerked her hard to her feet.
As was often the case in these situations, she never had a chance to figure out why she was being targeted.
She felt the burn of a hot gun muzzle against her temple just before she was shot through the head.
One Week Later
The next week, Corrine opened the door after a very gentle tapping called her attention to it. She peeked cautiously around the door, her mouth opening into a surprised O when she saw Noah. Draped slackly over the Demon King's chest and shoulder was Corrine's decidedly comatose niece.
"What do you do, suck the energy out of her?" Corrine accused in a heated whisper. "I can never get her to sleep like that!"
"I hope she will not interfere," Noah whispered back over the raven dark curls that were such a clear combination of both her parents' traits. "I got roped into emergency babysitting."
"Because I had to turn them down." Corrine giggled. "Don't you ever say no to them?"
"Why would I want to?" he asked with a shrug of the shoulder that wasn't occupied by Leah's head.
"Good point. It should be okay, seeing as how she's asleep. Let's tuck her in. I take it you haven't been able to find Kestra through physical searching yet?"
"No, not yet. Besides her name, her hair color, and the fact that she spoke what I think was American English, there is not much else to go on."
"Well, we'll take care of that tonight."
The Demon King hesitated as she turned back to look at him expectantly.
"I have not dreamed of her in almost a week."
"Noah," she chided softly, moving to cover his hand warmly where it rested on her niece's back. "Stop worrying. The closer you get to her, the less you'll need to dream of her for contact."
"Are you sure? It feels…I feel like everything about me has suddenly gone vacant. The dreams were driving me mad, but suddenly I find myself wishing I had never complained about that."
"Relax. Put the baby on the couch and come to my sanctum. Let's start the ritual and put your mind at ease."
They were having difficulty this time when, in Corrine's limited practice before then, it should have been easier. The seeking Druid was sweating from the heat of all the flame around her, not to mention the heat Noah was giving off due to his deep concentration. As he focused singularly on the search for Kestra, it took away from the sense he used to regulate such power overflows. Tonight, the as-yet unborn Druid named Kestra seemed farther than mere miles could measure as they meditated and pushed out with their combined power to locate her. Corrine was driven by her fear of failure. She couldn't be unsuccessful for the first time with, of all people, the Demon King.
True, whoever Kestra was, she had great potential for enormous power. There was little question. Even Corrine's experience, slight as it was, had shown her that power attracted power. It was genetics that linked Demon and Druid, when it came down to it, and it was only reasonable that a powerful man like Noah would mesh with an equally suitable partner, one of unfathomable scope of talent, once his real touch "switched" her Druidic abilities on.
Remembering how Kestra had fought with enormous strength of will and fear-driven determination, Corrine was positive that it was the Druid herself who was shunting them away. Though she might not have conscious control over her latent powers, her subconscious might well be tapping in to them in a classic "fight or flight" push. It was clear from the last encounter that Kestra was very wary of Noah. It didn't matter that she didn't know his name or face. The untried Druid still must be feeling the fact that Noah was more than a dream, right down to the core of every feminine instinct she possessed. If not, why would she have been so hostile and defensive?
Corrine had avoided touching Noah this time, knowing how uncomfortable he had been when he'd found himself kissing another Demon's mate. It was an affront to his deeply embedded sense of honor, no matter how much she explained to him that it wasn't she who had been on the receiving end of the kiss, for all her physicality in the exchange. Her soul had remained untouched. If it hadn't, Kane would never have stood for it. Neither would she. But now she was afraid that these foibles and acts of decorum were interfering with what they needed to do to succeed. And because she refused to fail at anything ever again when it came to her Druidic abilities, she pushed protocol and permission aside and reached for Noah.
He started violently when her hands, chilled and damp in spite of the heat all around them, cradled the contours of his face. His eyes opened as hers did, and she leaned over the fire between them so that their foreheads touched and her eyes bored deeply into his.
Suddenly the scent of spun sugar exploded into the air, drowning out every herb and tendril of smoke. That central focus of scent lasted for a moment, then whorled around to include others. Scents of the place where she was at that very moment. And that was what they wanted. They wanted to know where to find her. Noah was desperate to find her. Corrine was desperate to give him this wish.
Corrine and Noah started as the little voice came out of nowhere and everywhere at once. Their heads snapped to look at the doorway, where Leah still clung to the impossible achievement of turning the doorknob to have access to her aunt Corrine and her "unc No."
The disruption of their concentration burst into the room like a supernova, a tangible blast of energy that spewed fire and the scent of cotton candy. Corrine screamed, throwing up her hands as flame blasted in her direction.
The flame passed harmlessly through her and Noah both, but hot on its heated heels came the sensation of being torn apart at the molecular level. There was a spectacular rending, tearing through them with agonizing, contorting pain.
Silence and darkness.
The wail of a child penetrated Noah's mind, triggering the autonomic response to draw a breath. He gasped, coughed violently, and struggled to rapidly stagger to his feet. His eyes were burning. From what, he couldn't fathom. He instinctively reached toward the cry of the Enforcers' child, dragging Leah to himself as his balance failed and he fell back down to a single knee. Blindly, he ran hands over the warm little body of his charge, all the while forcing himself to breathe in a semblance of a regular rhythm. He felt Leah's pajamas were intact, as were her hair and lashes, both of which would've been damaged if the inexplicable flames he'd seen billowing into the room had singed or burned her.
He was grateful to realize she was more frightened than anything else, and he cuddled her closely, shushing and swaying with her as he tried to rub clarity into his burning eyes. He was impervious to fire, so he couldn't understand why he felt as if he'd been burned. He would never have thought that the ritual to find his mate would in any way be capable of causing harm to anyone. It was inconceivable. He was still struggling with denial and unanswered questions as he groped into the smears of light and dark in search of Corrine.
"Hush, Leah, you're safe," he rasped soothingly to the child, somehow managing to sound far more convincing than he felt. Suddenly his hand hit silky soft curls, his fingers weaving into the red strands that came into focus as he leaned closer to them. Everything seemed so loud, hurting his ears. Everything smelled so harsh and tasted so bitter. But it all seemed to calm down just a little when he finally touched the cool, clammy skin of Corrine's face.
He heard her cough, and she jerked beneath his touch.
"It is all right," he reassured her as she rasped and gagged for breath. He blindly pulled her against him, instinctively bringing both females into the circle of his safeguard. He might be sightless and disoriented, but he'd be damned if he was going to let either one of them move a millimeter away from his protection.
Noah turned his face to the right when he abruptly realized something very important.
There was no mistaking the sensation of sunlight. Especially after being taxed by whatever ordeal it was that they had just been churned through, there could be no other cause for the unmistakable lethargy that meant pure sunlight was shining down on them.
"It is dusk," he argued out loud. "It is night!"
Corrine went rigid against him as she realized why he was in conflict over that point.
"We're still indoors," she said with a whisper, her hands brushing over the floor beneath her knees. She recognized by touch bits of the things belonging to her sanctum, until she swept her fingers to the left toward Noah and touched carpeting that was unmistakably deep with pile.
The floor to the sanctum beneath the pillows was only bare, polished wood.
Noah couldn't remain on his knees a moment longer. He hauled both of his charges up with him as he gained his feet, bracing his legs apart. He closed his eyes to discontinue the reflexive need to visually identify his surroundings. He took a deep, cleansing breath and reached for the power that centered everything that he was. It cast out of him like a net, a wholly different sensory network that blanketed the entire area. He sensed the pure energy of the sunlight, the life forces of a few animals and a dense population of humans.