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|Noah(Nightwalkers #5) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Noah took a deep breath and looked into his sister's tinsel eyes.
"Thank you," he said gratefully. "I have been behaving poorly…in many ways."
"I know it has been torturous for you these past couple of years since my departure. I had buffered your emotions during the Hallowed moons for so long, I was shocked to feel the release the first time after I was away during one and living with Gideon."
"You felt that? All the way in Russia?" Noah was shocked. He hadn't comprehended how sensitive Legna was.
"How could I not? It was so horrible for you." Legna shuddered with the memory. "It took me a while to realize that was why I kept having nightmares about you every holiday. Gideon helped me to figure it out."
"I see. I am sorry."
"No. Do not apologize for our bond with each other or you will upset me," she said sternly.
"Yes, madam," he said politely with a bow of his head and a laugh. "You are correct. It is not in need of an apology."
"But it is ended now," she added, her exhalation of relief profound. "She is everything that you need and more. Her power builds with great speed, astounding even Gideon. You will not have to fear for her safety for much longer. Though all you have seen is passive power, Gideon feels sure that on the near horizon she will rival you in ability. You must help her prepare for that." Again, that stern tone. "Let the rest flow naturally. All will be as Destiny decrees. You, my love, are just along for the ride. Pick the waves to surf, instead of creating them."
"You know," he said, throwing a brotherly arm across her shoulders and turning her toward the castle, "you are beginning to sound like a certain pompous Ancient I know. Perhaps this marriage was a poor idea after all."
"Noah!" Legna punched him in the ribs.
"Ouch." He pouted. "Is that any way to treat your King?"
"Yes, when he is being a jackass!"
Noah reached behind her head and lovingly pulled her hair.
Then he ran.
When Kestra entered the castle some time later, Noah was waiting at the door to greet her, a warmed blanket in his hands. He wrapped her up like a human burrito, drawing her in tight, adding his body temperature to aid against her violent shivering as he herded her directly toward the fireplace. He sat down, dragging her down ungently into his lap, a silent scowl on his face as he rubbed her arms and legs to encourage circulation.
His silence was a little unnerving, but she just sighed and snuggled into his warmth, her head on his shoulder and her cold nose pressed to his heated neck. She didn't have to read his mind to know he was probably pretty pissed off at her. She did give him credit for not scolding her like a child, though. Frankly, in spite of her effort to freeze out all of her troubling thoughts, she was still on overload and she just didn't know if she could've handled a scene at the moment. She felt as if she'd somehow failed him. After all, she'd promised him to be the steady one tonight, to help him through all the tumult of Samhain.
It was a hell of a way to pay him back after what he'd done to save her life.
She sighed. The heartfelt emotion behind it prompted him to cover her head with his hand, the heat and comfort of his palm bleeding into her. The added touches somehow ratcheted up the feeling of being protected and cared for. What she couldn't always understand was why it always felt so damned good. She closed her eyes and tried to fast-forward the moment, the entire relationship, five years into the future.
Where would this lead in five years?
Oh, hell. She was thinking in human terms still. She was immortal now.
That sort of gave her all the time in the world to screw up, fix it, and then try again. And she no longer had to worry about illness and being easily killed. Even in the face of a daunting enemy tonight, she had proven she was no easy target. With these Demon healers, the bounce-back rate was something else. Her senses were fired up to the max, and she was earning some wicked respect for the power she was developing as a Druid.
It was like being reborn. That, she realized, was how she'd been feeling these past few days. It was as if she'd been trapped for interminable ages in a chrysalis, and had just now figured out how to break free. She felt like a newborn butterfly. A kick-ass butterfly.
The fact that it all started and ended right here, in the arms of this man, was definitely in his favor. Noah made her feel beautiful and new, like she could risk shedding her protective shell. Not just physically. No. She'd been physically superior amongst humans for a very long time and she was used to that. Emotionally, she was navel lint. Or she had been.
That understanding made her heart pound, but this time she refused to push it away. Noah made her feel again. He made love to her and proved to her that she was capable of depths only he had imagined in her. He'd never once doubted it. Not even in dreams. He'd made it possible for her to accept easy touching and affection as if she'd been doing so all her life. The way they were sitting in cozy silence, for instance. She would never have accepted sitting in a man's lap. Enjoyed the stroke of sure fingers through her hair? The brief, brushing kisses across her forehead through her bangs? No. It was an act of submission and vulnerability to allow these things. This was how she had felt.
And before Noah she'd been all alone. Strong, independent, powerful, and safe. But alone. Wrapped in sadness, heartache, and scars from the past. This man had stripped that all away, making it raw again, but only in order to repair it. Cosmetic surgery of the heart.
So that tonight she'd taken pleasure in the idea that they'd argued fruitfully.
It was such a normal thing to think about. A normal concern for a woman trying to have a relationship with a man. Trying to have one. Making the effort toward, and not against. And then to realize that she was happy to be shedding the Kevlar she had spent so much time strapping around herself.
She suspected she was setting herself up for a world of hurt.
Kestra laughed softly, and she could tell by a random muscular twitch that it had gotten his attention. Yet he still sat quietly. Was he listening to her thoughts? She didn't think so. She'd gotten the impression from his questions and honest perplexity earlier that he was trying to give her the privacy she was used to. She also knew he wouldn't always be able to do that. Even without trying, she could hear the hum of his presence in her mind. She suspected that as the ability progressed, it would be rather like having two people in her head.
Great. Now she would be a schizophrenic. She'd always figured she'd end up mentally unstable one day.
She supposed she would just have to stop resisting and learn to get used to it. In spite of having grown up with an empath in the house, Kestra suspected that this was going to be a huge adjustment for Noah, too. In fact, she realized that she hadn't given much thought at all to the changes and sacrifices he'd be making in order to accommodate her. All they'd spoken of was the benefits of her presence.
"You have been living the life of a bachelor for more than six centuries," she said suddenly.
Noah sat quietly for several heartbeats, each of which she could feel against the tip of her nose as it pressed to his pulse in his neck. She knew he'd heard her because his hands closed a little tighter against her.
"More or less," he said at last, releasing his hold so she could look at him. His expression was quizzical. "Why do you mention it?"
"Just that you're used to a certain lifestyle, and I'd say after that much time, they are easily what you could call habits of a lifetime."
"You…" His gaze narrowed until all she could see was slashes of smoke between the slits. "Are you saying that I'm incapable of changing my ways to accommodate you?"
"I'm asking why you would want to," she countered.
Noah relaxed beneath her, and she tried not to giggle when she realized it was so terribly easy to read him.
"I think you have the wrong impression of what my life has been like," he said dryly. "You must understand that Demons are very close to their families. We almost never choose to live alone if we have other single family members or parents still living. The holy moons play a part in that, but a minor one. Mostly it is about home and hearth.
"That does not mean I did not strike out on my own for travel, decadence, and overt troublemaking in my time," he pointed out. "But I was given responsibility as King at a very young age, so I sped through that period of my life fairly early on."
"That's good to know," she said firmly, a sparkle of humor in her eyes giving her away.
He smiled crookedly, looking far too charming and far too capable of all kinds of dissolute behaviors she dared not give too much thought to.
"The point is," he continued, "after my parents died and I moved my court to England, Hannah and Legna lived with me. Until Hannah married about thirty years ago. And then it was just Legna and me until two and a half years ago. In truth, I have only had my…bachelor pad…to myself for the sum of two years." He cast a wry look around the grandeur of the castle that looked far more like Grand Central Terminal than it did a lair for seduction.
"And how do you like living alone?" she asked.
"I hate it. With all my heart. I do not even have the number of guests I once did. Elijah and Jacob used to stay here constantly before they became wed. The children come often. A plethora of nieces and nephews," he explained quickly when she arched up a brow. Unable to resist, he pulled the pert eyebrow under the press of his lips as he chuckled.
"I was wondering how you have managed to maintain a child-free existence for over six centuries," Kestra remarked. "Because I know you didn't practice celibacy."
He gave her a dry look that made her laugh.
"Hardly," he said. "Demons are actually very funny about the nature of childbearing. Old-fashioned, you might say. We believe it takes a village to raise a child, but it must start with a marriage. We rarely give birth out of wedlock. Our healers have methods of seeing to that by request. It is not illegal to give birth out of wedlock, and there is no scourge against it, but it is understood that when it comes to a child of power, it is best to bring him or her into a complete family. It provides the best balance and control."
"So your healers have a way of keeping the women from getting pregnant?"
"Actually, they do, but it often is the male who takes responsibility for these things."
"Seriously," he assured her. "Most Demon women do not need to practice birth control. Or they did not. There has been a change with cross-species relations now becoming acceptable. It is one thing to have fun with a Vampire or Lycanthrope, quite another to bear a child. Though I think everyone is still fairly prejudiced about these things. We were…" He frowned. "Well, I think racist is the best term for it. Elitist. And it holds over. A great many of the races are like that, and they would not sully themselves in an interspecies fling."
"But there are always the adventurous ones."
"Always," he assured her with a low chuckle. He looked into her eyes, brushing a finger through her bangs. "You are not going to ask me how many women I have been with, are you?"
Kestra burst out in a hard, shocked hoot. "Can you count that high?" she asked.
"Mmm…" He shook his head, the gleam in his eye nowhere near repentant.
"I didn't think so. Therefore, I won't be asking."
"Good." He gave a theatrical sigh of relief and she couldn't resist pulling his hair in punishment. "Ouch," he complained. She rolled her eyes.
"You have no shame," she accused.
"None whatsoever," he agreed. Then more seriously he added, "I have lived a long and full life, and I am not in the habit of looking back with regrets or second guesses about things I cannot change."
"I wouldn't expect you to. I'd rather focus on the here and now. I think I had a point to this conversation, but it got lost somewhere."
"I think you were disparaging my ability to give up my wicked ways."
"No. That wasn't it at all." She huffed out a sigh, sending her bangs fluttering. "I only meant to understand the changes you'd be forced to make now that…well…to accommodate…" She struggled to find a way of saying what she wanted to without attaching a presumptuous permanency to it.
"You," he said softly. "To accommodate you. To bring you into my life. To make you my mate."
Kestra's head dipped down and color flared over her cheeks until she was bright red. It was such an ingenuous reaction for such a jaded woman to have that Noah felt his heart swelling with his love for her. He wrapped his arms tightly around her and hugged her hard to his chest, almost as if he could make her feel it if he brought her close enough.
"It is okay to speak freely of my expectations, Kestra," he murmured gently to her, his lips against her blushing cheek as he did so. "I know what I want. I also know that speaking of the possibilities is not agreement or assent on your part. When you choose to stay with me, you will make yourself very clear."
"You're so arrogant." She laughed weakly.
"Hopeful. I am hopeful."
He lifted his head and then stood up with ease, keeping her in his arms the entire time. That was when she realized he hadn't ever really made a display of his strength, except in Sands's penthouse. The men she was used to took great pleasure in showing off. Living with Marines had been nothing but a constant exercise in testosterone. Noah kept his power understated. He knew he had nothing to prove. Just as she had nothing to prove to him.