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|Noah(Nightwalkers #5) by Jacquelyn Frank|
She had thought he would never accept her as a woman of strength unless she proved it as she had been doing all her life. But she realized now that Noah had spent his entire existence around women of awesome power who were all treated as formidable equals. When he had tried to protect her, it was because he'd known she was out of her league.
Kes sighed as he walked away from the fireplace and began to climb the stairs with her. She was running out of arguments against him. She was running out of reasons why she shouldn't be with him. She couldn't conjure a single excuse for why this relationship couldn't work as it traveled into the future.
And that was perhaps the most frightening precipice she'd ever stood on.
Jasmine paced and cursed, cursed and paced, her temper having cleared out remaining partygoers long ago. The citadel echoed with her booted footsteps and her swearing fury. She was a raven-haired virago, her dark brown eyes flaming with red-limned rage.
She would never forgive herself for this.
She should never have allowed Noah to talk her into staying in Demon territory. Who besides Damien and herself would have been suited to fight these Vampire brigands? The Demons had done well enough, but at such a price! Too late. Too late to save him.
She heard a familiar footstep on the stone stairs and she raised distressed eyes to Damien. He held out an arm and beckoned her forward. Without thinking of the vulnerability it showed, she flung herself against him, allowing him to draw her into his embrace. He silently soothed her, as she would only ever have allowed him to do, sharing grief with her of his own. He had lost too much tonight, and he had felt it keenly. Felt it still. Would feel it far into the future.
Because tonight he had failed to protect his own, and come the morrow the entire Vampire society would be made aware of it. The weakness would shatter centuries of respect and properly discouraged ambition. The safety of his citadel would be in question for decades to come, if not forevermore. They would think him weak or infirm, consider him incapable of leading properly. They would see him as sharks would the scarlet cloud of blood upon the water. Those who would never have thought to challenge him before this now would.
For the throne of the Vampire monarchy was won by merit of combat alone. Only his death would force his abdication. And while he had always faced all comers and challengers in the past with easy success, there had never been any great number of them. Not since he had torn through a third of the Vampire population, all of whom were stupid enough to show up in high form on his doorstep during the first three centuries of his reign. After that, they had wisely given up and set about repopulating their ranks.
Now, between the issues with Syreena, the loss of control of the rogues, and the deaths of Stephan and three other highly valued and powerful members of the Vanguard, Damien wondered if they weren't right to doubt him. Feeling suddenly defeated, the Vampire Prince let his legs fold and he sat down hard upon the stairs, dragging Jasmine down to her knees between his legs as they held each other tightly.
He was the only one she would ever have allowed this close to her. They had loved one another since she'd been but a girl and he'd first taken her under his wing. Now she was the second most powerful Vampire in all the world, if not the second oldest, and the only one he would ever honestly fear losing to in a battle if it ever came to it. Simply because his heart could never sustain the level of betrayal it would take for her to ever challenge him.
No. Her loyalties were sound, for all her blustering and bitching about Syreena. With her by his side, he need never worry about his throne. She and he could face anything thrown at them.
Had it been a year earlier.
Had he not had others to worry about now besides the two of them and all of Vampire society.
Damien glanced up at the stone ceiling, as if he could see all the way through it to his bedchamber and his bride within it. She was asleep now, healing quickly, settled under the care of the Monk Siena had sent to aid her. The Queen of the Lycanthropes and her Consort, the Demon Elijah, were also ensconced upstairs in a guest chamber, having come as soon as they'd heard of the attack upon their relation.
These were his family now. And they meant far more to him than a society of vagabond Nightwalkers who didn't have enough sense between themselves to be cautious and respectful of the opportunity he'd tried to give them by opening up the possibility of marriage, love, and true mates to them. They were so inured in their fickleness and debauchery that they couldn't see it all for the gift it was.
To be fair, though, neither could they really feel enough to care. As a whole, his society was pained and bored, jaded beyond words and hurting without understanding why. They didn't understand that they were lost, and that if only they would show patience and wisdom, he would try to help them find themselves again…as he had found himself. Even Jasmine, the stubborn daughter of his heart, if not his blood, had fought him tooth and nail all of this time even though she was loyal to him. In truth, she was afraid that his depth of love for Syreena would eventually preclude her from his life. She was afraid that if she listened to the lure of it too closely she would be charmed into thinking she had need of another herself. Jasmine was soft at heart, for all her quills. She, more than any of them, had been sensitive all of her years, falling into melancholy and torpor again and again because she couldn't bear the loneliness of the aboveground world.
But she had buried it all under anger, backbone, and an attitude tougher to scale than the Himalayas. Now one of her two best friends was gone, presumed dead judging by the amount of blood they had found with his scent on it. The psychic resonance of violence and death had reeked from the clearing Stephan had been destroyed in. Damien and Jasmine could still hear the warrior's death screams emanating from the earth and air, from his very blood. Vampires in a victorious bloodlust were capable of any number of depravities, so only the Goddess knew what the sick bastards who murdered him had done with the body.
Now all Damien and his loved ones could do was grieve together.
And wait to see what came with the new dusk.
Kestra was filthy after her ordeals of the evening, having been a receptacle for blood, mud, and bark and who knew what else, so Noah didn't have to read her mind on the matter of a bath. He settled her on the edge of the tub while it filled with hot water. It was large and square and snuggled into a corner that included a bench in an alcove of stained glass and decorative stone and marble.
"This is the famed bathtub you've bragged about?" she teased him with her best bored tone and an exaggerated rolling of her eyes.
Noah turned from his task of adding a strongly scented oil mixture into the water. His eyes flashed with amusement and he raised a brow at her.
"It's not all that impressive. No Jacuzzi," she pointed out.
"No electricity. Nor will you find technology in a Demon household, as you discovered earlier. They do not agree with our biochemistry."
"Yes, well, they agree with mine." She pouted, pushing out her bottom lip and tempting him with its sexy fullness.
Noah moved to stand before her, then lowered into a crouch. He used a single fingertip on her knee for contact. "I am afraid this is something else that will change for you. Of course, there is electricity in the village, so if you miss anything too terribly you are welcome to seek it there. I could arrange for you to have a little cabin so you can hide from our primitive ways. You can have cable, hair dryers, and even high-speed computer connections."
"Is that so?" She looked duly surprised.
"Yes. Tech may not agree with us, but it is necessary in this day and age. I have human associates who are situated in the village who work for me in this fashion."
"Do they know who…what you are?"
"One or two. Longtime family friends. Heirs of longtime family friends. I need others to work full-time to manage my wealth as I have more pressing matters to attend to. Sometimes it is a matter of information I need. I would be a poor leader if I allowed myself to be ignorant of the times around me, even though those times do not always agree with parts of me."
"Yes. I can understand that. And no, I don't need electricity. I was a Marine, if you recall, and this"-she flipped a hand to indicate the luxury of the bathroom-"is hardly roughing it."
"Hardly," he agreed with a chuckle.
"And I am happy to know I can access the Net and online trading from the village. Or anything else like it. All in all, I'd say you have a pretty comfortable arrangement going on around here." She glanced away from him, fidgeting with a tatter on her dress a little. "I can't find too many complaints about the possibility of living here."
Noah felt his heart take a huge leap upward into his throat. It was the closest she'd come to telling him she wanted to stay. Oh, he was certain she already understood she needed to stay, but this was her way of making it her own choice. And she was choosing him. He could hardly breathe with the sudden surge of excitement that ran through him. He felt like a kid let loose in a candy shop. It took all of his effort and skill at moderating his expression so that when she looked up he wouldn't scare the hell out of her.
Her eyes met his, searching him for a response. He was far too happy to conceal everything he was feeling, so she could see the pleasure in his eyes and knew he understood the point of her comment. His hand closed warmly over her knee, his palm moving in a gentle stroke up her thigh, gingerly brushing over bruises and half-healed lacerations.
"We should get you in this bath," he said gently. "The oil is an herbal mixture Jacob made up for me. It is fairly strong, I warn you, but it will relieve your sore muscles and skin. It will also help you to sleep."
He reached for her torn dress, his fingers curling around what remained of the hem. Her hands immediately lowered to cover his, staying his actions.
"Noah," she said softly.
He smiled a little crookedly and looked into her troubled gaze. "Surely we have gotten over the shyness stage of our relationship," he admonished teasingly.
"No." She shook her head and smiled when he arched a brow. "I mean, yes. Yes, we're over the shyness stage. I only meant…" She released one of his hands so she could thread her fingers through a long, waving curl of his hair, sliding them down the soft length of it. Her voice was hoarse as she boldly explained her meaning. "I don't want to sleep, Noah. It's Samhain, and I don't want to sleep."
Noah dropped forward onto his knees, his balance completely lost as his head swam with heat and meaning. He couldn't speak, could barely swallow, as the sensation spread throughout his body. He shook his head, trying to refocus himself, the effort tremendous because she so easily aroused him. He reached up to push back her tangled hair, little bits of dead leaves fluttering free of it as he did so.
"Kes…no," he said quietly, pulling her to him so he could press a fervent kiss to her temple. "You have been through enough. It is time for you to rest now."
She smiled, the expression whimsical. Kestra turned her face against him, taking a deep breath as she nuzzled first his neck, then his coarse cheek, letting the shadow of his jaw scrape over her face. She ended the caress with the brush of her lips over his ear, and she felt him shudder.
"Noble as that sentiment may be," she whispered, then, deliberately and slowly, "Baby," she continued, feeling his sharp intake of breath right to her satisfied soul, "I need you. I need you to make love to me tonight."
Noah made a low sound in his throat, a noise of masculine agony that only a severe battle of conscience could create. But Kestra felt his hand flatten out against her thigh, curving almost helplessly over her hip as he pulled her down onto his thighs. She pushed off with her feet, hitching herself higher than he intended, clutching his hips with her thighs, snuggling herself flush to his belly and chest. She wound her arms around his neck and hugged him warmly. His arms, tense and powerful, banded around her and dragged her more tightly into the embrace.
Kestra then framed his face with her hands and pulled him to her mouth. She had barely parted her lips against his when his hand cradled her head and he cast their weight to the side, rolling over until she was beneath his heated body and accepting the sudden and thorough aggression of his kiss. His tongue sought hers in an explosion of deep, velvety strokes, his need voluble in a chained groan. His hold kept her head and shoulders off the cold marble of the hard floor, but it allowed for a brace behind her hips that settled him perfectly against her. Her heat bled through his clothing quickly, and he was instantly reminded of his earlier intentions on his desk, and the fact that she wore nothing but the threads of the dress.
Kestra felt his reaction. She felt him hardening and swelling against her, the rampant burn of heat flaring in answer to his uncontrollable need for her. She liked knowing he couldn't control his need for her.
No sooner was the thought in her mind than he was launching himself back away from her, gasping deeply for a much-needed breath as he rose on his knees, half dragging her with him because she clung so tightly to him.
"No! Kes, no…" He groaned when she followed him, covering his mouth again for a brief instant before he cradled her face with his hands and pulled her away. "Please," he begged hoarsely, "please do not make me choose between honor and need, baby. Please…"
The request was so pained that it bought him her complete attention, as well as a respite from her aggression. He closed his eyes for a moment in a bid for inner and outer control. Then he forced himself to look at her, taking in her bruises and wounds and her soiled body. It gave him the anchoring he sought, as he knew it would. He stood abruptly, grabbing her hands and pulling her to her feet. He stepped to turn off the bathwater, then straightened to run both hands through his hair before turning back to look at her with a long exhalation.