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|Noah(Nightwalkers #5) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Forgotten now. By them both.
She didn't kid herself into thinking his current agony was an attack of conscience over that matter, either. No. Noah had borne his pain in silence, accepting her cruelty as his due, and would never have imposed himself on her. He would have waited until she could find it within herself to forgive him. He wouldn't have caused her the heartache of begging for her forgiveness if she wasn't ready to hear it. It would have gone against Noah's powerful sense of honor.
After a few moments, Noah quieted. Bella bracketed his face with her hands and tilted his face up to hers, using her fingertips to sweep away the tracks of his tears. He showed no shame for his emotion, even when she pressed a sympathetic kiss to his cheek.
"Come with me," she urged, taking his hands and guiding him to his feet. She led him down to the first floor and they settled on the couch, next to each other so she could clasp one of his hands between her small palms.
"Are you well?" he asked, his rough voice so subdued that she felt a fresh pang of empathetic pain blossoming in her chest.
"Yes. I am well," she assured him.
"I did not have the chance to thank you for coming to Kestra's aid."
The way he spoke her name was like a hammer to the back of her head. Here, she thought, is the reason for his pain. Kestra. His mate.
"I would've done as much for any of us. But I was grateful to be of service to you, Noah."
Her sincerity, coupled with the squeeze of her hands, made him swallow hard as he met her violet gaze and the open forgiveness that radiated from her. "Bella," he began hoarsely, "I never meant…I never wanted to…"
"Shh. I know. We don't need to speak of it, Noah. I, of all people, understand the duress you were under. I, of all people, appreciate the impetus of the Imprinting and the things we will do to see it through. I've come to realize that Leah was able to do what she did, young as she is, because she loves you so much she wanted to give you what you so strongly desired. How could I deny my daughter's right to give you such a gift?"
"Gift." His world of anguish was wrapped up in the word. "A gift I feel compelled to squander at every turn. I will destroy this. I will lose this precious moment because I cannot bear to be patient." He clenched his jaw tightly shut, dragging his hand from her grasp so he could comb the fingers of both hands through his hair. "I waited patiently for three hundred years for the end to the Lycanthrope war. A century for the Vampires to come to their senses before that. I have lived to the tempo of a methodical drum of peace as Shadowdwellers, Mistrals, and all Nightwalkers slowly came to the table. Ages of diplomacy and understanding, and yet I cannot bear out a week for the woman who will bring meaning to the rest of my existence.
"Bella, she is so afraid of getting close to anyone that even a hint of emotion on her part or mine sends her into a tailspin. Logically, knowing how she was damaged into being this way, I comprehend why this is an obstacle for her and why I must proceed with care. But-"
"But your heart wants to shout from the rooftops? Logic be damned?"
He sighed heavily, not at all surprised that the insightful Enforcer already grasped his situation.
"I left her. I…I could not bear to stay, but leaving her was so wrong. So very wrong. I have never treated a woman in such a manner in all my life. I cannot think straight when I am with her!" His hands opened and closed into convulsive fists. "I am unused to holding back my emotions, Isabella. I come to you because you are my only bridge between the Demon and human cultures. The only one I truly trust to understand how important this is to me. Legna advises, but I am not certain she sees the truth because she loves me and is biased. At least you love me less more recently," he said wryly. "Perhaps enough to be practical and honest. Hopefully wise enough to guide me."
"Gee whiz, you sure don't ask much of a girl, do you?" she said with dry wit. He actually laughed softly at that. She reached to cover one of his fisted hands. "Noah, I've only one piece of advice for you. It's the only one anyone with sense should be giving you."
He looked up, taking a deep breath in preparation.
"I know very little about Kestra, and only spoke to her briefly today, but she is a reasonable and intelligent woman. When dealing with reasonable and intelligent women, there is only one thing you need to do." She smiled softly. "Be who you are. Be you, Noah. Stop hesitating, hemming, and hedging. That isn't who you are. You thrive in your confidence, just as you flourish when you share your emotions freely with those who matter most to you. She will never know who you are if you keep drawing up, reining in. She is afraid? She fears? And you fear she will run?" He nodded, eyes wide and expression intent. "Let her. The world is only so big, and she is only so strong. No one faced with your love can help but return it. She will come around. But she must come around to you, as you are. For who you are. Every stitch and every flaw."
"I feel as though I am being told the same thing from different quarters, but I am not getting the message," he said with a wry shake of his head.
"Because you're letting your fears rule you. And I understand that. Love is a frightening thing. Facing losing the object you love is damned terrifying. But…nothing ventured, nothing gained. Noah," she said, leaning in, "you're a beautiful man who has had to face a very difficult chain of events all at once. You aren't the first to quail under such circumstances, and you will not be the last. Samhain is passing, the worst part over. You will begin to feel more grounded soon. However, if she can bear up when you're at your worst, imagine how easy it will be from here on out. Stop coddling her. She's made of some pretty stern stuff, from what I saw. Be what you are meant to be, forthright and Demon and King, and then sit back and breathe."
Noah sat back and took a deep breath.
Exhaustion got the better of Kestra and she'd fallen into a deeply troubled sleep by the time Noah returned to the castle. He found her in the Great Hall, curled up in front of the fire in his favorite chair, her face looking tight with confusion and hurt even in sleep. He cursed himself for that, disgusted with his lack of emotional control and how it had allowed him to injure her. It wasn't right to punish her for her shortcomings. She'd suffered enough punishment at the hands of men. More than enough.
Yet Isabella was right. He couldn't tiptoe around her anymore. She would panic, she would be terrified, and he had to expect it, but he could no longer allow her to think he was anything other than himself. It was like a lie, and he despised artifice. That was probably why this had rubbed him so wrong for so long. He had tried to be patient, but he'd been doing so in the wrong manner. He'd tried to hold back expressing his emotions when his patience would be better and more honestly spent in dealing with the fallout of his honesty, rather than avoiding it.
As he observed her sleep, he understood that she hadn't come here because she'd wanted to wait for him. She'd come here to avoid the bed he'd abandoned her in. Pain of his infliction. More mistakes. Well, it would end here and now, he thought with determination. He'd sworn never to hurt her intentionally, and he had just broken that promise. He had known it as he had walked away from her, and yet hadn't had the strength of honor to stop himself and control his inner turmoil. What did his pain matter in the face of hers? Had he always been this selfish? His mother would have been horrified by his behavior.
Or perhaps Sarah would have been far more understanding of his and Kestra's dilemma than anyone. The confusion and suddenness, the reluctance and independence his father had had to battle. And Ariel had been just as sure of his path and his love as Noah was, even in the face of Sarah's resistance. The sudden understanding of the parallels between Kestra and himself and his parents' initial relationship made him laugh with surprised understanding. How many times had he read his mother's handwritten fairy tale to Legna and Hannah after their parents had died? How many times to nieces and nephews? And again to Leah?
And only now was he understanding that there was a lesson in it that applied to his current situation. His father had approached Sarah's fears and rejection with nothing but confidence and the assuredness of the Imprinting at his back. He had been himself, beginning to end, exhibiting patience only to a point, and then laying out all his cards. And Sarah had run. Run like mad.
And he had chased. Caught. Coaxed. As Noah himself had done initially with Kestra, only he had forgotten to maintain the truth. To be blunt. To be who and what he was no matter what. His father had made only a single compromise, and that was his profession. What Ariel had never compromised were his feelings for Sarah and his knowledge that they would be together from that day forward. That he would love her and be loved in return. He had never doubted it.
"Oh, what a fool I have been," Noah murmured.
Kes opened her eyes at the sound of his soft, familiar voice. She sat up quickly, drawing his gaze with the movement. Their eyes met and matched, each looking turbulently at the other. They moved together, instinctively, though neither had intended to do so. She launched herself from the chair, and his stride ate up the distance between them. She threw her weight into his embrace just as he pulled her against himself.
"I am so sorry," he said, whispering the apology in her ear. "I have no excuse. Please forgive me."
"No. You do have an excuse, don't you?" she said softly in return. "But you won't use it because you're afraid it will disturb me."
"Nothing excuses leaving you in such a way. Nothing." He turned his head to kiss her soft cheek. "I felt your pain. I felt it with every step I took, and yet I could not get control of myself."
"And I felt yours," she countered, her hands framing his face and her head pulling back so she could study the emerald and smoke of his eyes. "Did you think I have to make an effort to touch your mind? Your feelings? When they are as powerful as that, they swim into me like a flood." Kestra felt him stiffen against her body, but a moment later he exhaled and relaxed.
"That you love me?" she asked quietly, her gaze on him tender and sweet. "Yes. I've known it for some time now, Noah. It wasn't until you left me that I suddenly realized why you weren't telling me. That you were keeping it bottled up because you were protecting me. As always." She laughed softly. "Will you always treat me with kid gloves?"
Noah brushed the flat of his palm back over her tousled hair. He was momentarily speechless, and he was also amused. All his drama, and she had already known. More importantly, she was still there. That realization sent his heartbeat soaring with hope and delight.
"I am beginning to understand what a mistake that is. I will endeavor to do better in the future," he told her seriously.
"You do that." She smiled, a gentle tilt of her lips. "Your feelings for me aren't what causes me fear, you know," she said, an edge of sadness creeping into her voice. "Not anymore. I know that this isn't fanaticism for you. If it were, you wouldn't care enough to shield me from it like you've been trying so faithfully to do. I feel the honesty and the truth in your emotions, Noah. I am breathless with it. You're so sure, so unafraid of what you feel. In fact, I believe I envy you that."
"I love you, Kestra," he said, relief rushing through him at finally being able to speak the words aloud. "What about that could I possibly find daunting? You are beautiful, strong, and an enigma that I believe will always keep me fascinated, no matter how many lifetimes we live together."
"And you feel this way, even though you know I'm not sure if I can ever say the same?"
He didn't bother to hide the slice of pain that caused him.
"I do. But that does not mean I do not want reciprocation, Kes. Because I want it more than anything else. I need it. My soul needs your love. But," he said softly, leaning to kiss her lips to distract her from the anxiety he saw shimmering through her eyes, "I am going to find the strength to be patient for you. I am going to make you trust me enough to let go of that fear. I want to show you how beautiful sharing love with me will be."
Kestra swallowed hard, turning her face away as tears leapt into her eyes. He was so certain. So fearless. How did he find the courage? After losing his parents the way he had? After the friends and loved ones who had been torn away from him, how did he find the nerve to love so wholeheartedly? So easily? She realized then that she hoped she could learn from his example. That she could move beyond those memories of her parents' tragic end and the guilt she still felt about it. She knew she shouldn't blame herself for the actions of a madman, but she couldn't shake the idea that she'd been the catalyst for the loss of those she had loved so very much. But even that guilt was nothing compared to the gashes in her soul caused when they had been torn away from her heart.
"How do you do it?" she asked him suddenly. "How do you live through the ages like you do, watching everyone you love die? I don't understand you," she said in frustration, grasping at him as if she would shake him. "I don't understand how you can risk loving me! I can still be killed. I can still die. Only now it will likely be a violent occurrence because I don't imagine you have many natural deaths among your people. Explain it to me, Noah, please," she begged, leaning all of her weight against him. "Please."
"It's so simple a philosophy, baby," he murmured softly against her hair, pausing to kiss her ear through the soft strands. "Live in the moment. Especially when you live so long a life, you need to know that you cannot put off anything. Too often regret comes in the blink of an eye, as you yourself have seen and pointed out. I would rather live with loving you for a heartbeat of time than having never known the gloriousness of the feeling. How long do we have to cherish one another? I do not know. I will not waste a single precious moment thinking about it when I could be spending that moment making love to you."