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|Noah(Nightwalkers #5) by Jacquelyn Frank|
In return, Gideon let her practice her power appraisal on him. The benefit to him? She had unlocked another mystery for him to pursue in his powers: the key to the ability for a Demon to heal a Lycanthrope. It was another power he had been experimenting with for some time, without any real success. It seemed that she was able to find these paths only because he was already close to the revelations. But he had told her that it might have taken decades or longer without her assistance.
She was tired, a little sore, and she hadn't had a moment alone with Noah for at least thirty-two hours. Not until tonight. Tonight she was showing off her socialite abilities. They were at a small, private dinner party at the Vampire Prince's citadel. The guests consisted of all those who had had a hand in saving the life of his bride, including her sister, the Queen of the Lycanthropes, and Elijah. Damien and Syreena had concocted the idea as a gesture of thanks.
So Kes toyed with the rope of pearls that Noah had saved along with her life what seemed like a lifetime ago. She wore a breathtaking evening gown she had spent hours shopping for, finding a kindred shopping spirit in the sprightly female Enforcer. Held by the slimmest of straps, the simple dress fell in a sheer silk of dark wine, only an equally sheer but iridescent underdress of the same color making a somewhat subtle mystery of the bare skin beneath it. Even so, the slightly flared skirt was slit to her upper thigh, showing off a very long leg and a pretty pair of sparkling couture sandals in silver.
She held an image in her mind of Noah's expression as she had come down the stairs to meet him. She'd wondered if her expression had been quite so ravenous as his had been. He was gorgeous in black formal, the stun of his tight, energized body in tailored silk having dazzled her eyes and burned her body. His desire and appreciation had been just as obvious as he'd taken her hand to guide her down the last few steps. He had asked her if she had any modesty at all, the question posed dryly in spite of the burn of his eyes over the easily seen shadows of her body. She had told him she'd been born without it. That had made him laugh.
She smiled at the memory.
Suddenly he turned to face her, giving a backhanded excuse to his host and hostess as he left them and crossed the room toward her. Damien and Syreena exchanged amused glances behind his back, and Kes couldn't hide the laughter sparkling in her eyes as she took another sip of champagne. Kes had noted early on that there was no sign at all of Syreena's terrible wounds. She couldn't help but wonder, though, what was lingering behind the otherwise merry charcoal eyes.
When Noah reached Kestra, he grasped her by the arm and turned her back to the rest of the room, placing himself in front of her so he could watch everyone over her shoulder. "Are you having fun?" he asked, taking his gaze from the other guests long enough to rake smoky eyes down the teasing length of her dress.
"Why, yes," she said easily. "Your friends are always delightful."
"That is not what I mean, and you know it." He leaned close to her ear as he accused her. "You are projecting. It is driving me crazy."
"Is it my fault you're a sexual fiend?"
"I?" He chuckled drolly. "That makes you the pot and me the kettle."
"True," she agreed breezily, waving the argument off with an elegant hand. "But I can hardly be held accountable for every random thought. Males think about sex an average of once every ten seconds, I have heard. I should remind you, you are above average in all things."
The little factoid made him chuckle, his heated breath cascading down the back of her neck, bared by her upswept coiffure. She shivered and he noticed. She heard him take in a long, slow breath. He was drawing in her scent, she had learned. He did it often and with relish, and she'd learned to respond to it as the eroticism it was.
"So sweet," he murmured in her ear, his lips brushing the outer rim of it as he spoke. She made a little sound of feminine pleasure, and it sang through him like a low, throbbing note. "I have missed you," he said in earnest as he bent to press a kiss to the line of her pulse. He felt it pick up in tempo and he closed his eyes in an attempt to bear her responsiveness.
"You've been busy. I've been training."
"We should never be that busy," he scolded them both. "Now I am near you and I cannot touch you." In spite of that claim, his hands slid forward to lock around her slender waist.
"I thought Vampires and Lycanthropes didn't care about modesty," she countered.
"I care, Kikilia," he retorted. "With the exception of your provocative wardrobe, there is only one man in this room who will see the intimacies of your body, Kestra. Only one who will know them inside and out."
"That was never in question, baby," she parried soothingly, kissing him just behind his jaw.
He snagged her chin in his hand before she could pull fully away, holding her for a quick, deep kiss, a reminder of how he was affected by her use of his nickname for her. He drew her close to his body, probably out of pure habit. She knew he hadn't intended it, but soon she was pressed tightly to him, his hand possessive on the small of her back as he kissed her again, his fingertips splayed toward the outward curve of her bottom.
Kestra snickered into Noah's mouth when Isabella exaggeratedly cleared her throat very nearby. They broke the kiss, but Noah didn't relinquish the warmth of her against himself as they turned their heads to look down at the petite woman.
"I was wondering," she began thoughtfully once she saw she had their attention.
Kestra watched Noah's eyes sparkle as he allowed himself to walk into the baited trap.
"Wondering what?" he asked her.
"Well, I was talking to Syreena about her plans for the citadel's gardens come the new spring. See, she wasn't able to do much but instruct in a cursory cleanup for this year, having had so much to do with moving in and getting settled. So we were discussing possible growth for the sandy, rocky soil of the area, though beneath that is a deeply rich and fertile earth, she says."
"That is lucky," Noah said helpfully.
"Yes, well, it just reminded me of something I needed to ask you."
"What the hell happened to your willow grove?"
Kestra burst into laughter, completely ignoring the abrupt pinch of Noah's fingers at her waist.
"Willow grove," he repeated. He didn't pretend to question it, just parroted her as his eyes shifted up to see Jacob and Elijah listening in with clearly planned attentiveness.
"Yes. Willow. Wisteria? Arbors? Pretty oyster-shell paths? What, you decided a big brown hole in the ground suddenly looked better?"
"As a matter of fact," Noah said with a handsome smile, "I rather like it. I think I will keep it that way. A reminder of a very good lesson learned."
"And the lesson being?" Jacob asked dutifully.
"Never underestimate the power of a woman," he said simply, adding a casual shrug. "Come, sweet, I believe you are out of champagne."
He swept Kestra away, leaving her breathless laughter in their wake.
When Kestra met Damien he'd been extremely polite, gracious, and grateful, practically overflowing with pleasure when welcoming Noah. Now, some time later, with his wife firmly secured to his hip, the Vampire was giving her a different depth as she watched him with more efficient perception.
Kestra had recently noticed that her ability to evaluate and map power had also left her with a heightened sense of awareness when it came to reading others. She had always been perceptive in taking another's measure, but now it was as close to telepathy as one could get, without the actual awareness of thoughts.
As she and Noah conversed with the Prince, this awareness kicked into overdrive. There was strain around his edges, ever so faint, and something she suspected only his loved ones would notice. He was tired, physically, his energy depleted in what she suspected would be life-threatening ways should he encounter trouble on a hunt. He was flush and warm, clearly having hunted earlier, so it was not a nutritional deprivation. Emotional? Perhaps, she thought, considering how close he had come to losing his wife.
That sobered her greatly. She did not know if the mating between them was as physically interdependent as the Imprinting was for Demons, but Jasmine had claimed he would never survive the loss of Syreena. She supposed she meant his devastation would have been impossible to endure. Had she been literal, too?
Kestra glanced at Noah from under her frosted lashes, her heartbeat picking up with sudden anxiety. For her and for Noah, it was indeed literal. If anything ever happened to him, she would have little more than two weeks to live. A death sentence she didn't deserve, nor did she appreciate the lack of control over her own life that it implied. Her existence hinged on his safety.
Kes hid the sudden rigidity of her body and the smarting behind her eyes under the guise of a delicate cough. Her ears were roaring and she tried to breathe and refocus on what Damien was saying to Noah. How had she even gotten off on this morbid tangent? Noah had lived nearly seven centuries. Did she think he would suddenly forget how to survive?
"Without Stephan, I am afraid the network we have been trying to put into place over the world has begun to unravel. Not so much the European sectors," Damien explained as Kestra's hearing slowly returned to normal. "They will always be easy to manage with Jasmine and me in such close company. It is the other continents I am concerned with. There were far more than two Vampires acting against us that night. I am afraid the reason we cannot find them, or Ruth and Nico for that matter, is because there is too much room out there for hiding."
"I agree. They will avoid the Nightwalker regions: Russia, England, France, New Zealand, Alaska, Romania, and, as you said, most of the European continent. At least until things are not so hot for them. But that leaves North and South America, Asia, and Africa open to becoming hideaways. There are less hospitable choices as well, of course, but they will want to lose themselves in a heavy human population."
"Also, they will want a playground," Damien added grimly. "Vampires can never go long without games to play. For games to be fun for Vampires of this lawless ilk, I would say screwing around with the lives of humans will be a high priority."
"On a mildly better side," Syreena put in, "I believe we can now expect that a slaughter with speed and viciousness through the Nightwalker species will not be easy to accomplish again. The Mistrals and the Shadowdwellers were given an unfortunate clarion call. They will be more on guard, more organized."
"As will we," Noah said soberly. "We have been too complacent. Our young will need a new set of rules now. They are the most vulnerable."
"We should think about it. All of us," Kestra pointed out firmly, not able to soften it because she felt so passionately on the topic. "Biologically speaking, most females aren't equipped to attain the strength and power levels that males can achieve. Protecting them will need more than just a strong consideration."
Damien didn't even blink. "Female Vampires are as powerful as the males, or can be if they desire it. There are many on the network."
"Female Vampires aren't in threat by Vampire rogues, though," she countered sharply.
"Kestra is right, you know." Syreena's hand went absently to her healed throat. "Powerful or not, women are at risk."
"Who are you charging with the supervision of the network?" Kestra asked.
"I had not…" Damien hesitated, then looked away briefly as he made a soft sound of frustration. "I was caught up in other things and have not designated Stephan's replacement."
Grief. Guilt. Pain. Worry. Love. Kestra saw it all swirling around the Prince in a flash. He had indeed been caught up. Now she understood the exhaustion and strain. This had taken a toll in a way Damien was obviously not experienced with. She found it hard to believe he had never suffered great loss before, not after a millennium of life, and Noah had told her that Vampires tended to be emotionally callous. Obviously Damien had changed when he'd fallen in love with Syreena, leaving him more vulnerable than before.
"I would recommend a continental and global hierarchy of command," Kes offered. "It's too much for a single leader to manage. Seven commanders, one per continent, to whom hunters can report progress and occurrences. Then a single general or marshal to whom those commanders report. I think that'd speed up the warning process. Having Jasmine run between the courts is inefficient." She smiled to soften the remark. "The one who marshals the other leaders can be situated in Europe. I know you believe they'll avoid Europe now that we're on guard, but we are also the ultimate quarries. No point to being a rogue if you can't go hunting for power. Best to maximize coverage where the most game hangs out."
Kes felt Noah's arm slide warmly around her waist and she easily hooked her hand onto his shoulder as he drew her to his side with an appreciative little squeeze. She could feel his pride and delight easily; it was radiating off him like sunlight. She had the sudden urge to blush and fought it off with impressive aptitude.
"Hmm?" she asked when Syreena exploded out her name.
"Sweetheart," Syreena said with excitement, patting Damien's arm hard in her effervescence. "Why not have Kestra take Stephan's place controlling the network? She has military experience, she is obviously soldier enough to hunt and fight, and she has the ear of the Demon King. Sometimes right between her teeth." Syreena laughed teasingly at her own joke. "She's in Europe. And I hear she has some kick-ass power."
"She has the perfect power to fulfill that kind of role," Kestra was surprised to hear Noah say, "as well as the perfect command and organizational skills."