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|Pleasure(Shadowdwellers #3) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Sobbing in hitches of dismay, fighting her nausea as she realized she had just killed two people, Valera curled over her own knees and covered her face.
It wasn’t until she heard a soft sound, like a low grunt of pain, that she whipped herself up out of her position of abject misery. Swiping at her messy face with the sleeves of the parka she still had on, she hobbled over to the burlap-wrapped body as fast as her knees would carry her. It was tied with heavy rope and also what had to be steel chains.
“Penchant! Penchant, come here!” she yelled.
Penchant came dashing into the room from the back of the house, his collar jingling as the silver pentacle charm that hung from it hit the bell that was also attached. The beautiful tiger-striped cat leaped onto Valera’s back and instantly found a path to wind over her shoulders and under her hair.
“Come here,” she commanded him, tapping a long nail on the metal of the chain. “You know what to do. We have to help him.”
Penchant stopped, sitting on her shoulder a moment as he decided if he really cared to help. He might be a good familiar, but he was just as often a typical cat.
“Do it and I’ll give you a snack,” she coaxed him.
“No. Not tuna. But I do have some of those crunchy treats you like.”
Tuna would be better, he drawled in her mind.
“And I can easily get a hacksaw from the shed, you little brat,” she countered sharply.
Fine, fine, he sighed, sounding very put-upon. Penchant leapt onto the heavy bundle and she saw his tail quiver irritably. He’s ice cold! One lick and my tongue will stick to these chains!
“Penchant,” she warned.
Penchant gave her a halfhearted hiss and bent his nose to the chain. With a single lick, soft pink energy radiated along the entire length of steel, and with a twang like the plucking of a rubber band, it vanished into thin air. Penchant did the same to the rope.
“Oh, good kitty!” Valera cried, clapping her hands together. Penchant raised his head proudly and leapt into her arms for his due praise and quick ear scratches that made him purr. “Okay, I’ll give you your snack in a minute.” Valera set him down and hurried to peel off the burlap. Penchant was right. The coarse fabric and the man within were freezing cold. She had taken off her gloves to manipulate the light switches, so she felt it seep into her finger joints painfully until it made her shiver.
She gasped in horror when the stiff body of a man dressed entirely in a strange violet uniform rolled free of the sacking. There was a thumping sound as an empty leather sheath from a sword of some kind, which was attached to a belt at his hips, hit the floor. Because of the noise, it was the first thing she noticed.
After that she sat a moment in stunned surprise to see an enchanted prince lying on her floor. Well, okay, so that was her imagination running away again, but it was the first thing that popped into her brain. After all, he was definitely tall, definitely dark, and…
“Mercy,” she murmured as she stared at his fine features. Her prince fantasy had to be because of his lashes. He had the long thick lashes of a little boy, the softness of them resting peacefully against his cheeks. Even in the dark she could tell his skin was the color of chocolate crème. One of her favorite sinful desserts. He had thick black brows that gave dramatic accent to proud, elegant facial features and a broad expanse of forehead that led her gaze into long midnight hair, which spilled over her oak flooring in silky swirls that looked as if they would be so very soft.
His hands were bound. So were his feet. These facts jolted her out of her fantasy of the moment, and with a whispered curse, Valera reached for his throat. As she searched for a pulse she noticed his sleeve was torn and he was injured. It wasn’t too deep a cut, looking as if it were healing well…provided he was still alive. She couldn’t feel a pulse, but she could swear she had heard him make a sound. She laid a hand on his chest to see if he was breathing.
Val jerked around to look at Penchant.
“How do you know that?”
I can smell it on him. Bad stuff, too. But someone gave him an antidote already. Still, the damage was done. You’ll need to heal him.
“No. No way,” she snapped at the cat. “I just killed two men trying to detain them. With my luck I’ll turn him into a gerbil.”
There was nothing wrong with your magic. Rather the men themselves were wrong. Smelled wrong. Looked wrong. Felt wrong.
Rather than explain himself, Penchant trotted off to the bedroom with a musical jingle of his collar. However, since Penchant could see things she couldn’t most of the time, she gnawed at her lip and debated taking his word for it. Maybe he was right. Maybe she hadn’t screwed up. Perhaps if she healed this other man she could figure out what had been so wrong about those men…other than the obvious.
Taking a deep breath, Valera laid her hands on the poisoned man’s chest. She leaned her weight forward onto him and immediately she could feel the extraordinary tension and power in the musculature beneath her fingers.
“Holy cow, this guy’s built like a Mack truck.” What kind of pacifist bore the body of a warrior? What kind of priest dressed this way? And why had such evil men wanted him as their victim? “You have a lot of questions to answer when you wake up,” she murmured.
She took a breath and softly began to speak her healing spell.
Sagan opened his eyes to total darkness and a heavy weight of pressure against his chest. He took a breath, as if he hadn’t drawn oxygen for ages. It was something like coming out of Fade, when he crossed realms from Realscape to Shadowscape or to Dreamscape. So many worlds, each with aspects he had mastered in his long lifetime, yet in that instant he felt out of place and out of sync with the place and time he was in.
It was because there was no pain. No weakness. No death. And in his mind, he knew there should be all of that. Except he couldn’t remember why.
Sagan heard a soft sigh and realized he wasn’t alone. Instantly he was overwhelmed with the instinct that he should fight for his life. A woman…a woman was trying to harm him and others he cared about.
He sat up with a jolt of movement and instantly collided with another body. Their skulls cracked together on impact, his significant size and weight plowing the other person off balance and sending them tumbling awkwardly over his legs. Sagan reached out on sheer instinct to steady and right his hapless victim, and was surprised to find himself latching on to pillowy soft fabric and an equally soft body beneath it. Shaking his head to clear it of the jogging his brain had just taken, he focused on the person he held.
A human woman!
If the priest hadn’t already been significantly weakened, he might have had the strength sucked out of himself in the wake of his shock. Instantly his impressions of threat and danger dissolved. While human hunters, those rare misguided souls who made a pastime of hunting the Nightwalker species just for the hell of it, had their momentary dangers attached to them, he was certain it had not been a hunter in pursuit of him. That didn’t mean she wasn’t a threat, however, and he kept tight hold of her as he tried to clear his mind, keeping her where he could see her and manipulate her as needed.
He looked quickly around the room, noting immediately that everything was black and dark, making the environment safe for him. It was as if she had been expecting one of his kind. He could see the lamps and lights scattered about that proved she didn’t make a regular habit of living in the dark. It couldn’t be coincidence. How had he gotten there? How was it that a human woman knew what he was? How did she know that he was a Shadowdweller, that the slightest touch of light could severely burn him and, eventually, render him to a pile of dust and ash?
The theft of his strength and health had been such an insidious and, then, wildly wrathful event that the rapidly growing restoration of it was bracing and invigorating. With every passing second he felt his body’s natural power returning.
But he was still lying bound hand and foot in a strange environment peppered with potential light sources and in essence controlled by this woman whose race was infamous for its desire to poke and prod and toy with unusual creatures it didn’t understand.
“What is this place? Who are you?”
Sagan barely recognized his own voice as the words ground out of him in a rough rasp. He held her by an arm, his bound hands grasping her tightly and keeping her held down across his legs. Pretty much in his lap, actually, now that he was sitting up.
“My name is Valera. This is my home. I’m not trying to hurt you, I’m only trying to help.”
He would see about that. He was still too disoriented to use his third power, the power of a telepath, allowing himself to read her mind, but he would clear soon enough at this rate and he would know what her thoughts and intentions truly were. For the moment, however, he had to figure out the hard way if he believed her.
Honestly, he rarely used his power of telepathy, the ability disturbing to him much of the time. It also tempted him too easily to distrust what he was told and not to have faith that those he spoke with were being truthful. As a priest, a man of the gods who guided his people in so many ways, he couldn’t afford to be so faithless. As a penance priest, a harbinger of punishment and doom to those who Sinned deeply, it was an invaluable tool as he hunted them down through the ’scapes they tried to hide in. Either way, he was used to using all of his strengths and all of his senses to determine the way of things.
And despite his deeply ingrained mistrust of her species, he believed she didn’t mean him any immediate harm.
“How did I come to be here? Why have you bound me?”
“I didn’t bind you,” Valera retorted. “You came that way. If you let me get up, I can cut you free.”
Sagan realized he didn’t have much choice in the matter. As strong as he was becoming once more, he wasn’t strong enough to rip free of his bindings. He reluctantly let go of her and watched warily as she climbed off him and gained her feet. She walked over him, heading for a kitchen area made of mellow and beautifully crafted woods and clearly well stocked for someone who enjoyed spending time with her stove. The copper pans and cast iron skillets that hung from a rack above a centered island spoke volumes of the lengths she had gone to in order to equip herself with the very best in supplies.
She liked to cook.
The innocuous little detail had a strangely soothing effect on his edgy nerves. And as he quickly glanced around her home he found it all to be equally comforting and comfortable, with its warmly polished floors and handcrafted furniture. There were also the homey touches of handmade afghans on the couches and a basket full of softly worn quilts that held a sleeping cat the color of onyx from tip to tail, and he realized that this was very much a home and not some hideaway designed for the capture and captivity of a Nightwalker.
“Are you here alone?” he asked. He watched as the question caused her step to hesitate and she looked back at him warily. It seemed, he realized, that she was just as cautious of him as he was of her.
“Just me, you, and the cats,” she replied with a bald sort of honesty. “But that’s all I need.”
There was an implied warning to that statement, and Sagan filed it into the back of his mind for later analysis. He watched her approach the kitchen counter and lean over it to—
Valera hit the light switch out of habit, not even thinking there could be any reason any longer to keep everything dark, but her guest’s reaction to the soft flood of light over the sink was explosive and instantaneous. He shouted out, cursing rather harshly for a supposed priest, and tried to roll away.
“Off! Turn it off!”
She did so instantly, but not before she clearly could see the harsh sear of blister burns on his exposed skin of his hands and tendrils of smoke quickly rising up from the affected area. He had turned and guarded his head and face reflexively, and she knew immediately that he would have burned there as well. All because of a 40 watt soft white bulb an entire room length away from him.
Valera grabbed a knife from the butcher block and ran back to him, kneeling quickly beside him as he rasped hard for breath. She could feel and taste the harsh tang of fear on him, and it instantly felt wrong. She didn’t know why, but she sensed clearly that this was a man who feared very few things.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed, her mind racing as she tried to soothe him and absorb what she had just seen all at once. No wonder the others had burned to ash! If they were like this one, burned at even the slightest touch of light, then the brilliance of the stasis fields would have seared them through in an instant. If he hadn’t been wrapped up safely protected, she would have accidentally killed this man as well, even as he had lain there wounded and helpless. “I didn’t know,” she told him as she quickly stripped off her parka, mufflers, and the sweat jacket beneath it. She couldn’t move well enough within them and she was sweating her butt off besides. Once she was free of the bulky clothes, she leaned over him to peer at his hands.
“It’s okay. They’ll heal,” he choked out awkwardly, trying to draw away from her concerned touch.
Sagan was awash with pain and confusion. She hadn’t known he was Shadow. That much was all too clear. Painfully clear. If she had meant to hurt him on purpose, she certainly wasn’t acting like it. There was obvious distress in her pretty turquoise eyes and…
What an extraordinary color, he thought in instant distraction, the sudden fascination drawing him away from the pain in his hands so sharply that he allowed himself to follow the tangent. The women of his people were almost universally brown eyed and black haired. Seeing eyes of such a startling blue-green was a truly unique experience for him. Not only that, but now that she had shed the parka and its heavy hood, he could see all of her for the first time.