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|Pleasure(Shadowdwellers #3) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Why reality chose that instant to strike him, he would never know. How it had even managed to assert itself when his desires were running hot to the contrary, he would never comprehend. But it did so with ringing clarity and a simple, cutting phrase.
You are undeserving of her.
It was the clarion call that had kept him in his proper place for five decades. Why it had fallen silent for these instants he couldn’t guess. He stayed frozen and still where he was above her, trying not to absorb all the input her sweetly stirred body was emanating for him.
“Okay, Laya,” he rasped, his breaths hard with pain as much as with aborted passion. “You made your point.”
Malaya felt him leave as if she’d been suddenly stripped in public. One instant he was there, covering her and radiating his strong heat into her, the next she was barren of him and exposed. How someone so big could move so fast had always eluded her, but even more so now as she scrambled quickly to her knees to see where he had gone. She was in time to see him stalk out of the bath.
Panting for her breath and confused as ever she had been in her life, Malaya tried to understand what had just happened. Not just his unexplained exit, but all of it. She didn’t let herself worry about Guin for the moment. He clearly would not be going very far. But as she dropped her suddenly freezing body into the hot comfort of the bath, she searched for an explanation for the inconceivable concept of responding to the kiss of a man she’d never even considered. Then again, she wouldn’t. He was her bodyguard! They had to live in close quarters constantly and to start something up just because of a sexual chemistry was completely irresponsible. Guin had known that, obviously. He hadn’t given a single clue that he was attracted to her at all. Well, except for…
She thought about that erotic instant in the caverns during their escape near the end of the civil war, and then again to that moment when he had so boldly filled his fingers with her breast. Both times he’d been righteously hot with temper, and this time had started no differently. Malaya flushed as she thought she might have made far more of what she was feeling than he had. But she had seen the nearly desperate desire in his eyes. He had made certain she could see it.
Oh, how I crave you, Malaya.
Even replaying the words in her mind sent an erotic shiver through her until she moaned with the overload of the sensation. The urge to touch her burning, needy skin was so overwhelming, but if Guin returned she didn’t want him to see her. Autoerotic play was the one thing, besides sleeping, she could do without an audience, and she had wanted to keep it that way.
But what of the source of her discomfort? What was he thinking right then? What was he feeling and…what did he plan to do about it? He had left her, so it was clear what he wasn’t going to do. That was good, wasn’t it?
Yes. Things had just gotten a little…a little out of control. He was right. She had tried to make a point, though she wasn’t sure anymore what the point was.
“Light and damnation,” she breathed, running restless hands over her warm face. Who, exactly, was she trying to kid with all of this? There was really only one recourse.
She needed to talk to him.
He’d fucked up.
No, actually, he’d royally fucked up. The embellishment fit perfectly, but he couldn’t find it in himself to laugh at it. What in Light had he been thinking? Guin paced his bedroom, a room he rarely used, in a furious circuit. His hands were on his hips, making him all too aware of where he’d left his weapons and why he’d presumed to take them off in the first place. He stripped off his remaining leather equipment, finding very little use for it in the more secure environs of the palace. But his weapons. No. He never, ever divested himself of those until Malaya was well asleep along with the rest of the palace. And even then the sword lay close to his side and the dagger lived beneath his pillow.
He was hot, his skin damp with sweat, and he knew it had nothing to do with the naturally cool environs of the underground city and everything to do with an incredibly hot female who’d so incidentally given him a painfully thorough erection. On top of it all, his entire being cried out in protest at being so far distant from her. He had spent many hours making sure he was only feet…most times only inches away from her. Even this distance of a room or two away felt unnatural, just as it had felt unnatural those weeks away from her when he had left the palace altogether. If Magnus had not given him a very crucial task that second week, he never would have been able to keep away.
Yet how was he going to step back into her sphere after what he’d just done? He’d shown her too much. He’d bared everything—or just about. His craving for her had been his secret, kept with perfect success for as long as it had existed. And it had probably existed for as long as he had known her. How could he have lost control like that?
Again, it was a bell that could not be unrung. The only thing left for him to do was damage control. Somehow he had to deceive her into thinking it had all been something other than what it was. Guin needed to force things back into his comfort zone. If she tapped into this weakness, Malaya would twist him into knots. To her it would be an amusement. A flirtation. A part of their constant battle of wills. To him it would be torture because he knew nothing would or could ever come of it. Even if she were to take him to her bed, she’d only be slumming for the fun of it or the advantage it would give her over him. She was on track for a noble marriage and a future filled with well-bred babies. And once she was wed, she would be forever out of reach. How could he possibly take so exquisite a taste on his tongue and then never know it again? Worse, to be inches away from her for fifty more years, watching her…
Guin all but choked on the thought, but he forced himself to finish it.
Watching her be loved by another man. Watching her grow round with his babies, and suffering with her as she suffered the pain that would birth them into the world. Or worse, seeing her miserable in a loveless life and watching her faith and her optimistic view of her world crumble away into the dust of unhappiness.
Oh, what he wouldn’t give to be selfish just then. He would walk away and never look back. He would spare himself all of what was to come and find a corner of the world worth hiding in. He could take up work as a mercenary; maybe join the war against the necromancers and human hunters who killed Nightwalkers just for the fun of it or to steal use of their powers. There was a network being formed, made of supernatural Nightwalkers of all breeds, from Lycanthropes to Demons, and being put into place to capture breed renegades and magic-users. He would fit in well in a role like that. Maybe constant hunting and the bloodlust of battle could finally purge him of this demon possessing him.
Except he wasn’t entitled to selfishness.
Because a very long time ago an angel had come to him in the worst moments of his life and had rescued him from an oblivion of crime and death and a drowning in moral ambiguity. She had restored his faith in the future of his own kind just by sitting with him and talking to him. He had never met anyone like her before, and he knew he never would again because she was utterly unique. Even her twin could not match the purity of her faith and the wondrous way she held it above the foulness around her—even through so many years of war. She had never lost faith. Not in her cause, herself, her people, or her gods. And she had never lost faith in him. There was something about Malaya’s powerful faith that made you crave never to disappoint her.
How could he not keep close to her? How could he not protect her when he knew he had the power to do so better than anyone else? To leave her in the hands of others was to sign her death warrant. He believed that with every ounce of his instincts. Malaya might be the precognitive, but this he was sure of just as clearly as if he’d had a vision himself.
He had meant what he’d promised himself, though. He would walk away if she let the Senate choose her husand for her. He could never watch the one thing he held in his mind as pure and precious succumb to the disappointing realities of the world. Malaya had created her own realities for herself constantly, and it had all turned out so beautifully. If she lost that power, if that strength withered, it would destroy him even as it destroyed her. He’d rather remember her as she was now. Happy, beauteous, flushed with life and…
Flushed because of him.
No! No, that had been a forbidden and stolen instant and it should never have happened. He was better off not knowing what she looked like…smelled like…
Gods! He’d watched others make love to her, hating every brutal instant of it. He’d already seen and heard her at her most passionate. So much so that he could imagine her with perfection in his fantasies on the oh-so-rare occasions that he capitulated to them and allowed himself the pleasure of “what if.” Every sigh, every moan. He knew what each would sound like. He knew her scent. Her sensuality. The only thing he had not known was her flavor. And now he did.
“Stop it,” he hissed aloud to himself.
Think. Think of how to escape this resonating screwup.
“Whatever you did,” Rika hissed at Malaya in a rushed whisper as the Chancellor came out of her bedroom some time later, “you better fix it fast.”
“Why? What did he do?”
“He went into his bedroom and closed the door. I didn’t think he even knew how that door worked, considering I’ve never seen him use it before.” Rika chuckled, not realizing just how serious the situation was because she couldn’t see the storms of emotion on either of her friends’ faces. “You know, he’s only been back a week. Can’t you try not to piss him off for just a little while?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she agreed softly, walking immediately over to the closed bedroom door. She slipped inside quickly, closing it behind her even though Rika’s proximity made it very likely that she would overhear them anyway. She bearded the bear in his cage bravely, watching him turn sharply to face her mid-circuit of the path he was wearing into the flooring.
He walked up to her, dwarfing her in spite of her own significant height. Or maybe it was all that bluster and bullishness that made her feel much smaller than she really was. Used to being a woman of ultimate power among her own people, Guin was the only one besides her priest who could make her forget she was a queen. He had certainly done an effective job of it in the bath just before. In truth, she’d forgotten just about everything except the sensations of the moment.
“If I loved you less,” he said with sudden gruffness, “I would walk away and leave you to whatever fate you choose. But as it stands, I…I will stay until you are safely wed…whatever your choice in groom and whoever chooses him for you. But not an instant longer, Malaya. That is all I can offer you, other than my unending loyalty for the rest of my natural life.”
“Either way?” she asked, shock sharp in her tone and expression. “Whether I choose for myself or not, you plan to leave me?”
She knew she sounded hurt, but she couldn’t help it. His recent volatility made her appreciate just how serious he was. He made no threat, tried no coercions. He was declaring an end time to his service to her emphatically and, actually, quite coldly for someone who had been so close to her for so long.
“Guin, I don’t understand you! Your behavior is totally deranged! And—and I don’t believe you!” she lied. “You’re just doing this to punish me for countermanding your desire for time off. You…” She swallowed when her voice broke with honest heartbreak. “You wouldn’t leave me. Who would protect me? You trust no one else. And who will—who will be here to argue with me when I am being stubborn? Guin,” she said softly, stepping up closer to touch his arm where she could feel the badge of his office around his biceps under his shirt. “What about Rika? When she dies, I will need you so badly.”
Malaya rarely gave in to tears, but if ever there was a time it was now, and any time she faced the rapidly approaching inevitability of her vizier’s death, especially when she knew how horrific it would be at the end. Crush brought a screaming death to its sufferers. Malaya knew that as strong as she was, she could not face those days without her Guin. How could she face any days without him? He was her rock; even when her twin vacillated, he stood firm and strong and spoke bald and common truths just as he saw them. He had no diplomacy, no finesse, and no ways of couching his words to land them softly on the sensibilities of others. They fought so much because he told her his opinion fearlessly, whether she wanted to hear it or not. Oh, but there had been so many nights, and so many days, where there had been nothing but each other’s company to amuse them for hours. What he lacked in eloquence, Guin made up for in listening. She could tell him anything, and she usually told him everything. After all, he was always so close by, he knew it all already anyway; everything from the embarrassing to the complex. He took it all in and never stopped treating her the same as he ever had. The only time he’d shown dramatic behavioral shifts had been…
…times like in the bath just now.
And this instant when he was telling her he would quit her for good. This from the man who had slogged through a vicious battlefield to get to her when they’d been accidentally torn apart? This from a man who hadn’t slept in a decent bed for decades, always insisting on sleeping at the foot of her door just so he could be that much closer to her to protect her?
“You will have Tristan for all of that,” he said, turning his back on her and walking across the room. “Although I hope to still be here when Rika…or maybe I should hope to be leaving or gone by then, because it will mean more time for her.” He sighed deeply. “I don’t know what to pray for anymore.”
“You don’t pray,” she countered numbly.