Authors: Rhenna Morgan
He leaned forward and curled his free hand around the side of her neck. A decent man wouldn’t follow through, but a far more primal part of him was in charge now, instinctive and not at all gentle. Her lips were close enough his own tingled. He held himself there, soaking in the sensation. Something to remember.
“Please,” she whispered.
Tightening his fingers, he angled her face for his advance. Slow. Careful.
Her mouth gave way, soft and sweet, parted just enough to lick along the lower one. She moaned and edged closer, opening to the bold sweep of his tongue.
He growled at her taste, mint and something that reminded him of long lazy mornings and sunshine. Her breath mingled with his, hot and heavy between each slick glide of their lips. Fuck ordinary air. This. This was what he wanted to live on. In his lungs, day in and day out.
Her fingers splayed across his pecs, blowtorch hot. He wanted them lower. To feel them slide down his abs and curl around his straining cock. Splaying his hand at the small of her back, he tucked her between his thighs so her hips nestled tight against his hard length.
She flexed her hips and a sweet, needy mewl vibrated against his lips.
He nipped her lower lip and slanted deeper, sweeping the plush texture of her tongue with his. Lost. No worries and no fears, just sweet, perfect abandon.
He jerked away and fisted the cot’s edge, fighting for control.
Her voice rasped between the rapid rise and fall of her chest and her eyelids hung heavy. “What’s wrong?”
He’d give anything to flame that look. That fire. To take her where it needed to go and watch her shatter. “You offered one kiss.” His grumble matched the unsatisfied hunger beating him. He gripped her shoulders and eased her away. “I won’t break my word. Not to you. If I hadn’t pulled away, I wouldn’t have stopped.”
Her eyes rounded and her kiss-swollen lips formed an O.
His resolve faltered. He fisted his hands at his sides and forced himself against the too-cold crystal wall. “Go. Get Ramsay. I’ll give him everything I know.” Better to serve the malran’s needs with what he knew and honor her healing gift in the process than to waste away here.
Galena hesitated, her face flushed and still kneeling between his thighs. His ideal and wet dream rolled up into one.
Her expression hardened and she shoved to her feet. “I’m glad to hear it. Good I offered the incentive you needed to do the right thing.” She spun away and slammed the door.
The latch clanged into place, and his heart echoed with the same finality. It was better this way. Felt like shit, but was definitely better. He’d just replay the bullshit line until it took root. Besides, once she learned his secrets, she’d be glad he’d pulled away when he did.
* * * *
Galena stormed the dungeon steps and out the rear entrance of the castle.
The guards spun at her abrupt arrival, arms up and ready for attack.
She waved them off in what she hoped was an authoritative gesture and stalked deeper into the exotic garden. “Pair up with the men from the outer walls for now. I’ll call you when I’m done here.”
Galena stopped and crossed her arms. She peered over her shoulder only enough to portray annoyance. Playing the royal card wasn’t her style, but prying eyes weren’t something she wanted right now. “This space is royal sanctuary. Eryx may want us on high alert, but neither he nor Ramsay will countermand my order. Now go.”
The ranking warrior fisted the hilt of his dagger, scanned the perimeter, and motioned his partner to the iron gate at the garden’s edge with a jerk of his head. Their heavy footsteps clipped along the flagstone path until the roar of the ocean’s surf overpowered them.
Thank The Great One. She hung her head and a shiver rippled through her. The sun was barely up. Shadows coated every corner of the tiny paradise, the air too cool against her bare arms.
But the tremors came from somewhere else.
She shook her head to clear her thoughts, and ambled to the alcove overlooking the sea below. What in histus was wrong with her? She’d kissed a traitor. Willingly.
No. It was more than a kiss. She’d surrendered to him. If Reese hadn’t stopped when he did, she’d have followed any and every lead he’d taken. Maybe initiated a few of her own.
The ocean breeze stung her tear-dampened cheeks. Her heart thrummed as loud as the waves below. She still craved his touch.
An ironic, self-deprecating chortle shook her. He’d been the one who pulled away, not her. She should be furious, or at the least indignant. The Great One knew, she’d done her best to storm out with such a facade. He’d probably only asked for the kiss in some sick ploy for mercy. He fought for the rebellion, for God’s sake. To do such a thing took a certain kind of perversity
And she’d proved to be the perfect sucker.
A tear slipped free and she dashed it away. She’d felt desirable. For one tiny sliver of time, a man had really touched her. Not handled her like a snowflake.
She plunked to the teak bench, planted her elbows on her knees, and rested her forehead in her hands. No matter how she tried, the way he’d reflected her in his memories kept circling in her mind. Sultry and sexy, like one of those early screen goddesses in Evad, but softer. Easy as the ocean breeze ruffling her hair. She hadn’t imagined it. Memories didn’t offer the insight of emotion or thoughts, only sights and sounds like a movie. But to him, she was beautiful.
So, what was she supposed to do? Follow Ramsay’s distrusting lead and let things take their course? Pretend nothing ever happened? Or was Reese sincere?
Surely he wasn’t so duplicitous. Her pride might have stung when he sent her away, but he’d fisted his hands at his side as well. Desire had weighted his eyes just as much as her own. And at the battle he’d seemed genuinely distraught at Phybe’s death. She’d sensed his goodness. Felt it as warm as a setting summer sun. Condemning a decent man to death seemed wrong. Even if the kiss was nothing more than a ruse, everything else pointed to a man of character stuck in a difficult place.
She scrubbed away her tears with the back of her hand. Even if she wanted to intervene, she wouldn’t be able to stop Ramsay in his current mood. For whatever reason, his mind was made up where Reese was concerned. No one stopped Ramsay once he’d chosen his path.
No one but Eryx.
She gasped and sat up straight. The wind buffeted her as much as the rush sprinting through her. Talking to Eryx might work. He likely didn’t trust Reese any more than Ramsay did, but he seemed to be lacking Ramsay’s extra wallop of hatred. Maybe he would listen to reason and consider leniency in exchange for the information Reese provided.
She stood and rubbed the goose bumps along her upper arms. It might work, but she’d have to word her request carefully. Going to bat for a man who called to her instincts was one thing. Losing her brothers to him was something else altogether.
Creaks and muffled voices sounded above Reese’s cell. It was probably the castle staff settling into their morning routine, but without natural light or his senses to gauge the sun’s position, it was hard to tell for sure.
Where in histus was Ramsay? Surely Galena had tracked him down by now. He couldn’t sit still. Couldn’t pace enough to dull his anxiety. No matter how many times he replayed Galena’s kiss, the ugly look of betrayal it had ended with always smacked front and center in his head. He’d hurt her. Badly.
He stretched out farther on the cot, as if lengthening his torso might somehow unhook the guilt snagged beneath his sternum. Pulling away from her ranked at the top of his most difficult list. There wasn’t a single word worthy of what he felt for her. It went beyond need, or even want. More fundamental, like air, or water.
Damn it. He paced the tiny space. The sooner he unloaded his burdens, the sooner he’d be free from his past. The damned things weighed three times more now that he’d decided to talk. Of course, the sooner he talked, the sooner he died. He stopped and hung his head, huffing out a resigned breath. At least he’d have those minutes with Galena to take with him.
“Your life may yet serve a significant purpose, warrior.”
Reese spun toward the voice behind him, poised to fight.
A female with an angelic face stood in the center of his cell, an ethereal glow around her. Straight black hair hung to her waist accenting pale mocha skin. Her white gown gripped her slim body and shimmered as though the cloth were embedded with bits of the moon.
His muscles uncoiled and he straightened from his stance. A weird kind of peace moved through him, the same bright sensation of a quiet afternoon in spring. “Who are you?”
Dusky pink lips stretched into a smile brighter than the noonday sun and her pale blue eyes twinkled. “My name is Clio. I am your spiritu.”
What? One hundred and forty-three years old and trained for all manner of human and Myren interaction, but he’d never once heard the term. Either someone had a sick sense of humor, or he’d finally skipped one region past sanity.
Laughter filled the cell, the sound light and laced with wind chimes. “You won’t find what you seek through logic, only through your memories and your heart.” She glided forward. Sparkles along her brow winked in the candlelight, white, pearlescent jewels in varied shapes and sizes. Like a crown, but without a base to hold them together. “We do not make a practice of showing ourselves to our charges, but there are times when it cannot be avoided.” She tilted her head. “Search your mind. Do you recognize my voice?”
Reese closed his eyes, his brain jumping to obey before his curiosity could argue. He had heard it before, a lilting sound colored with flutes and the laughter of children, but where he’d heard it he couldn’t quite place.
“I’ve been with you since you were born.”
Reese snapped from his trance.
Clio drifted closer, her feet never appearing to move, and touched his shoulder. “I’ve been with you even when you chose to forgo my guidance.”
The cell fell away.
Warm, sunny skies surrounded him. The barest breeze touched his sweat-slick skin, and he knelt on one knee. The gold-flecked sand from the warriors’ arena floor surrounded him, Ramsay’s boots the only other object in his line of sight.
It was his swearing-in. A crystal-clear replay of the moments he’d lived through all those years ago. Ramsay gripped Reese’s forearm
A warrior’s greeting. Ramsay’s spirit brushed through Reese’s mind, gauging his memories.
“Trust him. Open your heart and find your dreams.”
Clio’s voice had drifted through his mind, soft, but strong.
The dark, dank cell crashed back in place and left a fresh gash on the old, festering wound. His lungs burned to let loose a ragged shout. He’d ignored her. Locked his secret in an iron-willed vault and blocked Ramsay out.
“It’s in the past, Reese.” Her comfort wrapped around him, as tangible as a down blanket in the coldest winter. “You cannot undo wrong choices, but you can make new ones. Choices to change your life and the lives of those you love.”
Reese shook his head. “I don’t have any choices left. No one left to love.” It was a lie. Maybe love was the wrong word, but if he’d ever hoped to gain the love of someone it was Galena. “I’m past saving.”
“Your healer doesn’t think so.” A verbal punch straight to the gut, one that wrenched his insides tight. A beautiful thought, but cruel as histus.
Clio cupped his cheek, the movement so similar to something his mother would have done his stomach quaked. “You have many more choices to make. Far-reaching ones. It’s why I’m here.”
Reese jerked away from her touch. He couldn’t afford fantasies, let alone hope. “Time and riddles aren’t my friends right now. If you’ve got something to say, get on with it.”
An impish smile graced her face. “The spiritu are your guides. The inspiration in your thoughts. We aid the human and Myren race, and represent the light and dark passions.”
“But you don’t show yourselves.”
“No. To do so would be to sway your conscience from free will.”
Free will? She wanted to talk about free will and inspiration? Now? Why in histus should he care about either when he was locked in a dungeon and headed to the gallows?
“Because the law of reciprocity has been violated.”
“You can hear my thoughts?”
“And feel what you feel.” She tilted her head with childlike delight. “I am connected to you in a way that transcends this plane.”
Odd. The whole concept was a little disconcerting, both intimate and a violation in the same breath.
Her smile dimmed. “I stand before you because you have an important choice to make.”
His brain refused to cough up anything. No witty retorts, no questions, just a great big fat blank space. He gestured to his cell. “Have you missed my situation? I can’t do anything here.”
“Quite the contrary. You were already on the path to your choice.”
“You mean giving Ramsay and the malran the information they need.”
She inclined her head, slow and regal. “There is a human, a man close to the new malress who Maxis has taken hostage. The knowledge you have can aid in his freedom, but there is still more you can do.”
Reese thumbed through what he knew, what might be a benefit to the malran and his men. “I don’t have anything else to give.”
Clio stared at him, her face deadpan. “Maxis.”
A ripple shot down Reese’s spine.
“Whether you realize it or not, you are the one decent spark in Maxis’ life. You have a chance to fan that spark. To aid the malran in freeing the captive human, but also to use your own light to guide Maxis’ soul.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” He spun and fisted a chunk of hair at the top of his head. “Of all people, you want me to be a guiding light? For Maxis? He thinks I’m a traitor.” He threw up his hands and faced Clio. “Even Ramsay thinks I’m a traitor. There’s no way he’ll let me out of here. Least of all evangelize to the man whose family has hurt the Shantos line for centuries.”