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Authors: Rie Warren

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BOOK: Under His Guard
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He aimed a somber smile at our feet. “Are we?”

I lifted his face to mine. “Yes, we are.”

“Bien.”
He remained distant.

It was so not fucking
bien
I tripped over my tongue. “Good, uh…I'll see you at the handfasting later?”
Come to the handfasting with me,
I should've said.

“Handfasting?”

“Linc and Liz. They wanna do it before we head out. Because…”

“We probably ain't gon' come back.” He leaned in, fingers splayed on my chest before shifting away. “I guess I gotta go pack.”

“Wait. Where'd you spend last night?”

“In my momma's wagon—not dat it's any of your business.”

Leon walked away, back straight, head high.
So much for treading softly with the man. Shit.
It seemed like everything I tried with Leon ended with me planting my size-sixteen boots in it again.

But there was one thing I
could
do.

I set off for my place. It was time to say good-bye to my ghosts, even if Leon never knew it. Turning the corner, I slowed to a stop and wiped my eyes.
Forgive me, Tam. Let me go, Wilde.
Be at peace.

Let Leon live.

I let the door bang when I entered the two-roomer. I yanked the heavy curtains wide open over the windows and then ripped them entirely off. Sun streamed in. There was no hiding anymore. Throughout the rest of the afternoon, I filled boxes with their belongings. I lovingly laid Tam's favorite boots on top of her clothes. I packed Wilde's books carefully—the heavy tomes about husbandry and veterinary medicine. I added Tammerick's pistols after I cleaned them to a bright shine.

I kept only two things—the ivory-handled dagger Wilde had etched with my name and a lock of hair from Tam tied in a deep red satin ribbon. I placed them in a small wooden box I locked inside the bottom drawer of my dresser, and then I knelt on the floor and laid my hand over my heart.

“Good-bye, my loves.”

It wasn't as if I felt freed when I walked over to Eden's caravan with boxes piled in my arms. There was no jaunt to my step. My burden was too heavy for that. I did take in the birdsong, the chatter of squirrels, and the heat of the sun. I thought about the room I'd made for Leon and I felt lighter.

Eden answered my knock, her haphazard bun of strawberry-blond hair collapsing on top of her head. She peeked inside the crates, and her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, Darke.”

Swallowing several times, I passed the boxes into her arms. I made my way back down her steps and onto the grass. “I figured you could disperse their belongings as needed to our villagers.”

Eyes as vividly blue as the wings of a swallowtail butterfly found mine. “I'll do just that so long as you remember you deserve happiness, too.”

“Yes, ma'am. I'll try.” I retreated, blinking back the final pain.

She called after me, “You're a good man, Darke.”

*  *  *

I hadn't dragged in a deep breath since last night. Fuck that. I hadn't inhaled a goddamn normal breath since I'd heard Leon had been snatched right in front of Cannon and Liz in Beta. And, fuck me, my heart had stopped when Tammerick and Wilde were killed. Today I'd said good-bye to them, because of Leon.

It was Leon who'd kick-started my heart again, Leon who ignited the fire in my blood and loins, Leon I didn't want to love but had to save.

My path to the meadow later was no less lonely for having laid my loved ones to rest. I padded softly among the tall stalks of wildflowers, careful not to crush them underfoot. I dawdled in the open fields that led to the small knoll beyond which the handfasting would take place. Everything now would be rushed: love, life, death, coming so swiftly upon us.

I was caught up in my meandering when a small hand snuck into the crook of my elbow. Jonquil kept her gaze ahead as she joined me. She was everyone's favorite former flirt, well, except for Cannon's. She'd taken great pleasure in terrorizing him with her feminine wiles his first few days in the commune. Now she was married, more mature, and well on her way to motherhood. 

“Surely you'll walk a mother-to-be to the gathering, Darke.”

“And where is your husband?” I fell into an easier gait beside her.

“I do believe he took to the merrymaking early.”

“As he did with you.”

She patted the proud swell of her belly with a secret smile. “Yes. And I have no complaints on that, either.”

The meadow had been transformed during the afternoon. An altar was swiftly raised beneath an arbor dripping with blooms of brightly colored lilies. The table before Eden and Hills held the priapic wand and a length of red ribbon.

The villagers assembled, dressed in their finest, whatever shape that took on this muggy July evening, but always with the Freelander hint of red. Votives lit the path down which Liz would walk, and more candles on the altar added a beautiful glow to the night as dusk descended in dark blues and vivid violets.

Leon made his way to the ceremony after me. He didn't stand beside me or anywhere near me. He wouldn't look at me, although I stared at him continuously. I couldn't help it. His hair was tied back and tamed for once. His shirt was bright white against his skin, and his lips moved rapidly as he made little Calliope—one of Micah's young daughters—laugh.

A hush fell over the crowd. Cannon appeared on the crest of the grassy hill, Liz on his arm. She wore some sort of ivory dress that could have come only from Farrow's collection, baring her shoulders and part of her midriff. I chuckled when my gaze fell to her hips, where her Desert Eagles were holstered. They were her only accessories, except for a circlet of white flowers in her softly spiked black hair.

I glanced at Linc to see his mouth drop open before he snapped it shut. When Liz passed me, I noticed the way she kept blinking, trying to keep her tears at bay. Next to her—tall as a tree and as large as me—Cannon did the same. He deposited her in front of Linc at the altar, where they exchanged a few terse words before Liz drew their gazes to her gun belt with a wide smile.

The opening kiss Liz and Linc shared was slow and passionate. I stared at the side of Leon's face, willing him to look at me, to share this moment with me, but he trained his sights steadfastly ahead. I felt a sharp poke in the ribs from Tommy, which returned my attention to the couple in front of us.

Their vows were spoken in low voices—a rumble from Linc as he clasped her face, a throaty whisper from Liz when she kissed the tips of his fingers, placing his hand against her heart. Tears slid down their cheeks, their eyes fastened on each other as their lives soon would be. I didn't need to hear their words to feel the power of their love.

Rings were exchanged once the ribbon was wound around their arms and hands, binding them together, no matter what might come. Linc closed his eyes and smiled at something Liz said as she slid his wedding band home. When his ring came to rest on her finger, the villagers went wild. Shouting, whistling, clapping, and hugging one another.

I was embraced by one person after another as I slowly made my way to the center circle trying to locate Leon. Goose bumps erupted on my skin when I found him a meter away, his eyes locked on me.

Neither of us moved until a flurry of red ribbons from each Freelander's hand waved and weaved into the air amid shouts of “Live in Freedom! Love at Will!”

The barrage of hollers and the press of people carried us away from each other and across the meadow. I fumbled in my pocket for my own ribbon and set it loose in the wind. It curled and coiled, then whipped from my hand, flying bright as a poppy across the dark sky.

*  *  *

Hills got his wish that Sebastian be sent off properly for our mission. In the town hall directly after Liz and Linc's handfasting, I conducted a quick ceremony to initiate him into manhood.

At the age of eighteen, Sebastian had been through his own ordeals in Beta. I deemed the tall, rangy youth with the white-blond hair and charming southern manner ready to face the hardships to come. He stood still and straight when the flat blade of my ceremonial dagger pressed onto one of his shoulders and then the other. His near-violet–colored eyes were somber as he kissed the cool metal laid against his lips.

After accepting my formal congratulations and my less-formal handshake, he gave me a small bow. Then he laughed. “Shoot. That was a breeze compared to the test of manhood in the bedroom Territorians have to go through. I didn't even have to get my equipment out.”

“Tell me about it, baby brother,” Farrow said. “At my ceremony, Nathaniel here ran out on me like his pants were on fire. Not in the way one would want, Ah'm afraid.”

“I'm afraid that's because
you
had the wrong equipment.” Sebastian mock punched his sister.

“Oh, just go and fetch me a drink,” Farrow commanded.

Before he turned to leave, Sebastian shook my hand. “Thanks, Darke. I know we got off to a rocky start.”

I tried to forget how I'd wanted to shoot him on sight because I thought he had the hots for Leon. “Water under the bridge.” Unless he ever decided to look at Leon with anything even remotely resembling carnal interest again.

All the while I kept a lookout for Leon, who managed to always stay beyond my vision. I wondered if he watched me, if he was thinking about me. I wanted to initiate Leon, too, in a much more sexual manner, except I knew he'd had other lovers and I was probably the least of his concerns.

Jesus Christ.
After that I found myself a frothy mug of ale. Nathaniel started his guitar playing, and Liz and Linc took to the cleared floor beneath rafters decorated with brightly colored banners.

An air of urgency tempered the jubilant celebration, or perhaps that was just my goddamn pining. I laid eyes on Leon just as Old Tommy and farmer Micah took up their usual bookend stances beside me at the plank-board bar. I quaffed quietly, ignoring their bickering about who originally wrote the song Nathaniel sang, his voice ringing clear and dropping to a gritty growl at turns.

Cannon hauled up beside us, licking his lips while he watched his mate strum. “Van Morrison,” he pronounced, ending the debate. “Fuck.”

I handed him a drink. “You got it bad, man.”

Cannon turned his attention to me and arched an eyebrow. “And I'll be getting it in bed later, unlike you. What are you waiting for?”

“Dance with Leon?” I asked.

“Why not? Everyone else is.”

Don't I know it
. I'd found him, all right. He'd sucked back one drink and then another before taking to the floor. The way he moved his body invited unwanted fantasies I was trying to drown in alcohol. Leon danced with everyone but me. He acted like nothing was happening. Not to him, not between us.

“Don't think so.” I crossed my arms, intent on staying where I was. Staring, stalking, waiting to strike.

Knocking against me, Tommy bared his summer teeth in a ghoulish grin. “G'on. Get 'im, son.”

Micah pinched my ass, and I jumped forward. Cannon pushed a hand between my shoulder blades. “Now or never.”

I'll take never, thanks.
My palms grew damp, and Micah took my beer from me.
Assholes, the lot of them.

I watched Leon, preparing to close in. He was dancing alone finally. His hips swiveled, his hair had come loose, and his eyes were shut.

Aligning myself behind him, I bent to let my breath brush his ear. “I want to dance with you.”

My hands found his waist and he leaned in to me. “Darke.”

I was no longer nervous. My voice deepened as hunger struck me. “Turn around, babe. Let me feel you.”

Leon slid into my embrace. Tall and lithe, his body was enfolded by mine. My hands settled just above his ass, stoking the heat between us. Our groins met, both cocks hard. Music played somewhere, but the rhythm we moved to was the primal beat of rutting male bodies. Reaching beneath the tails of his shirt, I thumbed the dimples above his ass. His hips lurched. His lips and teeth found my neck, mumbling those crazed, lusty Cajuns words I only half understood. Explosives went off inside my body, shivering up my spine, shuddering down to my rigid cock.

“Good God, I want you.” I leaned him back, finding his studded nipples beneath his shirt with fingertips that twisted, tapped, teased.


Dieu,
yes.”

I loved watching my dark skin play against his tawny flesh. Too bad the damn shirt was in the way, as well as our pants—and hundreds of onlookers. Beyond our first month, I'd never given a second thought to taking both Tammerick and Wilde in public during the annual orgiastic festival, but there was no way in hell I'd share Leon with anyone here.

I growled, bending my knees, catching his cock against mine, grinding until my eyes rolled back. I smoothed a hand down his chest to the front of his pants, jerking him against me. Hooded eyes, tousled hair…I wanted him just like this for me, only me, every day of my life.

His lips parted when my mouth sought his, but at the last moment he turned his face. I was granted only a kiss on his cheek. My muttered oath was drowned out as people started clapping, whether for our show or Nathaniel's vocals, I didn't know.

Leon pushed off of me. He shook his head and stumbled away, glancing back only once. The hunt was on. My blood sang, and my body was on high alert. I barely said good night to Liz and Linc before I started after him.

Outside I heard him whistling as he ambled down the road. Perhaps he'd had more to drink than I'd thought. When he hiccupped, I smiled. Catching up to him, I ran an arm around his waist and pulled him back against me. His long sigh ended with a low moan.

“Darke, this ain't a good idea.”

At that point I didn't really care. He smelled fresh and clean, spicy and a little sweaty. The pulse at the side of his throat ticked like a fast-running clock, and I nipped him there.

BOOK: Under His Guard
2.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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