Read an extended excerpt below:
Elemental Enmity Book III
Rayla had gotten away. Not only that, the retched girl had been able to defy her compulsion. None had managed such a feat—even Heath had fallen under her spell for a time. How had a mere Elemental, even the supposed Nexus, managed to use her will?
She released a sigh. No matter. The girl’s power would be hers soon enough. All was in place, and, now, the only thing remaining to do was wait.
The soft sound of the door creaking open invaded her thoughts, but she did not turn around. She had almost used up her patience where Nigel Lambert was concerned. The insufferable man wouldn’t let her out of his sight for more than a few minutes at a time. She’d searched for a place that would shield her from his prattling; unfortunately, she hadn’t searched hard enough. The man wouldn’t shut up, no matter how many times she told him to.
“Nessa?” he said, using the pet name she abhorred. “Are you all right, my dear? You seem pensive.”
She turned slowly, reminding herself she wouldn’t have to deal with Lambert for much longer. Putting that aside, she gave him what she hoped was a genuine smile. “You are so perceptive, Nigel. Nothing I do escapes your attention.”
He settled an arm around her shoulders as if she were a fragile mortal that needed his reassurance. If he only knew who he was dealing with, he would not take such liberties with her. He was a coward to the core, but his connections were necessary at the moment.
As always, he returned her smile. “I have good news. Keller broke this morning. We now have the locations of three rebel strongholds.”
Ainessa raised a delicate brow. “Have you seen the strongholds yourself, or have you merely fallen for another delay tactic?”
“I—” he stumbled momentarily, making her wonder what he was hiding. “I haven’t had time to personally investigate, but I have dispatched teams to the areas.”
Of course he hadn’t checked. He thought himself above such trivialities. She gave a sweet twist to her smile. “Where are they?”
“Mexico, Canada, and India.”
She frowned. All ideal locations, considering where Grace Keller had kept herself for so long.
She would send a team of her own. The rebels could be more useful to her than the Order. She had to get them on her side. Once accomplished, this world would officially be hers.
“Very well, Nigel. Alert me when you have a report.” She brushed his shoulder with delicate fingers. “What would I do without you?”
Chapter One Never in my life had I anticipated a scenario like this. At a very young age I had imagined how my life would unfold: from what college I would attend, to how many children I would have, to where I would live when I was old enough to choose for myself. Although none of those things had solidified, somehow, standing in front of five fae lords waiting for one to step forward to bond with me hadn’t been in my realm of possibilities.
Each wore an inscrutable expression. Not one of them had moved an inch even though I had asked which one wanted to go first.
That’s right—I was getting ready to bond with five men. Sounds pretty smutty, but thankfully it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. There has to be physical contact for the bond to work, but not sexual. Thank heaven.
You might wonder why I would even consider such a thing, and I wouldn’t blame you one bit—sometimes all I could do was wonder. When I left home to go to college, I thought I had everything under control. I thought all I had to do to claim my dreams was work hard, and with a bit of luck, I would find myself a world famous painter. Little did I know that my life was about to become more complicated than I could ever imagine. Only a few hours outside my hometown the first lord found me. Since then I’ve been fighting to keep my freedom and to figure out who I actually love if any of them. My mind is so jumbled with feelings that shouldn’t be there. Normally you meet a guy, date, grow to like or eventually love them, or you decide they aren’t your Romeo. Not so with fae lords. They use compulsion to get what they want. I still didn’t understand compulsion all that much, but I knew enough to realize I would be stupid to trust my feelings where they were concerned.
Some of these men do care about me. Zach and Luke risked everything when they went to the island to see what the Order was up to. Unfortunately, Ainessa captured them and used their power to lure me to the island, as well. She’s bent on getting my power, and I’m bent on keeping her from having it.
Before he left, Zach sent me to Ignis, the fire realm, to wait until he and Luke came back. That’s where I met Heath.
When I first saw him, he was an underlord who liked to mess with my mind. He would test me every time he was near me, seeing if I could withstand his compulsion. I thought he was just playing around, having a bit of fun until he fought Finn for the right to claim me. Finn was the lord of fire until he decided his feelings for my best friend, Cassie, were more important than power.
Even though I hadn’t known what would happen to me, I was thankful Heath won that battle. And amazingly, somewhere along the way, I grew to care about him. I still can’t grasp why it happened. One minute I couldn’t stand to be around him and the next, I was on the island trying to bond with him. I told myself there was no other way to escape the Order and Ainessa, but sometimes I think I might have real feelings for him. It’s impossible for me to know, but there is one thing I can’t deny…he was the only one that came after me when all of them knew I was in trouble. Sure, Jett showed up with the fae army at the last minute, but Heath was the one that got me out of danger. It wasn’t his fault that I stepped right back into it.
The Order used me just as much as the fae ever hoped to. They experimented on me, took my eggs, and tried to inseminate me. When that didn’t work, they sent Roger Wayne in to seal the deal. I’d run to escape Roger and found Heath coming to rescue me. Turned out Roger wanted out of the Order, but he sure was one sick puppy. He even married me to get me out of the compound long enough for Heath to come get me.
I almost laughed out loud thinking of the absurdity of the situation. I could no longer pretend my life would go back to normal. Not that it had ever really been that way. Growing up, I had always felt different than the kids at school, and it wasn’t because I was the only one who had lost her mother.
Something inside me recognized that I didn’t belong with humans.
You see, I have power these men want. I am what’s called an Elemental. I can manipulate all five elements, which is pretty rare. Most Elementals only have power over one element.
Each of the lords standing in front of me wanted my power for his own reasons. I have glimpsed a fraction of their motivations, but some like Heath were as cryptic as a dead language. I shivered thinking about what I would be doing in mere moments. Like it or not, I was about to mentally tie myself with people I really knew nothing about. Tabitha had claimed this was for my protection, so Ainessa couldn’t hijack my mind to claim me herself.
This was just temporary, and I knew it. When we finally rescue my family, I will have to pick a lord to be my bondmate for a very long time.
Whatever happened to good old-fashioned dating?
Tabitha craned her neck in my direction, her pale grey eyes studying me. At certain angles, they looked completely white. Freaky effect, but I’d gotten used to it. She’s a kooky old bird with her strange eyes and cryptic communication skills. She’s the spiritual leader for the fae, sort of like a shaman or something. The worst part about her is she can read my mind. I tried not to let my thoughts wander any farther, even though I’d bet it’s harder than holding onto a bolt of lightning.
I glanced at Luke to distract myself. The glamour he’d used today misted over his real appearance. I didn’t let on I could see underneath it to his disfigured face. The deep gash near his right eye still puckered around the tight scab. Dark purple bruises freckled both of his cheeks, spraying out to parts of his forehead. One, maybe even the worst of the bunch, circled his neck as if someone lassoed him and hung him from a tree for days.
The jury was still out where his nose was concerned. It sat askew on his face, as if broken ten times too many. Weren’t fae supposed to heal fast? Whatever I did, I needed to keep my concern for him from migrating to my face. He was too proud a man to want my pity. The sadness lurking in his eyes made me want to pull him into my arms to sing lullabies until he found the peace of sleep, but I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of his peers. Ainessa maimed more than his body on that island. As I fought the tears that threatened to betray my thoughts, my throat thickened uncomfortably.
He looked away after offering me a small smile. A part of my heart squeezed in response. Did he think I was that shallow? That I wouldn’t care about him if he was disfigured for good? Such a thing would be laughable. Even in this state he was more beautiful than most men could ever hope for. I wanted to console him but had no desire to torment him further by making him talk about what had to have been unspeakable. He would tell me when he was ready, or never. It was up to him.
I sought a different place to rest my gaze and found Jett’s emotionless eyes watching me. “Come on,” I said, meeting his stare with a challenge of my own. “Are you guys afraid to be first or something?” With uncertainty clinging to my mind, I studied his hard expression. I thought he would be pouncing on me by now.
Tabitha stepped forward, giving me a tiny laugh. “That is not how this type of bonding works, Rayla.”
Would have been nice to know that before I spent over an hour worrying about exactly how I was going to bond with these men. Oh well, chalk another one up to fae keeping secrets from me.
My shoulders relaxed a bit without me having to think much about it. The only bonding I had seen or experienced involved kissing. There’s that physical contact I mentioned before. I found myself feeling almost disgusted at the thought of having to seal my lips with each one of these guys while the others watched. I now held a hope I wouldn’t have to sink that low after all. I looked into Tabitha’s nearly white eyes even though I knew she really couldn’t see me. “Mind giving me a better idea what to expect then?” I hadn’t meant for frustration to set my question on edge, but it was unmistakably there.
When Tabitha stepped closer, she placed a gentle hand on my arm. Her earthy scent lingered around me. It was lavender or lilac mixed with the deep scent of moistened leaves. “I need to test your connection to each lord, first.”
I yanked out of her grasp, backing away instinctively. The first time she tested my connection with Jett nearly knocked me out. It just got worse from there. Having no desire to do such a thing again, I gave her a firm shake of the head. “Uh-uh, I don’t think so.”
She sent me a shrug but inched nearer. “I have to make sure you will not gravitate too strongly to one of them.”
I clenched my jaw while still managing to retreat a step. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Her cheeks pinked up, but I doubted it was from embarrassment. More likely, she was getting frustrated with me. It was in the set of her hands. Her fingers were balled into fists. Her breath whooshed out before she spoke. “The purpose of using a lesser connection,” she said “is for you to have a chance to choose who you will ultimately bond with.” As if I didn’t already know that—she and Valen, the head of the fae council, had made sure I understood this was not a permanent solution. She smirked and it looked all wrong on her. “If you start the process now without testing for anomalies, you could be bound to whomever the elements choose for you.”
Unpleasant as it sounded to be zapped by that horrible electricity, it would be worse, if, after all my fighting to keep my freedom, it was taken from me anyway. I stretched my arm toward her knowing full well once she clamped her fingers around my wrist, they would stay there until she was done with me—no matter how loudly I complained.
Her cool skin might as well have been a reflection of her unreadable expression. Without another word spoken, she lifted her chin toward the sky. Her eyes moved rapidly under the cover of shaded lids. My fingers curled, itching for a brush and some paint. This was the first time in a long time I’d thought about painting. I had been a bit distracted, but seeing her like this brought back inclinations that lay near the surface. She was a fascinating creature. I wouldn’t dare name her a mere woman. She was so much more than that. It was as if I could see the span of all time in her unnerving gaze.
After what was definitely an agonizing few minutes, she opened her eyes and faced Heath. He stepped forward without having to be asked then took her other hand. I tensed, expecting the worst pain of my life to wrack my body, yet nothing happened at all—not even a twinge.
When I opened my mouth to speak, Tabitha beat me to it. “Your connection is strong but not complete. This is still possible.”
That was it? Why wasn’t I writhing in agony right now? Every other time she had tested my connection with a lord had been excruciating. Heath nodded at her then stepped back in line with the others. He hadn’t bothered to glance at me even though I had stared at him hoping he would. I found myself lingering on his angular features. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tell what he was feeling.
Was he as dejected as I was about this whole thing? Did he wonder, like I did, what would have happened if he had bonded with me in the jungle before we went to find the others? I had to stop myself from going further. I was projecting my feelings onto him, and I should know better.
He was probably relieved that Luke interrupted us. Now he wouldn’t be stuck with me. Hadn’t Zach said that Heath had never given himself fully to a bonding? One thing was certain: he could hurt me if I wasn’t careful. I didn’t want to be as into him as I felt, but despite my efforts to convince myself otherwise, he could make my pulse explode with just a glance. I took another glimpse, telling myself it would be my last until this was over.
He was studying me.
My stomach fell to my toes. I flicked my eyes to Jett instead. His face was twisted into a deep scowl.
Good. He deserved to be upset. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t yelling his head off, letting everyone know how I had been promised to him. I thought for sure the next time he had me within Lombarda he would insist I fulfill my mother’s contract.
I smiled smartly, preparing to move onto someone else, but the change in his expression stopped me. His scowl softened to a look of pure determination. He gave me a final once over before he turned to Tabitha.
“Your imminence, do you think it wise to have Heath within the circle? You have said yourself Rayla has a strong connection to him.” He lifted his brows. “What if the ritual binds them further?”
Everyone except Heath frowned. Taylor stepped forward, “For once, I agree with Jafan. What would be the point in us participating if she will become his anyway?”
To my surprise, Zach and Luke remained quiet. What was up with those two? I tried to catch Zach’s attention, but he was staring quite blatantly at his scuffed shoes. Funny that he was the only lord here who hadn’t changed clothing, which immediately made me wonder why.
“I don’t mind staying out of the circle,” said Heath.
What? I whipped my head toward him. Really? He looked serious enough. Suppressed frustration burned my eyes. He flinched when he glanced at me. “I thought we needed all of you for this to work.” Leave it to him to try and ditch me now. This just proved it. He didn’t really care about me. The fun was officially over and so were we, it seemed.
“Haven’t you been listening?” asked Taylor.
I turned toward him, slowly, trying to bite back my not so nice retort while racking my brain for an acceptable one. Man, I would have preferred a stranger to him. He was just so arrogant. It dripped off him like rain from a gutter. I shoved my hands to my hips for emphasis. “Yeah, but you guys might as well be speaking Swahili right now. In case that didn’t translate—” I made sure to enunciate each word. “I. Don’t. Get. It.”
He cocked his pretty face at me. “You already have a connection with Heath. For this to work as it should, the connection you have to all of us has to be balanced. Anything less would put you in danger, and I, for one, am not willing to take that risk for fear of hurting you.”
Tabitha raised a dainty hand, waiving him off. “That will be enough, Taveon.” She turned her attention to me. “It is very simple, Rayla. If you are too attached to one lord, the others will not be able to protect you if the need arises.”
Heath faced Tabitha. “I’ll just wait in my chambers. Let me know if you need me.”
I watched him walk away—his back rigid, his fists bunched up. That was the most emotion I had seen from him since we got here.
Tabitha caught my attention. “Ready?”
Didn’t really matter anymore. I nodded, swallowing down my fear all the while hoping I wasn’t making the worst mistake of my life.
Without another word, she proceeded to test my connection with the remaining lords. By the time she was done, I was sucking wind, straining to keep myself upright. One thing kept cycling through my mind. Why was Heath the only lord that didn’t cause me severe pain?
Once she was done turning my bones to jelly, each of the lords surrounded me. Luke faced me, and I made myself focus on the depth of his haunted blue eyes. Tabitha removed herself from the circle, but I could still feel her hovering. My body shook in anticipation that just kept gearing up. Protection, I reminded myself. I was doing this for protection.
“All mighty Creator,” Tabitha said. The sound echoed, taking on a layered quality. “Hear thy servant. We, the fallen, beseech thee to grant our petition this day. We seek to protect your chosen, Rayla Tate. Bind this circle in thy wisdom that she may fulfill thy divine purposes.”
Silence fell over our ragged group. I waited as long as I could stand it. Really I did. Before long, though, I had to know what was going on. “What are we waiting for?” I whispered to Luke.
“Shhh!” he hissed, bowing his head lower as if his show of respect could make up for my lack of manners.
I let out a heavy sigh and forced myself to close my eyes.
Just then the tiniest of sensations caught my attention, as if a butterfly had disturbed the air by my right ear. I looked around…nothing.
But—what was that? Pressure at my nape…no at the base of my spine…no everywhere—pushing in on my skin. The sensation wasn’t exactly painful, but it wasn’t like when I was with Heath. With him, bonding was seamless, enjoyable, amazing even. At that moment I noticed my arm was glowing. I followed the stream of purple light to the source. Zach.
He smiled at me just as I gave him a questioning glance. His face softened, showing me how much he cared for me. My heart leapt at the realization. I felt humbled and afraid realizing what he had already done to protect me. I had told him frivolously that I would go to hell and back for him, yet he was the one that had done it for me.
I turned away from him, not able to take the connection any more. I decided it would be best if I just let this happen without thinking too much about it. Allowing the flow of energy to enter my body I closed my eyes again. The pressure grew into tight anticipation that zinged through me.
This was it. My body tingled with change, morphing into something I wasn’t sure I would recognize when this was all over. Electricity bubbled under my skin, amping me up, reminding me of a moment I would rather forget: Back at the Order compound, May, the local bully, shattering into tiny specs of light at a mere touch from Ainessa. If the tension within me expanded much more, I would meet a similar fate.
When I was sure I couldn’t take this one more second, I heard them…indistinct thoughts mingling with my own: Will she really give me a chance? I must find a way. I would die for this woman. Why can’t she see that? The one that confused me the most shot through my mind so fast, I almost missed it. Will she ever be able to forgive me?
Then they stopped. My mind was my own again. I opened my eyes, swaying on my feet.
That was the most intense experience I had ever had. I glanced around, wondering which lord belonged to the thoughts I had captured.
Taylor stared boldly at me, but the rest looked away as if they knew I had been in their heads for that brief time.
Luke set a hand at my elbow to steady me. Memories of meeting him for the first time flashed through my head. He had been cocky beyond belief with his too sure smile and blazing blue eyes, but more than that, he had been distant. What had made him trust me enough to confide in me? Was it trust or merely the knowledge that he had no other choice if he was to have a chance with me?
Man, I wished I could trust my feelings. But I couldn’t. When this was over, I was going to insist on spending time individually with each lord, just to make sure I was making the right choice for me.
Tabitha cleared her throat. Something bad lay behind that sound.
Steeling my insides, I faced her. “What?”
She gave me a placid grin. “You will not be waiting to get to know these men better. You shall accompany Taveon to Uldran momentarily.”
It took less than a second for that to sink in. “What!” I marched up to her and placed my nose an inch from hers. “That was not part of this bargain. My family could be killed. I will not waste time while they are at risk!”
She didn’t budge. Her grin didn’t waiver, either. “Rayla. We can’t send you to face the Order now. We need to strategize, gather intel, train you.”
I stiffened. “But I thought you said training wouldn’t work.”
“I said no such thing, child. You hear what you want to hear.”
Gritting my teeth, I shook my head. “You tricked me.”
Her expression softened. “That was not my intention. I only wish to protect you.” I opened my mouth, but she rushed forward before I could get another word out, giving me a reproachful tone. “Not so long ago, you asked for training.”
“Yes, but…my family—”
I gasped, hope blossoming in my chest. “You know where they are?”
“As we speak, they are on an obscure landmass in the middle of the Okefenokee Swamp. Once again, the Order has managed to conceal their underhanded workings.”
“So they are there,” I breathed. Roger had been telling the truth. I wondered what else he knew…like where Natalie was. The last time I had seen her she had been trying to escape the Order. Her boyfriend, Sam, had been ordered to kill her, and I had been helpless to stop him from doing something stupid. Well I wasn’t helpless anymore. I had to protect my–
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We are working on that.”
A myriad of thoughts bombarded me at once. How long were they going to keep me in Uldran? I didn’t even like Taylor. Why couldn’t I refuse him period? After all, I already knew how I felt about him.
“Rayla,” Tabitha interrupted my internal rant. “In order for you to make the best choice, you have to know your options. Each of these men have much to offer you if you are willing to put aside your preconceived notions and see them for who they are.”
I glanced at Taylor again. What could he possibly offer me, other than a headache every time he opened his mouth? From the stern look on her face, I was pretty sure Tabitha wasn’t going to let this go, so I decided to concede a little.
“How long?” I asked.
“Three weeks in each province.”
“No,” I said. She was talking about more than four months wasted in the fae realms. “That would be years in the human realm. The Order will not wait that long, and neither will I.”
Tabitha chuckled. “My child, there is much you need to learn. First of all we can control time. Even if you spent three years with each lord, if it was what we wished, a mere second would pass in the mortal realm. We don’t do it very often because it becomes too burdensome to maintain a balance, but in this case, I think it might be warranted.”
Huh? Did she actually just say the fae have the power to manipulate time? If that was true, why had so much time gone by when I was in Ingnis? Why hadn’t they just rewound time to go back to get me from Utah before I knew anything about this stuff? I grunted in frustration. After all this time I still didn’t understand anything about this world. Was Tabitha telling the truth, or was she trying to mollify me to get me to go with Taylor without making too much of a fuss?
Suddenly, I ached for the ability to read her mind because she clearly wasn’t going to elaborate. What exactly would I be agreeing to here? If she was telling the truth and I could get some much needed training before I faced Ainessa again without losing anything in the process, why wouldn’t I agree?
There was only one problem I couldn’t get to leave my mind. I was already so confused when it came to my feelings where the lords were concerned. Would spending more time with them really help, or was I about to add more uncertainty to the mix?
I took a turn looking at each one of them, but that didn’t improve anything. There was only one way to find out if this was worth the effort—I was going to have to jump in feet first. Hopefully I would be able to tread this riptide.
My eyes found Taylor again. His cool exterior couldn’t mask the intensity shining in his maple eyes. Trepidation seized my lungs. I didn’t want to go anywhere with him alone. I didn’t want to get to know him. Maybe Tabitha would let me go with Luke or Zach first.
“We drew straws,” said Zach softly.
Holy cow. Did he just read my mind? I flicked a glance at him. His expression gave nothing away.
He continued without commenting to my thoughts. “It was the only fair means to do this.”
I studied him for a moment. He wasn’t glamoured up like Luke, and he looked flat-out tired. I didn’t want to cause him any more stress than he had already dealt with. These two had been through enough because of me. Maybe they would be able to recover by the time I was to go to their land. I hoped so, because I was determined to choose someone soon.
I couldn’t keep going on this way. Not knowing where my future was headed had been slowly shredding my insides. I needed some stability. I just hoped I could manage to make a choice when the time came, because there was no way I could right now.
I squared my shoulders, inhaling a long breath. With more effort than it should have taken, I walked up to Taylor. He looked down at me, still wearing his placid exterior, even his eyes had gone neutral. Did this guy ever show emotion?
When he reached for my hand, I let him mold his fingers to mine. It wasn’t exactly painful for me to be around him. That was, as long as he kept his mouth shut. I owed it to myself to give him a fair chance. What if I was wrong about him?
“Bye,” I said to no one in particular and followed him into the castle. We walked down the corridors in silence. My heart beat frantically in my chest.
“Aren’t we going to get my stuff?” I asked.
“Your needs will be provided for. You mustn’t worry so much.”
Right. No worrying. Like that was going to happen.
“I would really like to say goodbye to—”
“We haven’t the time, my lady. I am sorry, but I need to get you to Uldran as soon as possible.”
I glanced down the hallway to my right. Nicco stood in front of a door. Was that Heath’s room? I swallowed my anxiety, at least I tried to. What was his problem anyway? Nicco gave me a nod. I smiled, but Taylor pulled me forward. I gave one backward glance before I addressed Taylor’s statement.
“What did you mean by that?”
“We will discuss things once we are settled.”
That was it. End of topic. I tried not to notice the stares we received. At one point, the hair on my arms stood straight on end like someone was secretly watching me, yet there was something else in the foreboding that rushed through me…like an inevitability I would have to face soon.
Taylor hissed in a breath and quickened his step, not wasting any time leading me outside. I hadn’t been able to talk to Lacey, or, well, anyone. The worst part was I still didn’t know what they were going to do with the other Elementals they’d taken from the island. Tabitha had agreed to my terms, but if I wasn’t here to make sure things happened the way they were supposed to, would they?
We glided down the glowing staircase out into the morning. The air was crisp with sweet nectar wafting around us. Everything here still amazed me, from the crystal castle’s waterfall that seemed to have no source to the little glimmering specs in the wind. I took one last look at the castle with its jutting spires and nearly see-through edifice. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful castle, yet something here was dark and twisted as if in direct opposition to the shimmering façade.
“You have a very active mind,” Taylor commented in his honey tones. Much like Jett, his voice was his weapon against me, lulling me into a state of bliss with mere words.
I nodded. What was I supposed to say to that anyway? Was he trying to get me upset by implying he could hear my thoughts? Could he hear my thoughts? One thing was certain: I was going to find out. I angled my neck slightly, taking in his scrumptious good looks and deliberately thought. At least I’ll have a nice view if I end up stuck with him.
His face twisted into a grin. “Once I get you home I’ll give you a better one.” A smile played on his mouth then he shrugged. “Why wait.” His fingers floated over the buttons of his shirt unfastening them in succession.
The heat of a blush rose up my neck. He laughed. Well I guess that answered that question. I grumbled curses to myself for being so stupid while shaking my head at him. If I hadn’t known better I would have said he was teasing me. “Okay, I’m sure your bare chest would rock my world, but you can stop now.” He smirked at me so I gave him a face. “Why can’t I hear your thoughts?”
He smiled, and it brought out a softness in his eyes I had never noticed before. “Because, my lady, I am not allowing you into my mind.”
“That implies, my lord, that I am allowing you into mine.”
“You are correct.”
That couldn’t be right. I wasn’t purposely letting him through my walls. Did that mean I needed new ones? I focused on my barriers. To my surprise, they were all down. Every last blasted one. I zipped them back up, attempting to not let my embarrassment color my face. Yeah right.
When we reached Taylor’s entourage, several carriages waited for us. Taylor apparently liked to travel in style. The Sleek coaches were uniform and, no surprise here, black. If they had been cars, I would be looking at five Maseratis. I wasn’t sure I wanted to ride with him in such enclosed quarters for however long it was going to take us to get to his realm, especially if they were magically amped like Luke’s ride had been.
“Drifting is not a common ability,” he said conversationally. “Most fae avoid travel as much as possible.”
“You’re still listening to my thoughts!”
A smile crept up his lips. “Rayla, we are connected now. It will take more than those puny walls you constructed to keep me out of your mind.”
I was tempted to stick my tongue out at him, but knowing him, he would take it as an invitation. “Okay,” I said. “Teach me how to do it properly.”
He scoffed. “Why would I do such a thing? As it is, I am beginning to understand you. I know what you think of me. You are correct about many things, but I am not giving up simply because winning you will be challenging. I assure you, I have dealt with worse in my existence.”
I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. This was absolutely unfair. I knew from reading Lily’s journal that this man was capable of kindness, but it had taken him nearly two hundred years before he started opening up to her. Before that, it had been a dictatorship. She had been lonely. That was why she had taken to entertaining herself in the most unusual ways she could find.
He snapped his head toward me, interrupting my contemplation. His expression was guarded, but beneath that I thought I saw what? Regret maybe? “How I treated Lily is none of your concern.”
“I beg to differ. The best predictor of the future is the past. I’m not willing to spend hundreds of years with a decided bombast just because you want me to.”
Apparently dismissing my insult, he replied in a smooth tone. “I know what you require from a relationship, Rayla. In fact, I am looking forward to giving you unguarded moments into my mind, but not here, and certainly not now.”
What was that supposed to mean? A wary fog blanketed his eyes, clouding any real answers from me. He glanced behind us as if looking for a tail then pushed me forward. This was the most emotion I had seen from him, and I was beginning to understand that Heath wasn’t the only lord keeping his feelings guarded. I climbed into the middle carriage wondering why he looked so upset. When I finally had a moment to check behind us, no one was there; yet the hair on my neck rose. We were being watched again, but by whom?
Once we were settled, the carriage lurched forward, pushing me back against the plush velvet bench I was sitting on. Taylor pulled the curtains shut without another word. His shoulders held a visible tension that worried me more than I wanted to admit.
My mind stirred with the possibilities for his unease. The only thing that made much sense to me at all was he was worried someone would overhear our conversation. Did the counsel have someone in the bushes surveying us? Could it be possible my thoughts were not safe? When I glanced up at him, he nodded. I shuddered, but refused to let any thoughts about that knowledge into my mind. Instead, I focused on thinking about what Uldran was going to be like. It seemed like it would be a safe subject. I sure hoped it was.
“Will you tell me about Uldran?” I asked.
He shifted in his seat, seeming pleased by the change in conversation. “What would you like to know?”
First things first. “Where is it exactly?”
“In human terms, Mid-Atlantic, I suppose.”
Great. Another island.
“You misunderstand.” His light brown eyes shone with mischief. “Uldran is unlike any place you have ever been. In fact, it might be possible you have heard legends about my home.”
I scoured my brain for legends that involved islands or the Atlantic Ocean. The only one that made any sense to me was Atlantis. Was he actually implying it was under water?
Again, he nodded. How was that possible? I imagined glass domes one crack away from making me a permanent fixture of the ocean floor.
Taylor laughed. “You have seen too many movies. Uldran is one of the safest places on this planet.” When I stared at him warily, he continued, “You will have to see it for yourself.”
I shifted uncomfortably on my too comfortable seat and inhaled slowly. One of my biggest fears is drowning. Cassie helped me learn how to swim, but that was in the safety of a pool no deeper than twelve feet. “How are we going to get there?” I tried to laugh, but even to me, my voice sounded strained. “I don’t suppose your carriages can morph into submarines?”
He moved swiftly to my side, tucking a finger under my chin. With a gentle force, he lifted my gaze to his. “I have given up much to have a chance with you. I would hardly let you drown.” He took my hands between his, which only managed to make breathing harder than it already was. “You are forgetting one very important point, my dear.”
I eyed him warily. “Yeah? What’s that?”
“You have the power to drain the oceans if you wish. The elements are yours to command.”
I kept my yeah right to myself and said instead, “It doesn’t always work for me.”
“That’s merely because you have little experience. You lack the knowledge, but more importantly, the faith. I will teach you as much as I am able given the short time we have together.”
Despite my anxiety about being with him for so long, I found him interesting. I was going to try to keep an open mind because I knew I wouldn’t be doing myself any favors by being pigheaded about him. He might just surprise me.
Chapter Two At last the carriages rolled to a stop, so I chanced a peek into the everlasting daylight. We were nowhere near water as far as I could see. A thick tree line hugged the road, which, unfortunately, made it hard to tell exactly where we were.
Taylor joined me at the window, his ear nearly touching mine. The heat from his body warmed my arm, making my unease at his closeness spike.
When I glanced at him, he gave me a smile better suited to the devil. Charming was this guy’s middle name. Once I got over my dislike of his formality, I decided he wasn’t such a bad guy. He had been gracious enough to teach me how to strengthen my mental barriers even if he hadn’t known he was doing it at the time. I laughed thinking about how he had reacted when I figured it out.
As it turned out, I had been trying too hard, just like Heath had told me. Crap. I didn’t want to think about him right now. What was I going to do if, in the end, he didn’t want me and I was still stuck on him?
He seemed to be all I could think about which annoyed me. Even though I was pretty sure Taylor couldn’t hear my inner turmoil any longer, I needed to get my thoughts under control.
We had just started on what turned out to be not so long of a journey, only a few hours really, when he let it slip that I had overcooked my barriers. I adjusted them and just like that I felt an immediate difference. My mind felt like my own again even though I hadn’t noticed the intrusion in the first place. I know. It didn’t make sense to me either.
Taylor hadn’t let on that he knew what I had done, but I felt safer with my thoughts. He shifted on the seat beside me, his knee touching mine as if we were old friends.
“From here, we drift.”
His matter of fact statement caught me off guard. “But I haven’t ever been there before. How will I know where it is?” My fears overtook me. How will I not be swallowed up by the ocean when I go too far?
He gave me a placid look. “I will guide you.”
But I didn’t exactly trust him. Recent events let me know I was a bit too gullible for my own good. Heath had shown me the island before we drifted there to save Zach and Luke. I grunted, why did all my thoughts have to return to him?
I studied Taylor for his reaction. “I want to see it.”
“And ruin the surprise. I don’t think so. You will have to put your faith in me. It is the least you could do considering all you have been willing to do while with my brothers.”
“That’s not fair.”
“That’s not the point, my lady. I wish to guide you…” His mouth turned in a frown. “Please.”
For heaven’s sake. Why was I even considering this? I took his outstretched hand, readying myself for the trip.
Without another word I was floating on a stream of matter. The movement sent my world teetering and my equilibrium on vacation. It still amazed me I could think and feel while disassembled or whatever happened to my body during this process. What a way to travel. I supposed it was probably like teleportation, but I really couldn’t say just how long my molecules were freed. I was also amazed every time they seemed to be all in place once we found our destination. The process couldn’t take more than a few seconds, but it seemed so much longer.
Somehow, I figured I’d be soaked when we landed in Uldran. To my surprise, I was completely dry. When I opened my eyes, my mouth gaped.
“Wait,” I said. “I thought you told me we would be under water.”
“We are,” was Taylor’s helpful reply.
“Bull crap.” We were in a field full of flowers. The grass reached my armpits. I mean we were supposed to be under the ocean.
He laughed. “Look closer.”
I nearly fell over tipping my head back. No way. What I had initially taken as sky was undoubtedly water above me. Swarms of glowing fish littered the space over us. Taylor guided me out of the field and onto a dirt road. From where I was standing, I could have been on any country lane with trees and flowers and everything. The colors were vibrant like Lombarda, but the air was different. It pushed at my skin, a bit like humidity, yet it was more oppressive. I eyed the unending water again questioning my sanity.
“This is impossible.”
Taylor squeezed my fingers, motioning me forward. “I brought you here first to allow you ample time to adjust to your surroundings. Up ahead is Escara, the capitol of Uldran. My estate is not too far. It’s on the outskirts of the city. Would you like to continue on foot?”
I nodded, not able to do much else at the moment. In a funny way the schools of fish seemed like passing clouds if I didn’t focus on them.
Oh, who was I trying to kid. This was just too weird for words. Here I was, on the bottom of the ocean, and I didn’t feel a bit different, except for the usual disorientation that comes when I drift. I hoped at some point my body was going to get used to traveling this way. Until then I would be left as disoriented as if I had ridden one too many carnival rides.
A sudden flash of nausea hit me. My stomach clamped into a fist. When I stopped abruptly, Taylor was right by my side.
“Are you unwell, my lady?”
“I…I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“It is most likely the pressure. Your body will adjust soon.” When his arm snaked around my waist, I’m ashamed to admit I leaned into him. It was only for support, so I hoped he wouldn’t mistake it for affection.
“How far have we gone, anyway?”
“All the way,” he said, grinning before he waggled his eyebrows at me playfully.
Like the idiot I was impersonating I stumbled. His hand snaked out to right me.
Who was this man, and what had he done with the stern, formal lord I had met at St. Mary’s College? Okay, so maybe I should have worded my question better. I laughed, cuffing him on the shoulder. “That’s not possible! I’d be dead right now.”
He shook his head, laughter creasing the corners of his eyes. “You are still thinking in human terms. You are not human, Rayla. When are you going to accept this about yourself?”
Not human. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to accept that no matter how many weird things happened to me. I raised a hand skyward. “But how does this work? I don’t see any structures holding the water back.”
He shot me a speculative look. “What would you do if I told you there isn’t any?”
I’d normally tell him to stop being so ridiculous, but considering what I was seeing, I couldn’t do that. “Then what is?”
I pursed my lips together then pulled in a long breath. “Let me get this straight. You’re telling me that the minute you all stop concentrating on keeping the water at bay…” I swept my arm sideways for emphasis. “All of this will be swallowed up?”
A spark of something curious flickered across his face as if I was missing some sort of inside joke. “It will be easier for me to show you, but now, my lady, you have many eager people waiting patiently in my courtyard to meet you.”
I shook my head. Of course there were. I wasn’t ready to be bombarded by people already. “Can’t I get settled first?”
His expression hardened instantly. “No.”
“What if I refuse?”
“Go ahead. You will still meet my followers.”
I glanced at him sidelong. His jaw was set, but not as tight as his shoulders. I sighed. “Fine, but I want to rest afterward.”
He pulled me into motion. Before long we were at a simple garden gate that led to fields overflowing with flowers and grasses. Off in the distance a vast structure sat atop a hill. Something just occurred to me. If we were really beneath the ocean with so much water between us and the sun, where was the light coming from? A soft glow enveloped everything it touched from the trees to the grass to Taylor.
I might as well have been watching one of those old time movies where women’s faces were filtered to look more becoming. The strange effect intrigued me, but I was already a bit overwhelmed to ask him about it at the moment. How could trees, any ordinary plants, for that matter, grow on the bottom of the ocean?
“We don’t have much farther,” Taylor said out of nowhere. “However, if you would like, we could drift.”
Wait a minute. A statement like that could only mean one thing. I whirled on him. “You’re still reading my freaking mind, aren’t you?”
He shrugged sheepishly.
“Seriously!” I had just lost any amount of trust I had gained with him.
He stopped and placed a hand at my elbow. “I merely seek to know you better, Rayla. I cannot give less than my best effort to claim you. For my people.”
I looked him square in the eyes. “What about for you?” The last thing I wanted was to tie myself to someone I didn’t love, or worse yet, to someone who didn’t love me.
“Love!” he spat. “Do you know the damage that has been done in the name of love? Could you even understand the horrors I have witnessed—all committed for love. I will take friendship, loyalty…devotion before I would seek after something so fragile.”
Now we were getting somewhere. “You just admitted it. You don’t want me.”
“That is not the point.”
“It is to me. Taylor…” I took his fingers between mine. “Taveon—”
He stopped me with a raised hand. Something dangerous lay within his expression. “Call me Taylor.”
I frowned. “Why?”
He shrugged. “I would prefer it.”
Okay. That was weird. I shook my head at him. “Let’s get this straight between us, Taylor. I will not give myself freely to anyone for less than love. People are flawed, not love. Love just is. If you let it into your heart, you might find that you can’t live without it.”
He whirled away from me without commenting. When I didn’t immediately follow him, he turned, shoving a hand at me. “We are expected. Come.”
Great, another man treating me as if I were his dog. I was just going to have to get through this. So much for keeping an open mind. I couldn’t live with this man knowing I could have more with someone else.
Before I could think anything else, Taylor transported us into the middle of a multitude of people. He smiled sweetly for the crowd, yet animosity pulsated from him like an errant sun. No one else seemed to notice. How could he disguise his feelings so well? If I hadn’t been part of our conversation, I would have thought he had enjoyed our little stroll simply because of the artful smile on his lips.
Deceit was something I couldn’t take. I’d already had so much from every lord I had encountered. Even with as open as Heath had been about his motives, I knew he was hiding something from me. They all were.
Why couldn’t they just say what they wanted? Why all the underhanded tactics? Besides, if this was simply about power, Taylor should have his fair share now.
Taylor cleared his throat loud enough to startle me before his arm clamped around my shoulders. “Everyone, allow me to introduce Rayla. She will be our guest for a few weeks, and, creator willing, she will choose to become one of us.”
The people engulfed me, offering smiling faces full of friendly comments. I tried not to let my uncertainty show, but who knows if it worked. After initial greetings, Taylor led me to a patio where lunch was being served.
Good thing too, because I was starving. Heavenly aromas wafted around me, making my hunger ten times worse. He pulled a chair out for me then settled beside me, his elbow nearly touching mine. I didn’t get to enjoy the food much with all the questions in my head tormenting me. I shoved the game hen into my mouth as fast as I could manage and slurped it down with whatever punch they provided. I hadn’t even been here a day, yet I couldn’t wait to leave. The people were nice enough, but what was the point in me being here?
Taylor had already made it clear to me that there was no use in trying with him.
“Rayla,” he said, his sharp tone bringing me back to the present. He slid his fingers around the stem of his glass then tugged in a drawn out sip of his drink before he spoke again. He was studying me, his honey eyes distant. “Would you like to get settled now?”
He didn’t have to say another word. I stood, pushing back my chair, and suddenly, he was right beside me, guiding me up some stairs toward his modest estate. It was smaller than Roger Wayne’s place, yet it was just as nice. The structure was made of something I didn’t recognize, but the sparkling black stone rivaled the glowing air.
Once inside, he led me down the hall to an understated bedroom, especially compared to what I had seen in Ignis and Lombarda. It was maybe twelve by twelve with a full sized bed up against one wall. I smiled. There was a comfortable feel to the space.
“The washroom is around the corner. You will find all you need inside. I have taken the liberty to obtain a few of your things from your room back at school.”
I snapped my eyes toward his. “You did?” When did he have time to do that?
“I wish for you to be comfortable here.”
I never expected such a kindness from him, not in a million years. I decided now was a perfect time to study the intricate patchwork quilt Aunt Grace had given me. I hadn’t even recognized it. “Thank you,” I said, sounding shy even to me.
He didn’t say anything else before he closed the door softly behind him, leaving me to the silence. Maybe I had misjudged Taylor. I wasn’t sure of anything anymore: who I loved, who I didn’t. How could I be sure with compulsion hanging over me, making me feel things that weren’t real?
I cased the room, looking for my stuff. He had brought everything I left behind at St. Mary’s College. Tears formed in my eyes. I still didn’t feel connected to him, but he didn’t deserve to be treated like a jerk when he wasn’t one. I made a mental note to try harder.
Clutching my favorite sweats and t-shirt, I headed for the shower. No one lingered in the hallway when I peeked around the door. This was just what I needed. Time to myself. Time to think about what I really wanted, but more importantly, time to discover how I was going to get it.
The water warmed my skin, releasing tied up muscles in my back. Man, I was uptight. Fate of the world stuff was draining, especially when people kept me purposefully ignorant. Wait. What if Taylor would tell me what the prophecy said?
Did I even want to know what it said anymore?
My muscles knotted again. I breathed in slowly, realizing it didn’t matter what was in the prophecy. I make my own fate. I was not predictable. Even Tabitha had said that, so who cared what she had said millennia before. I had planned on getting some rest, but what I really needed was answers. Hopefully, Taylor would give me some.
I found Taylor sitting in an office, to my surprise, up to his elbows in paperwork. Somehow, I thought the fae would be above all that. A pleasant breeze full of the fragrance of summer sunshine met me in the hall. The soft light sifting through the open windows haloed him in gold. He really was something to behold.
Unfortunately, that frown of his would have cut lasting lines into his face if he were human. Seems I wasn’t the only one uptight.
I gave a timid knock on the door even though I probably should have turned around. As if I had pulled him from an abyss of utter darkness, he smiled groggily at me.
Taking no time at all to stand, his eyebrows pulled together in concern. “Rayla, why are you not resting? Is your room not to your liking?”
I stepped into the small office, meeting him halfway. “It’s nothing like that. I just wanted to thank you for bringing my things here and…talk to you.”
His lips turned in a delighted smile, all evidence of distress washed away. He gestured for me to sit then did the same. “I am pleased that you are pleased. I will gladly get you anything else you need.” An awkward moment passed between us, cementing the reality we were strangers, before he smiled again. “What do you wish to speak about?”
I didn’t even really know at this point, but I plunged in anyway. “I have a proposition for you.”
Wariness settled in his eyes. “I’m listening.”
I cleared my throat. How best to say this without getting him all riled up? “I know you don’t really want me.”
He sat there, eyes wide, for all of a second before he spoke, “I may have—”
I waived him off. “No. It’s okay. I feel the same about you. I like you just fine, but I don’t feel the sort of connection I would need for me to want to be your bondmate.”
His already unpleasant frown deepened into a scowl. “You haven’t given this much effort.”
I shrugged, trying my best to be nonchalant about the whole thing. “Tell me you feel differently.”
Lips pursed, he let out a ragged huff. His voice came out pinched. “I am trying—”
“You shouldn’t have to try. That’s my point. Connections should be seamless. I don’t want to be unhappy, Taylor.”
He shook his head, his face unreadable. “This doesn’t sound much like a proposition to me.”
“I was getting to that. You see. I don’t just want to make the best decision for me. I want to do what’s right for everyone. I think that for me to do the most good for fae and human alike, I need to be completely invested in the relationship I ultimately commit to. I don’t know if that’s possible with how little time I have to get to know all of you, but I want to make sure I am doing the right thing. I don’t want to mess this up. I know the prophecy says—”
His face went cold before he interrupted me. “If you are here trying to get me to disclose the details of the prophecy, you are wasting your time…and mine.” He pointed out the gigantic stack of papers on his otherwise orderly desk. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I have matters to deal with.”
I flipped a hand in the air. “You know that’s not why I’m here. Don’t think for one second I’ve forgotten you are still in my head. I need to learn how to keep you and everyone else out!” My voice had risen a few octaves, so I made sure to calm myself before I spoke again. “I could help you, Taylor, and your people. What would you really gain by bonding with me other than a pain in the neck?”
He sighed. “This is about more than just power, Rayla. Despite the congenial façade the courtiers wear in public, we are on the brink of war. Some within my realm are hoping for just that. We need leadership.”
I leaned on my arm, hoping he would explain, but when he didn’t, I asked, “Why are the houses at odds? I don’t understand. You said yourself that you all have everything you could want here.”
He raised his dark brows in clear mockery. “We live on the bottom of the ocean, for starters.”
I laughed, and instead of giving me another scowl, he smiled. Wide even. My laugh turned into a bit of a giggle. “It doesn’t seem that bad.” After all, I had mistaken the water above for sky.
“It isn’t really, especially compared to some of the realms, but the idea we have to live here is the problem. You asked me why the water doesn’t come crashing in around us; well, certain Uldranians have been assigned to the task of keeping the water at bay at all times. I guess you could say it is their job.”
I sucked in a harsh breath, my mind tripping over this new tidbit.
“Not to worry, my dear. Your fear of drowning is comical. If you only knew the power you possess. If you could glimpse a fraction of what I see in you, you would laugh yourself.”
I wasn’t laughing now. That was for sure. This was no freaking joke. How would he feel if he was in a new place with all new people and just found out he could die in the next second if a few people fell asleep on the job?
He let out a boisterous laugh that filled the room, the sound hitching my breath. “It doesn’t work that way. You do have the imagination.” He stood up. “Come with me. I wish to show you something.”
I followed him into a courtyard below the main estate. Off in the distance a large pond glittered in the diffuse light. My whole body tensed when he took me to the water’s edge. Was he going to test his theory? I could swim, but I wasn’t that great. I tried to wait patiently for him to do something.
He just stood there, gazing out over the water, his eyes showing a pain I had never seen in him. Was I wrong about Taylor? Did he feel deeply yet didn’t show it?
He reached a hand toward me, and I placed my fingers between his, wondering what this was all about. With sudden stealth, he pulled me next to him, his neck craning around behind us as if to make sure we were alone. Not a moment later, he breathed into my ear. “From here, we drift.”
Before I could get the question out of my mouth, pure matter closed in around me. My mind whirred. Where was he taking me? I could stop this at any time. I knew I could, but for whatever reason, I wanted to see what he was up to.
We emerged at the edge of the woods. Familiar sights and sounds startled me, bringing a sense of dread I hadn’t expected.
“Take me back,” I hissed immediately. Why did he bring me to St. Mary’s College? Didn’t he know Ainessa and the Order would be looking for me?
He squeezed my fingers. “If you truly wish to understand me, this is the best way I know of to show you.”
“Don’t worry; I would never let anything happen to you. We are concealed.”
“How?” I thought Zach was the only lord capable of manipulating space.
“I will explain the mechanics later. For now, please, trust me. You are too important to my people, nay, to the very existence of my entire race for me to be careless. You should know that about me by now, Rayla.”
Yeah ‘cause we’d spent so much time together. I glanced at him, trying not to let my snarky thoughts show even though I knew he could still read my mind. His eyes pleaded for me to give him some leeway. Should I? I had gotten into too much trouble already by trusting so willingly, but I was asking him to trust me. How could I give anything less to him? I let my chin fall in a short nod and found myself pulled into motion.
I remembered this part of campus. If we walked a couple of minutes east, we would end up at Le Mans Hall. I honestly never thought I would see this place again.
The new school year must have already started because chattering girls were everywhere. I gave Taylor a panicked expression, but he didn’t react. After a few minutes, I realized he had to be telling the truth. No one noticed us even when we walked right beside them.
Taylor was the kind of handsome that demanded to be admired. From his sensual mouth to his smoldering honey eyes to his perfectly muscled frame, yet not one person looked at him…or me for that matter.
To my surprise, he didn’t take me to Le Mans Hall. We veered down a side path I was sure I had never taken. He led me into the trees without saying a word. I glanced sidelong at him, about ready to scream at him to tell me where we were going because I did not want to end up in the borderlands at the moment, when I heard singing. A woman to be precise.
Her haunting voice propelled me forward on invisible wings. I found myself listening intently, hoping she would never stop.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? It is what I miss most about her.”
We turned a corner, revealing a clearing up ahead. Sister Mary Margaret, or, as I now thought of her, Lily, sat on a fallen log. If it weren’t for her silver hair, I would have mistaken her for a student trying to get some alone time. She was still very beautiful even though the fire of her hair had long since died out.
Taylor pulled me closer to the woman that I had originally hoped would help me escape the fae, but now I was almost glad she hadn’t succeeded. My life had become much more complicated since I was taken to Lombarda, yet richer.
I loved being in the fae realms. Despite my initial concerns, I hadn’t met a person other than Ainessa I felt was truly evil. I didn’t know if even she was all bad. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t stand the woman, but what would I be doing right now if I were in her place? If my only chance at happiness meant hurting other people, would I be strong enough to deny myself?
“You are nothing like her, Rayla,” Taylor commented, pulling my mind back to the task at hand.
“Thanks,” I said, wishing he would explain why he brought me here.
He gave me a small smile before his eyes drifted back to Lily. “I come to see her every day.”
I followed him down to the grass, taking in the deep, earthy scent of the morning. The dew seeped into my sweats, but I was too focused on other things to care about it. It would have been impossible for me to look away from Taylor. In one glimpse, I was witnessing more emotion from him than I thought he was capable of. He never looked away from Lily. It was as though he was studying every angle of her face, memorizing her in vivid detail.
“Why?” I asked, my voice hoarse. Why would he want to torture himself like this?
He lifted a shoulder lazily. “Not much time remains. She will be called home soon, and I will be without her for good.”
Rustling sounded down the path. Taylor’s expression shifted from sadness to concern in less than a heartbeat.
I watched the path, thinking it was just a bird or small animal. To my surprise, Adam Wilder from IPS rounded the corner. His face was flushed as if he had been running, just like the last time I’d seen him. That was before I knew what the lords had planned for me, before I knew I would never have a normal life.
He heaved a relieved sigh when he saw Lily. “Sister.” He gave her a brief smile. “I hoped to find you here.”
No longer the exuberant girl I had seen in the borderlands, Sister Mary Margaret stood, facing Adam with a guarded narrowness to her brown eyes. “What can I do for you, my dear boy?”
Pulling a familiar device out of his pocket, he studied it for a moment then looked at her. “I have new evidence.”
Evidence of what? On further inspection Adam didn’t look so great. He was skinnier and his blue eyes had become sunken and wary.
“I’ve already told you I cannot help you in this regard. You need to move on with your life. Jessica is gone.”
“She isn’t,” he insisted. “She can’t be.” Without taking his eyes from her, he turned on the recorder.
A gravelly voice could be heard, barely, but it was discernible enough to make out the conversation Gibbit had with Ainessa in my room. It seemed like ages ago. Time was no longer measurable for me. Days seemed like years or hours depending on the circumstance.
Sister Mary Margaret scowled. “How does this concoction of yours relate to Jessica’s disappearance?”
He flinched when she said concoction, and his mouth turned hard. “She was working on a theory with me.” Adam hesitated, as if he was embarrassed to say what came next. “About otherworldly beings who live on Earth.”
“Aliens?” asked Sister Mary Margaret. I had to give her credit. She kept a straight face.
“Well, sort of.” He shuffled his feet uncomfortably and ran his fingers through his short hair, making it stick up like he had just gotten out of bed. His eyes suddenly hardened. “Why won’t you talk to me? She was your aid. You have to know, more than anyone, who might have taken her.”
She gave him a soft expression and an even softer tone. “Jessica was a disturbed young woman. You have to accept that. Anything could have happened to her.”
Adam’s hands fisted, his mouth drawing into a thin, white line. “I will find out what happened to her, with or without your help. Think of her parents. Jessica is their only child!”
I should have never agreed to help Adam. I wasn’t sure how he got a hold of that tape. I didn’t remember giving it to him. I hadn’t had time. My fingers absently pressed the note I carried with me—everywhere I went now. I shouldn’t have kept it. Adam was better off not knowing what happened to Jessica. Even if he found out the truth, he would still be left without her. She would still belong to another man for more time than Adam would be alive. Sister Mary Margaret was right.
He needed to move on.
“This will not bring her back to you, Adam,” said Sister Mary Margaret. “Her parents have accepted that she is gone. You need to do the same.”
He reached out, grabbing her elbow in what looked like a tight grip. Taylor tensed at my side. His lip curled back like an enraged lion ready to pounce.
I squeezed his arm. “Give her a chance to take care of this.”
He gave me a sideways glance, but he was focused on her an instant later. “How dare he touch her.” His voice had come out soft, but an unyielding tension made his statement reverberate in my mind.
“I don’t think he’s hurting her.”
Adam paled under the Sister’s bold stare. “Forgive me,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “I just need to know she’s okay. I don’t understand exactly what’s happening here, and I’m not trying to out anyone or any thing. But I will not stop until I’ve found her, alive or dead.”
She patted his hand that lingered on her arm. “I am truly sorry for your loss. You have no idea how much I wish I could help you, but pushing this will only lead you to sorrow. Better to move on while you are still young. You have a life to live.”
Any sparkle of life he had left fled his eyes. “Not without her.”
I couldn’t believe how much this was affecting him. This was Jessica he was talking about. I shrugged. Maybe I could get the letter to him—mail it or something. He needed closure, yet, would it bring him solace? It was more likely to cause him pain.
“I have a meeting with Alex Wayne later. Maybe he will help me. After all, his brother is missing too.” A flicker of doubt crossed his eyes before he straightened his back. “I’m sorry for disturbing you.”
We all stood there, stiff as three corpses five days old, watching him leave. I had a feeling this was not just going to go away. The determination in Adam’s eyes was that of a man possessed. He would not give up. Even if his evidence could be discounted as faked, it would raise suspicion. It would also turn the paranormal investigation societies on their ear. How many people had he shown this to? With my luck it would end up on one of the TV shows that were so popular now.
I missed watching those. The otherworld had always fascinated me. I had only been given a glimpse of what it truly was, but I was eager to learn more.
As if she could sense us, Lily tipped her head toward the grass. “I know you’re here, you know. Why not show yourself?”
I gasped, moving toward her. Taylor held me steady, shaking his head.
“Don’t you want to really see her? Before it’s too late?”
With more sadness radiating from him than anyone should have to bear, he shook his head. “It is forbidden. We are not allowed contact with our bondmate once she is returned to the mortal realm.”
It hit me then, why this man had been so distant to me from the beginning. He was in love with Lily. Still. After all this time of her being away from him.
I wouldn’t be able to do it. Looking at someone you love without being able to touch them, to laugh with them, to share your dreams with them.
He really was torturing himself.
His sad eyes studied her again. “I have loved before her, Rayla. Never this intensely, mind you, but the loss gets more bearable as time passes. I have allowed myself this one pleasure, but I have to move on. It is not healthy for me to be here. I do know that, but I find I cannot stay away.” He gave me a timid smile. “I could offer this to you. It would take time to develop a relationship, time for me to put her behind me, but I wanted you to see that I am capable of giving you what you need.”
What I didn’t need was another complication in my life. I swallowed hard. I hadn’t expected him capable of deep emotion. He seemed sincere, yet how could I know for sure? I stared at him, capturing his attention. “What I really need right now, Taylor, is a friend.”
His resultant smile gave me hope we could figure things out, to his advantage and mine. “So this is your proposition? An alliance?”
I nodded, hoping he would bite.
He turned back to watch Lily again. “I would do almost anything to be able to say goodbye to her. The right way. I was foolish when I let her go. I wanted her to hate me, for her to find a man that could truly be hers. The truth is I doubt I will ever be rid of her.”
I’d experienced Lily’s heartache right along with her when I read her journal. It was the only time I felt connected with her. She had been devastated. It didn’t take her long to join the sisterhood, and I fully understood why she had done it. How could she think about another man when she had already experienced the deepest love possible? I wanted to help them both. Somehow, I thought she needed the closure more than he did.
“Uncloak me,” I whispered.
His head whipped around so fast, I nearly laughed at him, but I kept a straight face to make sure he knew how serious I was about this.
Distracted, he bit his bottom lip, not saying anything for a really long time. He would know what I had planned the instant I thought it, and for once, I was happy I didn’t have to explain myself.
“I agree,” he said so soft I barely heard him.
The air around me kicked up, swirling strands of my hair around my face.
Lily let out a tiny scream before recognition glimmered in her gaze. She ran to my side, scanning the area as if for unseen attackers. “Rayla, what are you doing here?” She stepped back, studying me. “For a moment, I thought you were someone else.” Her tone exploded with worry. “You shouldn’t be here, child. Don’t you know you are being hunted?”
What was new with that? I gave her a reassuring grin. “I’ve brought some protection with me.”
Her whole body tensed, but her face flushed. Her breath came unsteady. “I was right? Wasn’t I?” She spun around as if trying to catch a glimpse of him. “I did feel him? Why does he not show himself?”
Taylor stepped directly behind me. “Tell her it is against the rules, and she knows it.”
I made a face at him over my shoulder. “He would really like to, Lily, but it’s against the rules. May I call you Lily, or do you prefer, Sister?”
She ignored my question, speaking only to him. “Damn the rules, Taveon. I have days left, if that. I need to see you…one last time.” Tears streaked her cheeks. “That I may know you weren’t merely an elaborate dream.”
His soft groan tickled my neck, sending shivers along my spine. “Very well.” He moved out from behind me, the air shifting again—growing thick, almost tangible.
“Hello, Lily,” he murmured, stepping out of a background that danced for a moment.
Her eyes widened in shock, but soon carried only one emotion: pure love. I hoped one day I would be able to give that sort of look to a man.
Soon, I told myself.
She walked forward, but he held up a hand. “Do not touch me.”
She nodded, circling him, eating up every bit of him with her eyes. She appeared so young, but I knew she had to be pushing a hundred.
I should have felt uncomfortable, but for some reason, I was right at home watching this play out like a movie I’d longed to see.
“How have you been?” she asked. The shyness in her tone surprised me.
He chuckled. “Lonely.”
She didn’t laugh at that, instead, she stared at him, compassion softening her lips. “I never wanted that. Just because I chose a life of solitude didn’t mean you had to follow.”
“I wasn’t ready to move on, Lily. I have missed you every day since we parted, and I will continue to miss you for the rest of eternity. You brought joy to my half-life. For that, I will always be grateful. I am…sorry—”
She put pale fingers to his lips. “I will hear none of that. It is I who should be thanking you. You showed me what true love was. I will take you with me into eternity, Taveon. No matter what happens to me, you will always own my heart.”
Silent tears wet my cheeks, as if I was heart-deep into a Shakespearean tragedy. This was wrong. There should be a way for them to be together. Wasn’t love supposed to conquer all? These two had the purest love I had ever witnessed, yet they would be forever separated. How was that fair?
I stepped back, not able to bear the heartache in their eyes. I couldn’t stand to see this: my fear coming to life before me. Man, I wanted to love like they had, but look what it had done to them. Could I go through that? Did I even want to?
For the first time I realized just how much it would suck to be fae. Even if Taylor found someone to love later on, he would be permanently damaged from the loss of Lily.
“You have done much good with your life,” Taylor said softly. “Just as I knew you would.”
She nodded, smiling. “I’m sorry it hasn’t been more. I had hoped to find a way to stop the Order for good, but I will not be here to witness their end.”
“How long?” Taylor asked, his face turning the color of soot right in front of us.
“Hours now, my love.” She reached out, cupping his cheek. “I want you to find love again. Promise me.”
He raised his hand, gently molding it to hers. “I will try.”
She smiled, the result bringing youth to her face. “I better head back. I have things to tidy up in my office. Thank you for giving me one last look at you.” She let out a small laugh. “I think it might just last through eternity.”
When she turned to walk away, I hissed, “Aren’t you going to kiss her goodbye?”
His lips went all stern. “I have already allowed too much contact. I will be punished.”
I gave him a sly smile, “Then what are you waiting for? You’ve already screwed up, right? Might as well make it worth it. Besides, you can always blame me. You are trying to win me.”
To my surprise, he didn’t need any other encouragement. She was nearly to the edge of the clearing when he caught up to her. He didn’t say a word. He simply pulled her into his arms. I turned around to give them what privacy I could.
Time crawled while I studied the bushes. Pretty soon though, Taylor was at my side. “We had best head back.”
He was doing it again. Concealing his hurt under a façade of calm.
I took his hand, hoping he had given Lily the best kiss of her life, but knowing it would be a haunting moment for him for eternity.
“Please stop,” he said in a voice so fragile porcelain could crush it.
I’d forgotten about him being in my mind. “Sorry. Are you okay?”
He nodded, and without warning me, we were floating on the matter stream back to Uldran. This time when we emerged, I noticed a heavy pull to the air. The oppression of being buried by water closed in on me immediately. How could these people stand to live here?
Taylor let go of my hand and started for his house. I wanted to give him some room, but I also wanted to be there for him. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stayed close, hoping at some point he would talk to me.
We made it to the foyer before he said a word. “I think I will lie down for a while, Rayla. Please make yourself at home. A meal awaits you on the terrace.” He patted my hand. “Thank you for coming with me.”
When he walked away, I grabbed his forearm. “I’m here if you want to talk.”
He stared at the floor. “I am not in the mood, but I will let you know if I change my mind.”
I don’t know why I did it, but I pulled him into a hug. At first he was stiff. I thought for sure he would push away from me, but he let me hold him. His body trembled like a newborn colt while his controlled tears broke my heart. After I pulled him tighter, he buried his head into my shoulder. His wracking sobs shook us both, but I managed to keep my emotions locked inside. He needed me to be strong for him.
“It’s okay,” I crooned, running a hand across his hair. “It will be okay.”
I held him for what felt like forever, yet no time at all passed before he pulled away from me, clearing his throat as if he was embarrassed. “I need to be alone.” Without another word he started down the hall again. This time I let him go.
Boys had never made any sense to me and that seemed to translate into fae men as well. I headed to the terrace. The bright day should have uplifted me. So why was I picking at my food even though I was famished?
Deciding I couldn’t eat, I wandered for a while, taking in how vast this place was. Unlike my original thoughts on Uldran, there were no glass domes in sight. In fact, if I didn’t know where I was, I would have thought I was in the Midwest, somewhere in the country.
After a while another property came into view between two towering maples. The expansive estate dwarfed Taylor’s modest home. Seemed weird to me that the current lord of air wouldn’t have better digs. The modern design belonged on the pages of a trendy magazine, all sleek lines with white everywhere, as if no other color existed. It stood out like a gigantic marshmallow plunked into the middle of a cup of hot chocolate. It was also exactly what I had pictured Taylor living in originally. How wrong I had been about him. He did have feelings; he just never showed them.
Something in the air shifted, bringing me out of my musings. Every tiny hair on my arms and neck stood straight up. I glanced around me, trying to shrug off the feeling. A hiss sounded behind me. Did they really have to bring snakes under the ocean? If I was deciding what creatures to house in a realm, it certainly wouldn’t be freaking snakes.
Another hiss. I whirled around, checking the grass, but I couldn’t see anything. I hadn’t even thought about wandering this place without Taylor. The sound came again, this time closer. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but my hackles were definitely up.
“One thing I should have mentioned before is for you to stay close.”
I clutched my chest, whirling around. “Man, you scared me! Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to sneak up on people?”
Taylor laughed. “She may have mentioned it, but you deserved it.”
Anxiety lingered in the set of his mouth for a moment before it transmuted into frustration. “I am meant to protect you? Have you forgotten how many people are searching for you now?”
I guess I sort of did. Lucky for me my stalker had been Taylor. I smiled sheepishly. “I wish! Hey, are there snakes down here?”
The muscles in his jaw hardened. “Not that I am aware of. Why?”
“I just thought I heard hissing, is all.”
His tongue shot out to slide along his lower lip before his chest rose with a sharp breath. “Couldn’t have been.” His eyes darted behind me, and something about how he was acting made me know he was hiding something from me. There was no use in confronting him because he could read my mind.
Tell me when you’re ready. I’m not as fragile as you think, I thought at him before I faced the odd house. “Whose is it?”
“Mine,” he said as if I should have known.
Oookay. “Mind explaining why we are living in your guest house then?”
He glanced at his manor, but didn’t linger. “I have not lived there for many years now.”
It took me longer than it should have to realize I was making his pain over losing Lily worse. Pulling my foot out of my mouth, I said, “I didn’t mean to make you think about her again.”
“It was an honest mistake, Rayla. Do not worry about it.” He looked at the house again. “In fact, would you like to see it?”
Oh, was this really a good idea? He was already sullen.
I wanted check it out, though. Maybe seeing it again would help him get over her.
Planting a firm smile on my face, I stepped up beside him. “Lead the way.”
Chapter Three Taylor didn’t say much as we approached the property. Everything seemed to be in its place. The grounds were manicured to perfection, and the exterior glimmered as if freshly washed. When he opened the oversized front door, I let out a little gasp.
The foyer gave way to an enormous room that looked more like an art gallery than anything resembling a living area. Primitive sculptures rested on pedestals while others were housed in glass cases. Several paintings hung on the walls. I didn’t recognize the artist, but what wonderful compositions. I moved closer, admiring the fluid brush strokes using monochromatic color schemes.
“Where did you get all of these?” Had he robbed the Louvre before it became a museum?
He laughed, the sound rather pleasant. It shouldn’t have surprised me. Just like Jett, Taylor’s major weapon against me was his voice. Sultry and smooth, it nearly melted me just to listen to him say the most mundane things. “I paid for every one of these pieces, Rayla.”
I nodded, not really listening. I didn’t want to disrupt the reverent atmosphere any more than I already had. A perfectly good bench sat about four feet from one of the paintings. I took the opportunity to plant myself on the closest edge. Taylor slid in beside me, gazing up, his expression soft.
“Who’s the artist?” I asked when I had finally had my feel of looking at the landscape. A tiny cottage could be seen off in the distance with sheep dotting the hills surrounding it. If I stepped a few feet closer, I was sure I would be transported to that hillside. The artist had used so many hues of green, the painting had the understated elements of a black and white photograph.
“Lily,” he said softly. “This is my favorite. It was the last one she gave me before I returned her to the mortal realm.”
“I thought you said you paid for everything in here.”
“Are you suggesting I haven’t?”
So much for trying to lighten the mood. I shook my head. I had no idea Sister Mary Margaret painted. She probably didn’t, yet Lily had. It was weird, but I thought of her as two different people.
Taylor looked sharply at me. “It is refreshing to know I am not the only one to think that about her.”
I continued to study the painting, but now that I had him talking, I wanted him to continue. “Will you tell me more about her?”
The smile that crept along his lips actually lit his honey eyes. Astonishing.
“She was a handful from the start, demanding I take her back to her mother. She actually yelled at me for three days straight, only stopping when fatigue wore her out. The minute she awoke, she was back at it.”
“Isn’t that unusual? I mean, I thought the bond was supposed to make Elementals mindless.”
“There is much you don’t understand about the bond, Rayla. I realize why it would appear that way; still, you are correct about one thing. Lily and I didn’t have an immediate connection. It took longer than it should have for her to be comfortable with me.”
“She did seem to be rather angry at you for a very long time.”
He chuckled. “I knew she was keeping the diary. We aren’t supposed to allow our bondmate to document their time in the realms. Not since we learned the Order uses them to glean information about us. I should have taken it from her before I returned her, but I was hopeful it would be a comfort for her. Unfortunately, the Order confiscated it almost immediately. I was not able to retrieve it for her and she seemed to be adjusting to convent life quickly. I thought she would be better off thinking of our time together as a dream.”
That was a very specific comment. “Did she tell you that?”
He chuckled. “She talked in her sleep. I should have stayed away from her, but I couldn’t.”
“You’re a stalker,” I teased.
“She was my life for so long. I found it hard to let her go.”
“Was she your first bondmate?”
“I had many before her, but those were different.”
I gave him a cursory once over. “How so?”
He frowned thoughtfully. “She broke me. I had been able to keep a safe distance in other relationships. They were more like a business agreement than a marriage. But with her, I couldn’t keep myself aloof for long. She was life, Rayla.” A tear streaked down his cheek. He stood. “Would you like to see the rest?”
I nodded. What a revelation this had been. I was beginning to understand the mind of a fae lord; however, I wanted to know for sure. “Do most lords treat bonding as a business arrangement?”
He stopped and faced me. “Many do. I am unsure if it is most.”
“Why? I thought the more you give to the relationship, the more power you get.”
“Technically, that is true. Let me explain it this way. If you knew you could learn to completely control your powers, that you could send that certain princess we all despise to the utmost end of the universe with a flick of the wrist, that you could erase all the harm caused by the Order, that you could create the reality you wanted…” My ears perked up. “What would you give to gain that?”
Man, just about anything at this point. “Are you being serious?”
“As a matter of fact, I am. All you have to do is give everything you are when you bond.”
Oh. Could I do that?
“Not so easy is it?”
“Why does this have to be so complicated?”
“It isn’t for ordinary Elementals. If you were like the rest, you would have one lord devoting himself to you, and depending on how much of himself he was willing to give, you would be overcome by his feelings for you. Compulsion is our main weapon. You have to understand that by now, but once the bond is made, compulsion no longer works. If the bond is complete, it magnifies feelings to the point of domination.”
Good to know. “So what happened to make your bond with Lily fragile?”
“I was attracted to her.”
I did a double take, sure I had misheard him. “I don’t get it. Aren’t you usually attracted to Elementals you bond with?”
“Yes and no. Once a connection is established, we don’t have to work all that hard to keep our bondmate happy. She is pleased to merely be with us…usually.”
“How very convenient for you.” Stupid Faine. Why did she do this? I was back to wanting to punch her.
“It is interesting you bring that up,” Taylor said, interrupting my thoughts. “Most of the ways we are able to control an Elemental originated from her desire to protect her children.”
Well that just sucked. Anger crept through my body. Here I had everything most women could ever ask for. Although, if they knew what they would be getting, I no longer thought they would wish such a thing on themselves. I had five men devoted to me. Five extraordinary men who all wanted me. The question still remained. Why?
Power wasn’t a good enough motivation for me. None of them knew me. It wasn’t as if we had been lifelong friends. What could I hope to gain from having a relationship with any of them if I would always question why they really wanted me? It was like marrying for money or position. Civilized people just don’t do that sort of thing. Okay, maybe they did, but they shouldn’t.
I felt Taylor’s fingers on my arm. “Things have gotten out of hand where Elementals are concerned. You are right to be angry, but you could change it all. Remember that.”
The burden of his words hit my shoulders. I was already weighed down enough.
He frowned. “I am sorry to bring you more to worry about. I merely seek to help you see what your options are, my lady.”
I raised a brow. “So now we’re back to my lady?” I captured his gaze. “What happened to you using my name?”
He took an awkward step back. “I have not been myself the last few days.”
“Safe distance, right?”
How could I blame him? It wasn’t as if he was a frontrunner for becoming my bondmate.
“Stay out of my head if you don’t really want to know how I feel.”
“You don’t even know how you feel, Rayla.”
Without even realizing what I was doing, I slammed my fist against the wall. “I know, and I hate it! I can’t tell what’s real anymore. I can’t tell if someone is manipulating me or if I have a true connection to anyone. My heart tells me I love three men right now, Taylor. How. Is. That. Possible?”
He attempted to touch my shoulder, but I backed away from him. Compassion settled in his eyes. “The human heart is capable of feeling for more than one person at once.”
He laughed, giving me almost a shy look. I would have bought it more if his smirk hadn’t been there. “If you bonded with me, you wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
Great. We were back to that again.
“You are not even willing to try. I might surprise you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Go ahead then, surprise me.”
I was up against the wall instantly.
“Taylor, what are you do—”
His lips covered mine. At first, I struggled to pull away, but then I just wanted to be sure. I waited, letting his lips claim mine completely.
Nothing. Not even a twitch of emotion.
He staggered backward, looking at me like he had just seen me for the first time and wasn’t sure what to think. “That was…unexpected.”
I pushed past him. “Not to me. Why did you have to do that, anyway? Now I feel all icky, like I just kissed my cousin.” Insanely attractive cousin, but still.
He laughed. “Well, damn. This has never happened to me before.”
“You know what they say about first times.”
His brows went up.
I cuffed his shoulder. “I didn’t mean that!” Men. It’s always about sex.
He began laughing. It was such a rich sound, so vibrant. I wished I could bottle it. He slid down the wall, stretching his long legs out in front of him.
I followed him down the opposite wall. “So what now?”
“Friendship?” The word sounded foreign on his tongue.
I smiled. Maybe we were really getting somewhere. “I’m fine with that.”
He frowned. “I should step down. There is something wrong with me.”
“Yeah. It’s called a broken heart, Taylor.”
His expression fell even further. “You are probably right. Yet, it doesn’t change the fact that I am not fit to lead my kingdom.”
I stiffened. “In who’s opinion?” Before he could respond, I pressed on. “I’ve never seen someone so devoted to their people.” The closest had been Luke. I flinched, thinking about him. Was he okay?
Taylor pulled his knees toward his chest, clasping his hands casually in front of them. “You do really care about him.”
Was that a statement or a question? I gave him a look, not wanting to have to ask him out loud to explain.
“It was a statement. You are thinking about him without aid of a compulsion. None of us are strong enough to influence you from another realm.”
I sat up straighter. He had a point. “I need your help, Taylor.”
“I know you want me to tell you who is manipulating you—who you can trust when it is only you that can ultimately decide that.”
Seriously? I was a mess. Couldn’t he see that? “Then help me understand how to decipher these feelings. Help me make the best choice.” I touched his leg. “Please?”
His eyes lingered on my hand. “I really shouldn’t.” When I opened my mouth to protest, he cut me off. “But I see wisdom in doing so.” He stood, holding a hand out to me. “Come. I want to show you something.”
Now what? He led me outside once again. The air no longer held the glow of what I now thought of as morning. It was more like dusk. “What’s with the light?” I asked.
“We do our best to simulate a normal environment, including sunrise and sunset.”
Hmm, that would be interesting to see. I still couldn’t identify the light source, but I was almost certain it had to do with the air itself.
We reached the top of a hill that overlooked the city. Shimmering lights played on the horizon. Now this was more of what I had expected. Sprawling buildings, massive highways, full of life. Taylor lowered to the grass, pulling me with him. “This is my favorite spot to watch a sunset.”
I raised my brows at him surprised so much time had passed. The term sunset seemed rather odd considering we had an entire ocean between us and the actual sky.
Taylor laughed. “Just watch then judge.”
I shut up. Mentally was a bit harder, yet I managed to focus on the trees off in the distance. Who knew evergreens could grow here? They were decidedly shorter than the trees in the mortal realm. He was going to have to explain all of this to me someday…soon.
As subtle as a slanting mist, the air grew brighter. Unlike a true sunset, this enveloped me, making me part of the process, a cocoon of light wrapping around my body, sending me into a frenzy of emotions. The ambers soothed, the russets seduced, the violets lulled. I had never experienced something so tangible yet indescribable in my life. The only thing that had come close was when I had nearly bonded with Heath.
Uh-oh, at the mere thought of him, my heart raced. What was it with him anyway? He wasn’t anymore handsome than the other lords. He didn’t exactly have the best personality, either. But something within me responded to him on a level I wasn’t comfortable with.
Taylor cleared his throat. “Do you want to know what I think, my lady?”
I nodded, not able to use my vocal cords at the moment.
His hand found mine. “He has been able to accomplish what the rest of us only wish.”
I squeezed his fingers. “What’s that?”
“Somehow he managed to truly compel you.”
I considered that for a moment before answering him. On one hand, Heath had been blatant about compulsion. At first he used it on me every minute he could, but after our encounter with Ainessa, he stopped. He hadn’t compelled me once since then. That I knew of anyway.
Taylor ignored my inner musings. “I have heard of how you explained compulsion to the Elementals at the Order compound. You were close in your assumptions. Where love is concerned, compulsion takes you to the end possibility. It eliminates the need for getting to know your companion by speeding up the process. Essentially your body knows how you would feel if you were able to learn everything about the other person. Usually, the mind follows the body, but not in your case.”
“Yes, well. There is more. Once a lord establishes a connection with an Elemental, it is nearly impossible to sever. This makes the bonding process easier.”
My mind sped through so many thoughts they were a blur. “Are you telling me I really do feel this way about Heath?”
He took my shoulders between his hands, eying me steadily. “You are experiencing what you are capable of feeling for Heath.”
Oh. Capable. For so many months now I thought I may actually be what Aunt Grace would label a hussy.
Taylor laughed. “If I am certain of anything, you are not capable of being that. You have been at a disadvantage throughout this process. Normally, Elementals are only subjected to compulsion by one man at a time.” He began pacing, his arms casually tucked behind his back. “My brothers and I acted inappropriately where you are concerned.”
Geez. I couldn’t believe it. He was actually admitting it. “You’re telling me.”
His unyielding stare slithered around me. “Unfortunately with so many of us attempting to woo you, the result for each of us was watered down.” He gave me a shrug. “If I had known what was to come, I may have tried harder, but I doubt it would have made a difference.”
I looked away from him. “I think we’ve already discovered it wouldn’t have helped.”
“No.” The soft brush of his fingers tickled my cheek. “It would have. I tried to be honorable when my brothers sought other means of luring you. If I had only been paying more attention, I would have seen the signs.”
I gave him a look. Who was he trying to fool? A soft pfft came out of my mouth before I set him straight. “I think you were a little too focused on the fact that the love of your eternity was nearby.”
“I see you understand.”
I glanced at him, not able to meet his gaze. “So what do I do about this?”
“Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it will happen, Rayla. Now that you know what your feelings truly mean, you are better equipped to deal with them. Even though you have let them overwhelm you at times, you now have a distinct advantage you didn’t before: you should be able to discern intent with the bond in place.”
I had wanted to comment on something he had said before, but he’d distracted me. “Did I hear you correctly? Are you all incapable of compelling me now?”
He stared at me, not giving anything away. “I am honestly not sure. This has never been done before. The lesser bond is dangerous to say the least, and being connected to five men at once will certainly have its disadvantages.”
“Try it,” I blurted.
Confusion claimed his eyes. “What?”
I nodded, feeling more confident in this. “Compel me.”
His eyes went huge. “My lady, I do not think that is wise.”
I squared my shoulders. “Do it. I have to know.”
He nodded, but only slightly. Somehow it didn’t quite seem like a yes. “For it to be a true test, we need to wait for a time you are not expecting it.”
I let out a frustrated breath. “I would rather get it over with.”
He laughed at me, and I didn’t mind so much until I heard what he had to say. “I’m sure you would, but if I have a chance at compelling you, I want it to count.”
My groan may have been a little overdone. “Don’t start with that again. I thought we decided we were going to be friends.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “But I thought you just said—”
He chuckled, coming closer. “Just because I have agreed to proceed with friendship does not negate my desire to bond with you.”
“For the love of Pete!”
He laughed. “No, for the love of Rayla.”
Oh brother. I pushed his shoulder. “Sappy much?”
He gave me a hearty grin. “You have no idea just how sappy I can be, my lady. Now, please, we must return. It is getting dark.”
I hadn’t been paying attention to the dwindling light. Up above us, the water stirred with glowing marine life. Wow. They even simulated the stars.
He set a hurried pace, as if eager to get indoors. When I glanced at him, he jerked his gaze away from me.
What was Taylor afraid of down here? He’d said himself this was the safest place I could be right now. It had me wondering, but he didn’t comment. It couldn’t have been that big of a deal because, otherwise, we would have drifted back to his house, yet there had to be a reason for his sudden change in mood.
If I didn’t move it he would leave me behind. I took one last look at the city and that creepy feeling from earlier today flooded into me. Someone was watching us. I sprinted to catch up to Taylor then made sure I stayed right by his side.
A shiver refused to stay buried, but I didn’t think he noticed. I touched his arm, making sure he was paying attention. “What’s out here, Taylor? What are you hiding from me?”