Read an extended excerpt below:
Elemental Enmity Book IV
Travis Keller waited in the dim-lit room for another one of Lambert’s tests. The detestable man had pushed Travis to his moral limits, and he would go no further. Travis didn’t consider himself a religious man. Hell, he’d only been an actual man for a few years.
Unfortunately, the deeper he sunk into the ranks of the Order the more he realized how screwed up the organization was. Having been raised in a small town had been fine with Travis. He’d never cared much about the big city like Rayla did. She was always yapping about it whenever they spent time together.
Even though she was his cousin, he’d always felt close to her, but he didn’t—couldn’t understand her desire to have more than what they’d grown up with. Castlerock had been a great place to live. There were always plenty of pretty girls to keep him distracted, and entertainment was easy to find if a person used his imagination.
Rayla had been really fun as a kid. She came up with the weirdest games. She even tried to get him to play fairies with her and Cassie a few hundred times.
He’d watched them from the bushes, once in a while, just to see if he was missing out. It must have been a girl thing because Travis couldn’t understand the appeal of wearing glittery wings and dancing about like drunken ballerinas.
He laughed. Rayla was a kick in the pants and always had been. He’d missed her more than he thought he would when she left for college. The truth was he’d hoped they’d have a few more years together to chum around at Snow College, but he’d never admit that to anyone, especially her.
Thinking of her now in the silence of his prison heightened the home-sick knot in his gut. Lambert had done a good job of providing distractions up until a few weeks ago, when each one had become darker, more twisted. He didn’t know how much more of it he could take and stay who he was inside.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway then scuffling that lasted way too long. Something banged against the door. What the hell was Lambert doing—dragging in a body?
The door opened, allowing light to spill into the room. Lambert ambled forward with a woman attached to his side. Her hands were tied behind her back and she’d been gagged.
Great. Not again.
“Ah, my boy,” said Lambert in an overly chipper tone. “I’m so glad you are awake. I’ve brought a present for you.”
Travis grunted. He was sick to death of Lambert’s presents. “I’ve already told you I’m not interested.”
The man shrugged. “I’ve made every accommodation for you, Travis, and I will make no more. This is the last one. You either comply or she dies.”
Travis gritted his teeth. “You wouldn’t.”
Lambert stiffened, gave Travis a hard stare then pulled something from his pocket. He held the switchblade in front of the girl, only waiting moments to release the blade. “Try me.”
It was a bluff. Lambert wouldn’t kill an innocent girl. He couldn’t be that despicable. Travis frowned at the man he’d always looked up to. Not anymore. He couldn’t look up to a guy that lived the sordid life Nigel Lambert did.
Frustration leaked from Travis when he spoke. “Why do you care so much if I get laid?”
A wicked smile spread across Lambert’s mouth. “Just testing out a theory. Now what’s it going to be.” He tilted the trembling girl’s neck, repositioning the knife just below her jaw.
Even though her fear permeated the space, she struggled against Lambert’s body, making high pitched mewling sounds. Her captor yanked her closer to him then pressed the knife deeper into her throat, drawing forth a mumbled scream.
Travis stepped forward. His voice dipped low, menacing. “Don’t hurt her.”
Lambert’s eyes darted to his. Travis could hear the guy’s pounding heart and the rush of his blood, another recent ability he had no idea what to do with. He gave the man a once over. He was a coward ready to run. Just then resolve flashed in Lambert’s face, making Travis question his previous thought. Lambert shifted again, but this time Travis hesitated to push him. The girl let out a whimper but remained still as a cornered rabbit after that.
Lambert glared at him with the force of a tornado. “Then do as you are told, Keller.”
When Lambert shoved the girl forward, Travis caught her around the waist, halting her fall. He glowered at the man in front of him, asking, “Who is she?”
“Nothing more than a good time, boy.” Lambert turned to go, but hesitated then looked over his shoulder. The light from the hallway cast his face in shadow. “I’ll be back to get her in two hours. Oh, and Travis, since you don’t seem to like the whores, this one’s a virgin.” Laughing, he let himself out and closed the door softly behind him.
Bile rose up Travis’s throat. How could he do this? He’d be no better than Brody Smith. He shoved the memory out of his mind. He had to focus.
The girl’s body shook so badly he was afraid she’d be nothing more than dead weight in a moment. He lifted her into his arms and lowered her gently onto the bed. Soft sobs escaped her. Gagged and bound, she was at his mercy. Her tear filled green eyes searched his, but how could he offer her any comfort, especially since seeing her in such a compromised position was surprisingly erotic?
He reached out and touched the line of blood flowing down her neck and she stiffened, quelling his desire for her. Travis shut his eyes tight against the vision. Once he had composed himself he knelt beside her, noticing for the first time her flowery scent. He brushed her dark hair out of her eyes and sighed. “I’m sorry about this,” he said. “But I’ll be damned if I’ll let him kill you.”
The girl nodded once, her eyes trailing down his body then back to his face, unspoken trepidation lingering in those green depths. She was pretty and soft in all the right places. If he could get her into it, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad for either of them.
He removed her bindings then her gag. She sat up, rubbing her wrists. Her eyes fluttered before she gave him a shy glance. A hoarse whisper passed her lips, “Go ahead. Just get it over with.”
He shook his head. “I don’t’ like this anymore than you do.” To calm his ragged heartbeat, he took a deep breath. “If we do this,” he said, “we’re both gonna enjoy it.”
She frowned at him, but she didn’t push him away when he kissed her.
***** Nigel Lambert waited in the hallway, listening to the conversation. He’d done everything in his power to turn this boy into an Order soldier, but even with ongoing injections of the serum the stubborn lad was too much like his adoptive father. John Keller had resisted his attempts until Nigel thought he’d go mad.
The truth was he needed this boy if he was to ever get Ainessa back. He’d willingly given up everything: his wife, his daughter, his only chance for finding true happiness for a fae princess that had betrayed him. She thought him a simple human, yet, if his hunch was right, this simple human had the one thing in the world Ainessa needed.
He walked to his office and turned on the news. With so much war and destruction going on, he couldn’t see any reason to fight for humanity. His princess would make this world right again. She’d left before he could share his extraordinary findings with her. He had to get her attention somehow. And Travis was the key. He didn’t know what about the boy had interested her so much, but he sensed something…a subtle difference that he couldn’t define. It didn’t really matter; Travis was nothing more than a bargaining chip.
Even though Ainessa had betrayed him, he still wanted her. He smiled, anticipating the day she’d come to him. She’d beg him to help her again and that would be the day he would rule the world.
All was going as planned, yet a twinge of guilt marred his happiness. If only Amy was out of the picture for good, yet he couldn’t bring himself to order her killed. She’d been his faithful wife, after all. The least he could do was keep her alive.
His deft fingers riffled through the pictures on his desk, finding the one he could not part with. His eyes traveled the soft slope of her cheek toward the lips he longed to kiss, even now.
Amy had been beautiful, no stunning, in her younger days, and, even still, being more than twice their age, she rivaled most Elementals. He’d considered himself lucky to have found such a vibrant woman full of youthful innocence, yet her innocence had been the constant barrier between them. A worldlier woman would have appreciated his ambitions, but not his Amy.
She had been an idealist, hopeful that the world could change, people could change. A dark chuckle escaped him. He knew better.
Real change happened only through force. If there was one thing he had learned from the Order, it was that.
Even so, no amount of coercion would ever really change a person inside—even when the coercion came from a fae princess or a future king. His only hope was that he could get the boy to bend to his will for a time. He looked at the couple in the monitor and smiled. At least for today, he had accomplished his goal.
Chapter One An unrelenting chill beckoned me out of a dreamless sleep. My eyes refused to open, yet I couldn’t quite retreat into the pull of the netherworld. As my mind focused, I realized only half of my body quivered from the cold. The other part of me lay within a blissful cocoon of warmth.
The firm object I rested against radiated heat better than a stoked furnace. I rolled closer to the source, trying to bury myself inside it. With the movement, my muscles groaned, making me aware of muscles I’d managed to never use in my entire life until last night. In fact, oddly enough, every part of me hummed as if I’d run twenty miles in ten minutes flat.
Unbidden images from last night flooded my mind, my body tightening in response.
The fire lord.
A tight squeal wanted to race up my throat, but I managed to keep it in. He slept peacefully right next to me, after all.
My eyes followed the taut curve of his shoulder, down his chiseled bicep to his long, tapered fingers. I could still practically feel his hands on me…his lips…his teeth. I shivered with the memory, which only managed to make me more aware of the man lying next to me.
Funny that a few short weeks ago, I would have never admitted my feelings for him. When I first met Heath in the fire realm, I did everything in my power to avoid him. Even with the enviable position of possessing power over all five elements, my attempts hadn’t helped me at all. I smiled, remembering the way he’d bullied me into caring about him.
From almost the beginning, I’d thought I’d known who I would choose as my bondmate, and, actually, I did end up boding with Zach, but Heath had stolen my heart right out from underneath Zach’s…and Luke’s grasp.
So much had changed since I crossed into the Fae realms. Before everything shifted, I’d thought I would belong to one of the two men that had captured my heart at St. Mary’s College. Unfortunately for them, I’d been able to resist their compulsion long enough to let Heath have a shot with me.
My mind recoiled from thinking about those two. Even with everything that had happened between us, I still cared about them; but Ainessa, a fae princess with ambitions to transform our world into her own creation, had gotten them both, and I still didn’t know what I was going to do about it. No matter what, I was going to figure out how to help them.
Even now, I wondered how long she’d been controlling them. Luke was the first to attempt a bond with me back at school. He claimed it had been a mistake, but he ended up repeating the process here in the realms. He’d sworn he had things under control after we escaped the island, but Ainessa had been the one at the helm. Had he been influenced from the beginning? Had Zach? There was no way for me to know for sure.
One thing was certain, though, if it hadn’t been for Creed’s interference, I was pretty sure I would be bound to Luke right now. Creed had gotten me out of a couple of really tight spots, and I would be forever grateful to him and his monster friends. Creed happened to be the leader of the Dark Realms. When he found out Ainessa was after me, he set out to protect me, and he’s been absolutely true to his word. I owed him my life and my freedom, and I wouldn’t forget what he’d done for me. If I ever was in a position to help the creatures that inhabited this forbidden place, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it.
I’d taken so much for granted. Where I grew up, people did what they said they would— for the most part. Even now I found myself expecting people to keep their word. But that was the old Rayla talking. I had to toughen up to have any chance of facing Ainessa and winning.
I still couldn’t believe she’d gotten to Zach. I thought him incapable of being compelled. If I was being fair, I’d thought that about all the lords. They were so big and strong, brave and loyal. Truthfully, I figured they’d be able to protect me no matter what, but come to find out, I should have listened to Gibbit.
The little troll had been telling the truth when he warned me to stay away from the Water Realm…and I’d made fun of him. I’d done so many stupid things. The worst of which was giving up on Heath just because Tabitha showed me a stinking vision that included him losing his soul. To my defense, I had been trying to protect him when I agreed to go with Tabitha back to Lombarda, but it still didn’t seem like a good enough reason now.
If it wasn’t bad enough that I barely managed to escape Luke, I’d bonded with Zach because Tabitha told me it was the only way to save the people I love, including Heath. It took every ounce of gumption I had to go through with it.
My feelings for the other lords had changed when I committed to Heath. I still loved them, in a way, but I had made my choice, and I was sticking to it, or him, as the case undoubtedly was.
I had no idea Tabitha and Heath had set the whole thing up to see which lords were being controlled by Ainessa. I was still trying to get over feeling betrayed by them. Every time I thought about it my insides boiled, but I hadn’t addressed it with Heath—yet. I didn’t want to waste time being mad at him when I just got him back. However, that didn’t stop my mind from rummaging through worst case scenarios again and again.
As it was, I had no clue how the fae council would react to what I had done. Valen, the council chairman, told me if I didn’t give myself fully to Zach, he would choose someone to take over. I hadn’t purposely held back when I bonded with Zach; yet, I was able to resist his compulsion. Well, it was really Ainessa that time, but I wouldn’t have been able to manage it if it hadn’t been for Heath’s help.
My power had never been stronger when I’d blasted Zach’s body with pure lightning, and I was sure it was because Heath was there guiding me. I still had so many questions, so many worries. I was sick to death of making so many mistakes. I needed answers, and I was going to get them even if I had to invade Heath’s mind to do it.
His arm flopped over me, instantly sheltering me from the cold. He grumbled some incoherent phrase, and I smiled, curling into his embrace, eating up how close he was. A soft glow emanated from the fading candles in the corner of the room, casting his chiseled features in exaggerated relief. My lips curved in a smile I couldn’t have held back any better than Niagara Falls. Well, maybe I could have handled that particular wonder of the world more easily.
His chuckle startled me, but I managed to stifle my gasp. The raspy sound of his morning voice held a sexy base that wasn’t normally there. He trailed a finger along my cheekbone. “Can’t get enough of me, huh?”
At any other time I would have snarked out a comment, but right now, I couldn’t. “Never,” I said, placing my hand above where his heart beat a steady rhythm. I could never get enough of touching him, either.
Warm fingers traced a line along my side. He gave me one of his tiger grins, and I shivered. “In that case…” He pulled me closer, scrambling my brains again, and I succumbed to my desire for him. A desire so bright, I was sure it would never fade.
***** Heath was true to his promise to give me some time to settle down. He kept us holed up for more than a week, not that I was complaining or anything. No one disturbed us, and I could have stayed like that forever, if my conscience hadn’t been gnawing a hole in my gut.
As much as I loved him, which was more than I’d ever thought possible, I had other people I had to worry about. I also had to figure out how I was going to break the binding spell the Royal Guard placed on me, so I could actually do something useful. Jerks bound me to the realms, which pretty much made my vow to destroy the Order a vain threat.
Waiting had never been one of my strong suits. I’d asked Heath to bring Tabitha to our room so we could clear the proverbial air.
His hand coiled around mine moments before she walked through our doorway. The instant I saw her, my insides stiffened. I’d let her rule me because of my fears. I’d let her manipulate me into bonding with Zach, when it should have been Heath all along. Nothing she did made any sense.
I’d been warned about the treacherous fae council. I’d been warned about trusting anyone within the realms, and the moment I put my trust in her, she betrayed me.
She flashed her teeth at me; however, the gesture had no chance of resembling a smile. Her voice came out low when she spoke. “Good to see you among the land of the living.”
What was she being grumpy about? I’d been the one that had to face the consequences of her decisions. Besides, if she was so worried about how I’d handled things, she could just rewind time, unless that had been an empty promise as well.
“Come now, child,” she said. “Complaining will not aid you in getting what you desire.”
I scoffed at her. “Seems neither will you.” So much for diplomacy.
Her face twisted into something akin to regret, if that was even possible for her. “Rayla,” she said, her wispy tone full of so many unspoken emotions.
She wasn’t about to disarm me that fast. I glared at her. “What?”
To my surprise Tabitha’s expression softened. “I’m sorry for deceiving you.” She splayed her hands sideways. “There was…no other way.”
I shook my head. “Ainessa could have taken control of me at any time. How could you put me in that kind of danger knowing what she has planned?”
She didn’t even flinch when I said Ainessa’s name even though I had been berated for using it in times past. It was stupid to say her name out loud, but sometimes it just came out of me. Besides, it reminded me of who I was up against.
She sighed and said, “There are things you do not understand; things I need to explain. You were being guarded. There was no way she could have captured your mind. Give me some credit.”
A disgusted huff raced up my throat. “After what you pulled, you’ll be lucky if I ever speak to you again.” I walked closer to her, but my mind traveled to the last time I’d seen Zach, crumpled, broken. My temper died on a gust of remorse. He hadn’t even moved after I blasted him. “What if I hurt him?” I said to no one in particular. I let the real question fizzle before it fully formed in my mind—what if he wouldn’t forgive me?
Tabitha’s expression held the sad sympathy of a parent gazing at an injured child. “Ammon is fine. In fact, as we speak, he is organizing your rescue.”
A jolt of fear shot through me. Had I misheard her? “My what?”
She shook her head as her pale gray eyes settled on mine. “He is your bondmate.”
“Is aware.” She finished for me.
My hand flew to my mouth. “What are we going to do?”
She chuckled. “It’s good to see you asking for a change.”
Why did she have to do things like that? Was she trying to make me angry?
She cocked an eyebrow at me. “Shove your temper in your pocket, girl. We don’t have time for it.”
I laughed, looking down at my t-shirt and sweats. “I don’t have any pockets.”
Her smile crinkled the corners of her eyes, lending her an unusual softness. “I know you secretly hoped that you and Heath could stay here forever, but such a thing is not possible. This is only a temporary fix for a problem I’m afraid has no answer.”
What did she mean she didn’t have an answer? “This whole thing is your fault!” My voice kept rising with my words. “What did you think would happen when you had me bond with Zach? That his sister wouldn’t try to compel me? That he wouldn’t care that I want Heath instead of him?” I grunted in frustration. “I’ve hurt him in every way possible. How could he possibly want me back?”
She cleared her throat, clasping her hands in front of her. “Are you quite finished?”
My eyes narrowed until she was the only thing I could see. “I haven’t even begun, you crazy old woman!”
“That’ll be enough of that,” said Heath from behind me.
I whirled around, hurt eating up my face. “You’re taking her side?”
His expression softened. “This isn’t about sides, Rayla. You’re still focusing on the wrong things.”
My hand found my hip. “Oh, really, and what exactly should I be focused on?”
In a heartbeat, he slid his tongue along his upper lip and smiled, making me aware of my own parched mouth. So not fair of him. I gritted my teeth together. Neither he nor his darned mouth was going to distract me again.
I’d somehow managed to get Tabitha to come here, and I wasn’t about to let her leave before I knew exactly what I was up against. Every time I had mentioned talking to her before now, Heath had set about diverting my attention to more pleasurable things. Well, it wasn’t going to work this time around.
His long legs made short work of the distance between us. With a crooked tilt to his lips, he smirked. “Care to say that to me out loud?”
My eyes shifted to his collarbone. As tempting as it was for me to let them wander down the valleys of his bronzed torso, I kept my focus. “Do you always walk around half dressed?”
The smile in his voice was hard to miss. “Not sure yet. It is rather hot down here…” He leaned in closer then pulled in a long breath, tickling my senses. “…especially when I’m near you.”
“Oh, you’re bad,” I said, smiling. Movement across the room caught my attention. Tabitha was trying to escape…again. I glared at Heath, who shrugged, and raced after the reluctant mage. “Where do you think you’re going?”
She whirled around and groaned. “All right, child, I will talk to you, but not here. It is not secure enough.” She glanced at Heath and said, “Bring her.”
***** We followed Tabitha into the tunnels that from what I could see made up the hub of the dark realms. They went every which way, seeming to have no order at all. A body could get lost here in a second. Being the wimp that I was in the dark, I grabbed Heath’s hand.
The farther we travelled, the more my stomach hurt. Pretty soon, I swayed on my feet from disorientation and nausea. Without warning Heath picked me up. Telling me to hold on, he took off at hyper-speed, sending my head on a trip to never-never land. I buried my face in the hollow of his neck, concentrating on breathing.
When he finally placed my feet on the ground, I twisted away from him, hurling the contents of my stomach onto the musty dirt. My head still hadn’t stopped spinning, and I started to believe it never would.
Heath’s hand rested on my shoulder, while the other hand pulled my hair out of the way as I retched repeatedly. An unexpected sound came from him, something like humming, before his fingers massaged my back.
I went to thank him for being so kind, but my whole body convulsed from another bout of nausea. Heath knelt by me and held up my shoulders. “I’m sorry I had to put you through that,” he said, “but there’s a possibility the Guard could sense you while you are in the tunnels. We are only strong enough to fortify a few rooms as it is. Tabitha’s room is the most secure.”
My mind refused to think about why she was more important to protect than me. I was so tired of running, so tired of hiding. That’s all I’d done since Mom left me with Aunt Grace.
Remembering my former home, I let my lips curl in a small smile. For once in my life, I was grateful for the bit of normal I’d had with my makeshift family. Right now, I would have traded all my power for a chance at an uncomplicated life.
Heath grunted and stood up, pulling me up with him. “You were bored out of your mind in that hick town. Stop making things worse than they already are.”
Wishing I had a toothbrush or at the very least some gum, I wiped every bit of spittle off my cheek, gazing up at him. “How is any of this my fault?”
His hand shot out to caress my face. “It’s not.” He shook his head, his eyes softening. “I wanted to have you longer than this. I can’t stand the thought of you going back to him.”
I blanched, my heart stalling at his words. Then panic set in. “I’m not! What the heck is going on, Heath?”
He wouldn’t look at me, but Tabitha spoke up. “We had hoped the bond would shift to Heath once you two…” As her words faltered, her cheeks pinked up, and I suddenly got her meaning. I gasped, my eyes going huge. “I’m afraid,” she continued, cutting off my reply, “we will have to deal with this in another way.”
I gritted my teeth until my jaw hurt. I couldn’t believe what she was telling me. Was she actually saying all this time they’d given me to be with Heath was because she allowed it, because she wanted me to have sex with him? When I gave her a look, she glanced away. I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear that one anyway, so I focused on diverting the issue back to where it needed to be. “I’m not going back! You can’t make me.”
Tabitha waved a dismissive hand. “I wouldn’t dream of it, child, but the longer you are away from your bondmate, the worse your symptoms will become. It would be better if you return while you still have the ability to think for yourself.”
I’d seriously figured it was just a matter of time before I gathered my army so we could swoop in on the council and bring some much needed butt-kicking to the uppity dictators. They weren’t giving me time to do anything. “This can’t be happening,” I said, a deep sadness washing through me.
Heath’s arm came around my shoulders as he pulled me tight against him. “Trust me,” he whispered into my ear. “I don’t like this any better than you do.”
My eyes found his. “What are we going to do? We have to fight this.”
He laughed. “I’ve done everything I know how to do, Rayla, and a few things I shouldn’t have tried.”
I swallowed, remembering some of those things. Tabitha cleared her throat, that pink tinge back in her cheeks.
A smirk took hold of my face. If she didn’t want to know what I was thinking she should stay out of my mind.
I hadn’t even noticed the small table in the corner that Heath led me to. The chair creaked under my weight, so I readjusted my lower half when the legs wobbled. Seemed somebody needed new furniture.
No one talked for a really long time, and my mind whirred with horrible thoughts about returning to Zach. How could I leave Heath, especially after what we’d shared together? Was I just supposed to go back to Eirie and pretend nothing happened? Pretend I hadn’t given my soul to the man I loved?
Heath sat up straighter and smiled at me; a wicked sparkle reflected in his eyes. “We’ll figure it out. Don’t give up on us just yet.”
I tried to smile back, but it didn’t feel right. “I wouldn’t have to even think about this if Tabitha wasn’t being so stubborn.” I faced her. “Why won’t you help us? You could take us back to before I bonded with Zach. We could have a redo.”
“Manipulating time comes at a great cost.” Her expression grew grim. “It is an absolute last resort. There’s so much you don’t understand—can’t understand. We are not able to share some knowledge with you.”
More rules to keep me in the dark. I couldn’t see how this was ever going to work out. “What was the point in bringing me here if you’re just going to send me back?”
Tabitha sighed. “I didn’t say I was going to send you anywhere. You assumed that. It can only be your choice, but to be fair to you, you need to know the risks associated with staying here. The bond is not easy to withstand, even for someone with your unusual…abilities; however, I will aid you in every way I know how.”
I gave her a halfhearted smile, crossing my legs in an attempt to get more comfortable. “So what’s your plan? You do have a plan, right?”
She laughed. “More or less.”
I ran my tongue along my teeth, trying to find the right thing to say to her. There had to be something that would get her to help me. Even though it might not be a big deal to her, the thought of losing Heath after I’d just gotten him was devastating, not that it would ever be easy for me to leave him.
No wonder Mom had her memory wiped after she left me with Aunt Grace if it meant pain like this. She’d been going back to Theran, a horrible man and a bondmate she didn’t love. If he was who I had to face for a few centuries, I’d want my memory gone, too.
Tabitha gave me a look. How was it I couldn’t seem to remember this woman could read my mind? I laughed when she smirked at me.
“We thought Ainessa would give you more time to adjust before she made her move,” she said. “We never anticipated she would attempt to control Ammon so close to your bonding, or we would have taken precautions.”
Some kind of prophetess she was. I took a deep breath. “I don’t think Zach thought she would attempt it, either. Guess she’s pretty desperate.” I fiddled with the hem of my shirt, uncomfortable with my thoughts. It wasn’t as if I could simply shut off my caring for Zach just because I’d chosen Heath. Even though I no longer wanted the lord of space in that way, I still wanted him to be okay, to be happy. There was one thing I needed to clear up before I found out anything else. “Why does she hate her brother so badly?”
Heath clasped my hand. “You needn’t feel guilty for caring about him, Rayla. We are all concerned about him. He and I may not be close, but I will do all in my power to remove her from his mind.” He rubbed my knuckles, his brown eyes connecting with mine. “We’ll figure out a way to defeat her without hurting him. I promise.”
My fingers slid along his until they intertwined. He was taking this much better than I thought he would. I gave him a shy glance, still not sure how to handle my emotions. “Thanks for being so great to me.”
His smile stretched into a full-out grin—a mischievous one at that. “I’m just getting started.”
Someone cleared his throat, so I pulled my gaze away from Heath. Creed stood in front of me, a grim line pulling at his mouth.
When I stood up, the chair clattered to the floor behind me. “What’s wrong?” My heart hammered in anticipation of what could only be bad news, if the look on his face was any indication.
His gaze settled at my feet. I narrowed my eyes at him, trying to figure out what was different. His face had changed, again, becoming more angular, almost handsome. He still had scales on a patch of skin near his nose, but he was definitely changing at a rapid pace. When he finally spoke up, his voice came out nearly normal, only an occasional hiss. It was a nice sound. “I’m deeply sorry to have to tell you this, Rayla, but I have been unable to locate your cousin.”
A lump formed in my throat I could barely swallow past. “Have you mentioned this to Aunt Grace?”
He shook his head. Heath snagged my hand and squeezed then turned to Creed. “I’ll need to know where you’ve searched,” he said, “and whom you’ve spoken with. He’s not in the realms so he has to be in the mortal world.”
My brows furrowed. “How do you know he’s not in Faeresia?”
Heath smirked at me. “I’ve got ways.”
Ordinarily I would have given him a big smile and bantered for a while about his ways, but I couldn’t do that right now. I had other people to think about. Uncle John had to be going out of his mind worrying about Travis, and Aunt Grace was probably already digging a tunnel out of here.
I caught Heath’s eye. “Mind sharing some of your secrets?”
He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and chewed. I really wished he wouldn’t do that—made my mouth jealous.
Taking one last glimpse of his lips, I forced myself to turn away from him. “Thanks for the update, Creed. Please work with Heath to locate him. Oh, and could you also look for Natalie and Sam. The last I heard, the Order had them.”
Even though I only met Natalie in college, she had become important to me, and I kind of felt responsible for what happened to her. She may not have even shown up on Roger Wayne’s radar if it hadn’t been for his interest in me. I’d probably never know for sure if she still would have been captured, but given how the Order treated, usually killed, those who did not go along with their plans or posed a threat in some way, I was worried about my friends.
After I sent Creed a mental image of the two, he gave me a sharp nod. Wasting no time, he pulled Heath into the tunnels.
A soft touch settled on my upper arm. Tabitha’s voice came out in a whisper. “It will be okay, Rayla.”
I placed my hand over hers. “I sure hope you’re right.”
She nodded solemnly then motioned me over to the table again. It was a good thing Heath left because I’d managed to break the chair I’d been balancing on. Without even thinking about it, I imagined the chair whole.
The air changed, growing thick with power before suddenly all the scattered pieces rose into the air and hovered for a moment. With a sharp snap the pieces joined together, splinters and all. I covered my gasp with my hand.
Tabitha choked on something before a grin split her face. “Child, we’d have no problem if we could just get you to focus that power of yours more often. If I had any doubt you were the Nexus before, they’ve vanished.”
I grimaced. “Control?”
She nodded. “Control.” In an abrupt motion she was on her feet.
I still hadn’t sat down, so it was easy for her to pull me deeper into her chamber. She ambled toward a bookshelf, motioning me to follow.
Just like my room, her walls were sculpted dirt; while a mixed up mess of tree roots and gemstones made up the ceiling. Kind of brought to mind a starlit sky, in an odd way. The moist earth infused the air with a rich quality, reminding me of my days spent training with Jett. I missed him quite a bit and hoped we could settle into a friendship at some point. I could see why Mom had relied so heavily on him. He was solid and strong, just like his element.
We stopped in what looked to be nothing more than a hallway with a bookcase against the wall. Tabitha pulled a large tome off her dusty shelf, brushing the cover lovingly with her fingers. I sidled in next to her and peeked at the book. It was old. Way older than Lily’s journal had been. The spine showed centuries of wear, even missing in a few spots, which exposed the folded vellum. The fivefold symbol was embossed into the aged leather.
She lifted her face toward me, her near white eyes seeming to focus on mine. “In the beginning we had to learn too.” She opened the book near the middle. “For instance, this entry will tell you the secrets of water weaving.”
She smiled wistfully. “The technique changes the molecules to a slightly negative current. This allows us to fuse the water into a solid surface.” She grinned at me. “Mighty helpful when you’re stuck in a pinch and need a barrier or even something to walk on.”
Yeah, you’d think that would work, unless of course you’re facing a pissed of water lord that wants to force you to bond with him.
She chuckled. I wasn’t sure if it was in response to my thoughts or to her own inner workings. “In my early days, I once used this technique suspended a hundred feet over a rushing river. Back then there weren’t many bridges in the mortal realm, and I had need of a quick escape.” Her eyelashes brushed her pinked cheeks. She looked so young just now. Once more I found myself aching for a canvas and brushes. One day, I promised myself. If she’d sit for me, I was going to paint her. A smile tugged her mouth. “I’d love to, child.” She opened her mouth as if she was going to continue, but no words came out. She swallowed hard, blinking a few times before she patted my hand. “I can’t deny it’s a bit flattering to have you find me so interesting.”
Who wouldn’t? I shrugged wondering what had made her so sad. “Thanks for agreeing. Sorry to interrupt your story, though. I was enjoying myself.”
A bright bounce came to her face all of the sudden. “I’ve got many more where that came from. Perhaps one day I shall tell you my favorite story…” She hesitated a bit too long before she said, “Once everything is settled. Shall we find a more suitable place to talk?”
I nodded and followed her deeper into her chambers wondering if I would ever understand her. Each room that connected to the last had minimal furnishings. I found myself wondering why she hadn’t made the place a bit homier.
She chuckled. “I have what I need. When you’re given access to anything you could possibly desire, you soon discover what really matters in life. It’s not the things, my child.” She squeezed my fingers as we walked. “But I think you know that already.”
I did. Money hadn’t made Cassie happy. All she’d ever wanted was to have her dad home, and mostly all she ever got was a present shipped from some far corner of the world. His travel totally made sense to me now, but now that I knew who he really was it was easy for me to see how and why Nigel Lambert had distanced himself from his family.
We came to a small seating arrangement with a couple ratty loveseats facing each other. An area rug anchored the furniture, but it still felt like an island in the cavernous room.
Even though it was technically bright enough, I wished we had some table lamps to liven up the place. Just like that, two blazing lamps appeared atop rich mahogany end tables on either side of the sofa without another thought. I gaped.
Tabitha’s face snapped toward mine. “About that, Rayla. You need to be careful who you show this power to. Once you are back in Eirie you will be watched constantly.” Her cool fingers clamped around mine. “Tell me you understand how important this is. You can’t even trust the lords with this knowledge.”
I tried to remember if any of them had seen me do this kind of thing…but I couldn’t recall anything specific. “I think I get it, but I’m hoping it won’t come to that.”
As long as I was distracted, the nausea wasn’t too hard to bear. I might be able to learn to live with it.
Tabitha grunted. “Heath has already explained that your discomfort will only intensify.” She patted my leg. “I know you want to believe you will not have to face Ammon again, but I am afraid it will be sooner rather than later. Take heed of my council, child.”
I nodded. It was all I could do. For so long now I had ignored the advice of my friends. Was Tabitha my friend? I still wasn’t sure, but I’d learned enough to understand I needed to change how I did things where the fae were concerned. If the council found me, I didn’t know what they would do. I was just lucky the dark realms were part of Faeresia.
Tabitha faced me. “Don’t you feel the oppression down here?”
What was she talking about? If I had to describe a feeling in the air, it would be anticipation—nervous excitement even. It was like the dirt walls hummed with it.
She shook her head. “You have a strange connection with the creatures. I’ll give you that, but you don’t know the half of what exists in this place. Pray you never have opportunity to find out.”
I repressed a shiver.
She would know, but if I had learned anything at all from my experiences, it was that I’d never be able to tell who someone was by how they looked. Sometimes pretty packages are just that, and sometimes the most grotesque creature you could ever imagine has the heart of an angel. It would be hard for me not to flinch when I saw some of the creatures down here, but I was still determined to help them. They didn’t deserve the punishment they’d been dealt.
“You’re still making judgments, child,” said Tabitha in a soft voice.
“I know.” I gave her a sad smile. “It’s hard not to.”
“Discernment is not the same as judging, Rayla, even if human dictionaries say so. We all have to make decisions based on limited information. In time, you will know the difference.”
I nodded. “I just hope it isn’t too late. I do realize what’s at stake here.”
She smiled at me. “I know you do. Now let’s get to work. There’s no telling just how little time we have.”
Chapter Two Tabitha worked with me for what felt like days, although no more than a few hours could have passed. She read from her book and laughed with me, telling me about her experiences in the mortal realm. I thought she was going to try to train me like Taylor and Jett had.
Not so much; although, she did show me how to block anyone from my mind. Where Jett had told me to have faith, she’d shown me how to believe. She was an amazing teacher, and I hoped to one day be able to spend more time learning from her.
When I’d asked her if my new mind block would work on Heath, she just shrugged.
It was great to see her at ease, even if it was just a show. If I had to guess I’d say she was pretending for my sake. No matter what she did, she couldn’t disguise the set of her shoulders or the worried tilt to her eyes. There was something she wasn’t telling me, but it was her secret to keep.
Never in my life had I felt so humbled. By the time she was done explaining things to me, I knew what I had to do, yet my fear hung around me like a wispy fog trying to gather substance. I’d never found going it alone easy. Maybe no one does, but the thought of facing the fae council without Heath or even Tabitha to back me up had me shivering inside.
Sure, I’d been able to use my power when I needed it, and I was grateful for that; but after talking things over, I realized I didn’t want to rush in guns blazing.
Somewhere along the way I’d developed a love for the fae, not just Heath, Tabitha, or even Gibbit. Lysanne had been invaluable to me, helping me to get through my stay in Ingnis. In fact, most of the fae I had met had been my kind of people.
There were always those like Ainessa and my mom’s bondmate, Theran, whose desire for power eclipsed any compassion they may have once had in their soul, but I firmly believed most fae were good. I was pretty sure the majority of them would be shocked to know what had happened to those who were banished to the dark realms for nothing more than disagreeing with certain council members.
I definitely was. The more Tabitha told me, the more I wanted to help change things. Ainessa wanted to wipe the slate of this world clean. Even if I disregarded the people that would just cease to exist if her plan succeeded, I couldn’t ignore the wrongness of destroying a perfectly good planet full of pretty good people.
She was short sighted if you asked me, but she had made it clear she didn’t care what I thought. Her attempts to get me to trust her had never quite taken. Her pretty words and beautiful face had seemed sincere, but underneath it all I still caught her true meaning. At the end of the day, I couldn’t let her have my power, and I would do anything necessary to keep her from getting it.
I turned toward Tabitha and asked, “Are you sure about this?”
She winked at me. “As sure as I can be. The future is not set, Rayla. You make your own destiny, yet there are certain markers, call them pivotal character truths, that never change. I know you better now, which helps me guess what you’ll do in a given circumstance. I’m rarely wrong.”
My brows rose, but I quickly recovered. “You once told me I was unpredictable. And what about the prophesy?”
Her light eyes closed and she nodded. “You have been the only exception. Many years ago I looked into the future for the very first time. The prophecy was what I saw, but that vision has changed every day since I met you. You, it seems, cannot be written.” When she opened her eyes again, they pinned me where I sat. “I make no promises to you, but I will support you any way I am able, even if it means betraying a people who embraced me when I had no home left. It is imperative that you prevail.” Her expression shifted to utterly serious. “Be warned, child. There is a darkness surrounding you I cannot penetrate. I first noticed it when you were battling Ainessa for control before you came here. It is an old darkness I have no name for. This unseen threat could not have been anticipated, but whoever it is has been strong enough to block my probing. You must be wary. If this threat shows himself, you must be willing to act, no matter the consequence.”
Of course there was something else. Wasn’t there always? No use in whining. It was what it was. “So, it’s a man?”
She closed her eyes and stayed silent for a few moments. Her fingers slid over mine in a casual grip and her eyelids moved rapidly as if she was viewing an internal movie. Unlike so many times before, I felt no pain. She let go and sat back. “The energy is definitely male.”
Male? That was weird. “Is he working with Ainessa?”
Her voice lowered to barely above a whisper. “I cannot say. He is strong. Stronger than any force I’ve encountered in quite some time. He is not a stable force. He shifts and changes like the days of a year.”
“And you have no idea who he is?”
She took in a deep breath. “I had hoped spending time with you would reveal him to me, but he has remained hidden, despite all my attempts. Whoever he is, he has been watching you for a long time now.”
I glanced around Tabitha’s quarters, considering what to do next. If I hadn’t been so nauseated I might have asked her to stay a while. “Well, I’d better see what Heath’s up to.”
“We all have purposes to fulfill, Rayla. No matter what happens, know that you will always be looked after.”
After that she left, wandering deeper into her chambers, not bothering to see me back to my room. I’d expected Heath a while ago, yet when I entered the darkened tunnels, he was nowhere to be seen. I sighed and focused on trying to figure out where we’d come from. Every so often a sconce lined the walls which at least made the tunnels bearable for me. The problem was, once I was out of the thin circle of light, darkness consumed everything. I just concentrated on moving from one pool of light to the next.
Without warning a high-pitched hum sounded in front of me. The haunted movements of the Alp-lauchra was something I’d never forget. I stiffened. I tried not to, but after Gibbit showed me how fast the pint-sized creatures could strip flesh from bone, I couldn’t really help myself.
Their leathery wings, only about two inches wide, made a horrible squeal that sounded a bit like crickets on crack. I stopped cold, forcing myself not to scream, to hold still, to let them pass.
Surprisingly the swarm slowed down then hovered a few feet in front of me. One of them separated from the pack, jetting up near my nose. I flinched, but I still managed to smile.
The skeletal face inches from my own tilted then nodded. A sneeze threatened to take me until I thought I’d burst from the pressure. In a swift motion it flew the other way and then back as if pointing that I was going the wrong direction.
My eyes narrowed. “I need to go that way?” I asked, pointing with one hand and bringing the other under my nose.
It was in my face in a heartbeat, giving me a quick nod.
“Wow, thanks so much. Achoo. Do you think you could lead me back to my room? Achoo.” With Zach after me, I didn’t dare linger in the tunnels.
It nodded again.
The minute it no longer lingered near my nose, my sneezing stopped. I gave a shrug then followed the creatures through the caverns, homing in on the sound of their fluttering wings. They kept close, so I didn’t lose my way. I knew full well I would have never found my room on my own.
Why was everything so far apart down here anyway? Just because they had so much room to work with didn’t mean they should use it.
When we reached my doorway the leader of the group motioned for me to enter. I swiftly complied but hesitated just inside the threshold. “Hey,” I said, working on my courage. “Do you guys want to come inside for a minute? I’ve got something I need to talk to you about.”
The leader nodded and they bolted into my room. The group moved as a collective, zigging and weaving in a way that would make any dance group envious. In an extremely creepy way, it was also beautiful.
I didn’t wait to speak up. “I’d like to name all of you.” I picked through the skeletal faces. “Where should we start?”
The leader was in my face like a cockroach on yesterday’s breadcrumbs. She gave a couple vigorous shakes to her head, which immediately produced a rapid fire sneezefest from me. She gave me a slight frown and backed away. I wasn’t certain how I suddenly knew that it was really a she, but it was unmistakably clear now.
I frowned right back at her. “Why not?”
She shook her head then shot out the door. The rest of them followed. Faster than I could blink, they were gone.
I didn’t dare question them again without backup, so I ambled over to the bed, curling over my stomach to ease the nausea. My muscles sighed when I laid down. Trying to get comfortable, I grabbed a few pillows and positioned them behind me. Where was Heath, anyway?
After a while of being alone, and having nothing else to think about, my thoughts drifted to the cause of my discomfort. I’d never thought I’d see the day I would do anything to avoid Zach, yet here I was.
Guilt and a bit of remorse coiled inside my throat. The torture Zach and Luke had faced when the Order captured them was completely my fault. If it wasn’t for me they might have taken some precautions when they investigated the island. Ainessa hadn’t wasted any time in absorbing their power. It had something to do with that ring she wore, I was sure of it. The thing had shimmered on her finger like the North Star when she pointed it at me. I shivered, remembering that horrible day.
Suddenly, I couldn’t stand to be alone a second longer. A growing ache in my chest spread through my body, and all I could think about was having Heath’s arms around me.
Not knowing what else to do, I tested my connection to him. “Heath?” I asked.
His chuckle reverberated in my thoughts before he answered me telepathically, “So impatient to get me back into bed?”
I laughed, and my whole body tingled for his touch. “I can think of worse things.”
“Well, that’s comforting,” he said from over my shoulder.
I jumped off the bed so fast my head swam with dizziness. “You’re such a jerk!”
He gave me a decided mischievous smile moments before he shot toward me. I squealed, trying to get away, knowing it was no use. Even now his pirate smile got to me. I couldn’t be sure if he was going to kiss me or make me walk the proverbial plank.
“Maybe a bit of both?” he suggested, waggling his dark brows.
My grin probably covered my whole face. Too bad it didn’t last long. I had too much on my mind to keep myself in the moment. Now that Heath and I were officially out of hibernation I needed to find Aunt Grace. We needed a plan to get Travis back. Creed could only do so much with the Order involved and the chances of him succeeding were pretty slim. “So?” I asked when Heath didn’t automatically tell me what he’d learned.
“What?” he said.
“Aren’t you going to tell me what you found out?”
He smiled, but wariness lay behind it. His voice was tender, overly so. “I really shouldn’t, Rayla.” Even before he finished I knew I wasn’t going to like what he had to say. “Who knows how long you’ll be able to fight the bond. Once you’re back on the surface, Zach could gain access to your thoughts. I would be foolish to give away any tactical advantage we might now have.”
Was that his subtle way of telling me he knew where Travis was? It didn’t really matter because he was right. I should have known better than to ask him, but I was really worried about my cousin.
The last image I’d seen of Travis had been in Eldrea when Jett tried to show me that my family was okay. Travis hadn’t appeared overly distraught in my vision of him; yet, now that I thought back on it, he should have been. I hoped he was still fighting. I hoped Mr. Lambert hadn’t been able to brainwash him or whatever he did to make people bend to his will.
Having been raised by Uncle John, Travis had an example of what it meant to be a good man. For Uncle John’s sake, I hoped Travis would use that example to emulate instead of the greedy manipulators the Order had to offer as mentors.
The thought of him having to withstand Order training sent ice spiraling through my veins, especially since I’d learned what Roger had gone through during his supposed training. I wanted to help Travis so badly my teeth ached; yet, I had to stay out of it. Until I broke my connection with Zach, I would be putting Travis at risk to even think about him, but the worst part was I had no clue why Ainessa wanted him.
Besides, what could I do for him right now? My powers might be pretty impressive by fae standards, but Tabitha was right. I still didn’t know what I was doing. I also didn’t quite get why she had only really taught me a few things back in her chambers. Talking to her had been nice, but I knew the extent of her power; I had witnessed it firsthand. She’d transported thousands of people at once out of Heath’s not so functioning sanctuary when the royal guard had come looking for me. She had single handedly silenced an entire group of fae, not to mention her mind reading abilities. She was stronger than any of the lords and that was saying something. Her restraint had to mean something. She probably didn’t trust me, and at this point, I couldn’t exactly blame her.
Nothing much made sense to me anymore, so I tried to put it out of my mind. Unfortunately, it was harder than it should have been.
Heath settled in bed next to me, pulling me along with him so we could spoon. His spicy scent settled around me, calming my nerves a bit. I loved doing this, just lying in his arms, feeling like nothing in the world could possibly come between us.
He brushed my hair away from my neck and kissed a trail along my exposed shoulder. Goosebumps exploded where his lips feathered against my skin. His deep voice sounded at my ear. “I could never get enough of you, Rayla. I hope you know that.”
A smile slid along my mouth while my heart burst with happiness. If only we could stay this way.
“I’d love to,” he said, answering my thoughts. “You know I would, but we’ll have to find another way to be together.” His body stiffened against me. “There are a few things I want to show you before you have to leave.”
My breath hitched on his last word. “I don’t want to go.”
He turned me to face him. His granite expression halted my next grumble. “If there was any other way, I wouldn’t let you.”
“Is that so?” I said, pretending to be offended.
“You know it,” he said. “You’re mine.”
I smiled. How could I consider his controlling nature endearing? No that was wrong, he wasn’t controlling so much as protective, and I kind of liked knowing he’d do anything for me. “Tell that to Zach,” I complained.
His expression grew lethal. “Don’t worry, when the time is right, there will be no mistake in his or anyone else’s mind.”
A thought wanted to surface, but I wasn’t sure I should let it. After a few seconds of indecision, I caved. “Tabitha made it sound like I was bonded to you too.”
Heath’s tawny eyes lowered, which made it pretty darned hard to figure out what he was thinking. Without even stopping to consider it might be a bad idea, I delved into his mind.
Black noise blasted my brain. I would say white, but this was definitely black. I covered my head and groaned from the pain.
Once I withdrew, I was fine again. After a moment of feeling like the biggest douche ever, I gave him a tentative glance.
His jaw clenched, and I cringed. I was so in trouble. “I’m sorry,” I hedged. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
His voice came out venomous. “Weren’t you listening just now? You having the wrong information could kill the entire planet. Does that make it clear enough for you?” His fists balled in front of him, and he closed his eyes tight.
“I—I just wanted—”
“You just wanted!” His hand slammed on the bed between us, startling me. “That’s the whole problem with you lately. God knows I realize you are young and this is unfair on an unthinkable level for you, but you can’t do things like that.”
I scooted away from him, every emotion imaginable racing through me. My body stiffening, I took a second to calm myself. “I’ve been doing my best.”
He shook his head at me, offering no amount of compassion. “You’re going to have to do better. If the council finds out I’m missing, it won’t be hard for them to guess what I’ve been up to. I’ve given up everything for a chance to have you. Don’t you realize that?”
His words hurt more than any knife ever could. “I never asked you to!”
His voice lowered and his eyes darted away from mine. “We’d better get some practice in before someone comes for you.” He extended his hand toward me. “I think we could both use some stress release.”
I took a deep breath and sighed, fighting the lump forming in my throat. I wasn’t going to cry. I wasn’t.
Heath stood up, not saying anything to comfort me. After a moment’s hesitation, I followed him into the open area of our room, wondering how to fix this.
He faced me and stripped off his shirt. Since there was no real door to our room, I glanced into the corridor. No one was there, but a hundred people may have been watching for how exposed we were. Our bed chamber was thankfully tucked into an alcove, which, surprisingly, made sleeping, and other activities, in the cavernous space much easier for me.
I frowned at him, wondering what he wanted me to do next. “I’m not comfortable…”
He laughed. “I’m not trying to get you naked, although you do bring up an interesting thought for later.” He waggled his eyebrows at me as if our previous conversation had never happened. If he was willing to forget about it, so was I. When I gave him a sly smile, he flashed his dimple at me. “I’m not accustomed to wearing an upper garment when practicing Shendo.”
My mind wandered backwards, settling on the time I’d seen him practicing the Ignisian martial art in a courtyard. I hadn’t known what he was doing at the time, but it didn’t matter. He was, in a word, amazing. I could still feel the rush of watching him. His hair had been loosed and his chest bare. I gave him a conspiratorial glance. “What about your hair?”
He folded his arms. “What about it?”
He had to be kidding. I’d been trying to get my fingers into his shiny locks for days now, and every time I did, he’d made an excuse or distracted me. What was the point in him having such amazing hair if he wouldn’t let me touch it?
My lips shot out in a pout I couldn’t quite stop. Heath grinned at me again.
“What are you smiling for?” I snapped. “You’re being mean on purpose.”
He folded his arms across his chest and cocked his head. “Mean?”
“Yeah! I’ve never seen a guy with such gorgeous hair and you keep it in that braid all the freaking time.”
I flung my hand out. “Forget it. Just show me what you need me to do so I can go to sleep.”
He grunted. “I don’t know how you think you’re going to get an ounce of sleep tonight.”
“Yeah, well I don’t know how you think you’re gonna get anything else.”
He laughed. “Well played. But we’ll see who wins this battle.”
I laughed, folding my arms over my chest, mocking him. “Really? Well then, consider it on like Donkey Kong.”
“Never mind. Would you just get to it?”
He smirked at me, which just made me want to punch him more. He relaxed his stance, eyeing me like he was some kind of kung-fu master. “Shendo is a technique used in the fire realm to maintain balance. You might say that most of us are volatile by nature, so we have to compensate.”
Like I didn’t already know that. “Vague much?”
His chuckle made my heart warm…just a little bit. “Come here,” he commanded.
My tongue jetted out to wet my dry lips. His eyes followed my movements then shot back to mine. An intense heat burned behind his chocolate gaze.
“You’re so bossy,” I said because I had nothing else.
“And you’re obstinate.” He lifted his hand casually, but it was hard to miss how he stared at my mouth. He gritted his teeth and looked away. “What’s your point?”
I shook my head and moved in next to him, purposely keeping my eyes off his scrumptious body. “What now?” I asked.
He glanced at me sidelong, his sultry mouth up-tilted. “You know how when you run, you feel connected to everything?”
Didn’t take much thought there. “Yeah.”
“Think of how your heart, although beating fast, is almost stilled. Your whole body works in unison towards a specific goal. Shendo requires that same level of alertness, that same level of serenity.”
I wasn’t sure serene was the right word for my runs. They’d been a coping mechanism for me for quite some time. “So this technique helps your mind focus?”
“Focus without thought.”
“Yes, sensei,” I said, wondering if he was going to tell me fear does not exist in this dojo next.
“See!” he said. “You can’t even go two minutes without your mind bouncing from one thought to another. What if you were to stop a thought from coming into your mind?”
My hands flew to my hips. “For your information, I’ve already done that!”
Instead of getting all curious on me, he just said, “Good. It was hard for you, though. Am I right?”
I shrugged, avoiding his questioning stare. “You could say that.”
I still managed to catch his smirk. “The more you do it, the easier it will become.”
“Maybe you should show rather than tell then.” My body tingled from the memory of him in practice, and I could hardly wait to see him in action again. Watching him that day in the fire realm had been the single most memorable performance of my life.
He gave me a lopsided grin. “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself, but this time, I will be the one watching.”
I tried to keep the big flashing huh sign from blinking on my forehead. “How can I do it if you don’t show me how?” He smiled and it was clear where his mind had taken this.
“And you say I have a problem concentrating.”
He cleared his throat. “I will show you the basic movements, but I need you to focus.” He gave an exaggerated yawn. “I’m feeling a bit tired myself.”
I raised a brow. “Bet that’s not all your feeling.”
His lips twitched, but he quickly recovered. “Would you stop? One more word out of you, and I’ll show you exactly what I’m feeling.”
Was that really supposed to be a threat? I gave him a challenging look.
Putting his head down, he stalked toward me, letting out a growl that ricocheted through the space. I backed up. In this room, there were no walls to hinder my retreat. But before I could run for it, he had his arms around me. After he twirled me around, he grabbed a chunk of my hair and gave a gentle tug. As soon as my chin came up, his lips captured mine.
I’d never been more thrilled to be defeated in my life. His kiss was fierce, as were his hands that roamed over my curves. I melted into him until I could barely breathe, but who needed air anyway.
***** Hours later I lay in bed with Heath. The soft rise and fall of his chest lulled me into a state of semi-consciousness, yet I couldn’t sleep. My mind still whirred with unanswered questions, worries about how I was going to face Zach and the Council, not to mention Ainessa and the unknown threat Tabitha had warned me about.
Her explanations had given me some solace; however, I knew my road to happiness would be filled with regret and heartache. Her plan consisted of me going directly to the Council to beg forgiveness, much like Ainessa had done, then hope for the best while she and Heath worked to figure out a way to completely break my ties to Zach.
I figured the Council had already bound me to the realms, so they couldn’t inflict much in the way of punishment on me. It was the people that I loved I was worried about. And that more than anyone included Heath. He’d given up every chance he had to move up the ranks in the Fae courts for me. I still didn’t know how I felt about that.
On one hand I was completely grateful to him, but on the other hand I couldn’t stand the thought of him being punished for loving me, for helping me. I was determined to find a way to make this work. The only real plan I could come up with hinged on me being able to conquer Ainessa and that ever-present unknown. Unfortunately I didn’t exactly know what that meant yet, or how to even start such an endeavor. The weirdest thing was in an odd way I felt bad for Ainessa. No one would tell me what had transpired between her and Zach, so I was going completely on speculation. Some of the things she had told me about wanting a better life resonated more than I wanted them to.
Ainessa wasn’t a good person, but I couldn’t be sure she had always been that way. When it came down to it, it didn’t really matter what her reasons were because I couldn’t let her go on like she was. I had to stop her, but where did compassion end and righteous vengeance begin? I didn’t know, and I really didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to judge her, but I had to for the sakes of everyone in the world.
Her ideas reflected her desperation, and desperate people can do horrible things. Tabitha explained to me that Ainessa was essentially trying to steal this world from the Creator. I’d guessed as much, but she still wouldn’t tell me much else. The thought of the spoiled princess usurping this world chilled my blood.
If she managed to succeed, one thing was certain. I hoped I wasn’t alive to see it.
I had to believe with so much involved some sort of divine intervention would happen, but where free will was concerned there were strict rules, or so Tabitha said.
My mind eventually wandered to the heavenly visitor I had encountered in my dreams while I was with Luke in Altasia. He’d never said he was an angel, and he had never given me his name, yet somewhere in the deepest part of me, I knew he was from a higher plane than even the fae realms.
His entire being screamed not of this world. I had been so afraid of him, yet there was part of me that wished I could see him again, be in his presence again. That thought chilled me even more than facing Ainessa.
Then there was the man Tabitha mentioned. He could be anyone. Luke was the most likely suspect, but what if I was wrong?
Heath stirred, so I moved my head off his chest. Letting out a slight groan, he rolled away from me, settling into his pillow again. It was harder than it should have been for me to let him sleep.
I had no idea how long he and I would get to be together, and it was chewing up my insides. More than anything I just wanted to stay with him, to learn from him, to grow with him. The idea that we wouldn’t be able to do that was like acid in my brain.
I needed to find a way out of this mess, and I would if it was the last thing I ever did. Yet in this still moment, all I wanted to do was savor being close to the man I loved. I molded myself to his back and inhaled his sharp scent, trying to figure out, for the hundredth time, what exactly it was. I took another whiff then got distracted by his hair. That glorious mane, he wouldn’t let me touch. He still hadn’t explained why, and I was trying to be understanding, but it was hard.
Just then he rolled over, looking at me with an intensity that reached my core. His tawny eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say a word. His fingers reached for his braid and my breath hitched. He untied the thong and went to work taking out the plait. His eyes never left mine.
I was glued to the sight, and my heart exploded with an urgent need for this. Even though I didn’t know the exact significance of this act, I knew he was giving me a part of himself that was hard to let go of. I let him finish before I looked for permission. His chin dipped in a slow nod.
My fingers shook as I took a lock of his hair between them. The low glow of candlelight brought out the fire in his mane. The soft strands might as well have been filled with lightning for how they electrified me. I took a tentative touch at his temple then feathered my fingers into the tendrils. It was like silk flowing through my fingers, and I got caught up in the act of touching him.
Soon my mind had other ideas, so I scooted closer to him. He welcomed me with a tentative smile then he shook his head and growled at me, pulling me against him so nothing lay between us.
“I really shouldn’t let you distract me like this,” he said with a chuckle.
I moved to get up. “Well then I guess we should get back to wor—” His lips covered mine and pretty soon words were the least important thing I could think of.
***** I stood opposite Heath mimicking his fluid movements. Well, I tried to. His body glided through the air like a hawk taking it easy on the wind. He was just so beautiful, and it took a lot for me to concentrate on his instruction instead of admiring the glory that was him. I’d come to learn that he didn’t use a glamour, which made him all the more alluring. It was funny to me that the slight imperfections in his face were the things I couldn’t stop staring at.
He gave me a look, so I made more of an effort to focus. He was right; Shendo had a way of keeping me grounded. I was actually amazed that after only a few minutes of practice I felt as calm as I usually did after a long run. The appeal of this type of exercise wasn’t lost on me. Although, it looked effortless when Heath did it, it required amazing agility and focus. One bright side, I had a feeling my butt was going to get a much needed lift.
We continued for a while and after following him for so long I started to feel an impulse to move on my own. The desire intensified so much I had to follow the instinct. Heath smiled at me, deferring to my movements. We became a reflection of each other and the act was so intimate, it might as well have been sex.
When Heath laughed, I gave him an easy smile. I liked this not talking thing. We got along just fine this way.
In all honesty, I liked bantering with him. It was playful, and once I had gotten to know his personality, it was easier for me to understand his need for the conflict. One thing was for sure, being with Heath was never boring, and I doubted it ever would be.
He sent me a mental message, “That should be enough for our first lesson.” In a formal gesture he bowed to me, so I followed his lead.
Wiping at a bead of sweat trailing down his forehead, he stepped toward me. I thought about blinking myself clean, but he had me in his arms faster than I could do it.
He leaned in and kissed the top of my sweaty head, and his hair fell forward a bit, tickling my cheek. I picked up the strand, backing away from him slightly so I could get a better view.
I still couldn’t believe he had finally let me touch it. I was beginning to think it would never happen. My eyes found his, which were full of a trepidation that sent a nervous jolt through me. I searched his face for a second, before I just asked him, “Are you ever going to tell me why it was so hard for you to let me touch your hair?”
He bit the corner of his bottom lip while the other side lifted in a smirk. “It is an old custom from the world I came from.”
I cocked my head, my brows furrowing. “You don’t exactly seem like the old custom type.”
“Yeah, well, I guess I’m full of surprises.” He smiled, giving me a special little smirk. “I’ll show you a few more later.”
His humor was sort of lost on me because I couldn’t stop worrying about what was going to happen to him if the council found out about what he’d done. For all I knew they were already dreaming up his punishment. Before he could tell me to stop worrying again, I smiled at him. “I used to think you were all ‘rebel without a cause.’”
His grin melted my heart. “And now?”
“Now I just think you’re a rebel with more causes than I want to know about.”
His lips twitched as if he was going to laugh, but he recovered. “You like that I’m a deep person. Come on, admit it.”
“Going all philosophical on me, huh?”
I ran my fingers along his cheek. “Heath, I love everything about you. I don’t understand why I’m still bound to Zach, but I want to try to bond with you again. You know, formal like.”
He grinned, and I got caught up in the joy of seeing him this happy. The joy in my heart radiated through me like a burst of sunbeams.
Without warning something within me shifted, yanking me out of my euphoria. I doubled over, clutching my stomach as waves of nausea hit me. Unable to take it I cried out in horrible pain.
Heath was at my side instantly, pulling me into his arms. He let out a growl that chilled my blood. His face tilted toward the ceiling and he cursed Zach to the deepest depths of hell.
Even through the muscle spasms, I chuckled, considering where we were. “Doesn’t seem that bad to me.”
Taking a deep breath, he looked at me. His eyes roamed over my face, my body, devouring me in a drawn-out glance. When his eyes reached mine again, I saw nothing but sadness peering back at me. So quickly—things could change so quickly.
Before I could come up with something to cheer him up, he gave a quick shake of his head, silently telling me ‘no more joking.’ “You must leave,” he said in a controlled tone.
“It will pass,” I said through gritted teeth.
With a soft chuckle, he frowned at me. “Always so brave. You know, I think you’d die down here if I’d let you.”
I forced a smile through another bout of pain. “If it meant staying with you for the rest of my life, I’d gladly do it.”
I waved him off. “I know I have to face this, but I didn’t want it to be this soon. We’ve had so little time together.”
There was no time for a bonding attempt. I could feel Zach coming for me, and I didn’t want him to find me here with Heath. My plan involved covering for him and to do that I couldn’t be anywhere near him.
He touched my face then pulled me into a bear-hug. Too soon, he pushed away from me. “We’d better get Tabitha.”
I shook my head. “First, would you go find Creed? I really need to talk to him.”
After a quick nod, he was out the door. I didn’t dare go into the corridors knowing Zach was so near. As he got closer, my symptoms progressed until I thought I might pass out. Sweat dripped down my face and my body chilled what seemed like twenty degrees. I shivered, but I managed to keep my focus until Creed’s concerned face made me flinch.
“Hi,” I said, teeth chattering. “I’m sure you know what’s happening, so I won’t waste any time. I want to name as many of you as I can before I leave. Would you please make arrangements?”
Creed bowed his head. “You can’t know what an offer like that means to those of my kind, but I have discussed this with them and they prefer to postpone until we can find a solution to your problem.” His head snapped up. “They can help you more in their current forms.”
I was so confused. “Are you telling me something bad has happened to you?”
His voice came out small. “My powers have changed since you named me. I have become much stronger in some respects, yet in other areas I am much weaker. Transitioning right now would be the worst thing we could do, if we are to be ready when we are needed.”
I nodded, but part of me wondered if I would ever get a chance to name them again. The creatures of the dark realms were taking a rather large risk to protect me, and I couldn’t minimize their sacrifice by arguing with Creed. We didn’t have time. “You know way more about this stuff than I do, so we’ll do whatever you want, but my offer stands. If at any time you want me to name one or all of you, just come find me, okay?”
Instead of answering me, he stepped closer and with one fluid motion, he pulled me into his arms. His hug was as fierce as his next words. “Know this, my lady; I will not stop until you are safe from this threat.” Had Tabitha told him about the male presence? Somehow I didn’t think he was talking about Ainessa right now. He pulled back and leveled his gaze to mine. “None of us will. If you are not safe, neither will the entire fae race be.”
I reached up and touched his face. His skin was so smooth, other than a few areas of scales. The only other oddity was the gray color. “I’m not sure what I did to deserve a friend like you, but thank you. Thank you for helping me. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be—”
“We don’t know what would have happened, Rayla. But there is one thing I do know. I will not allow anyone to harm you.”
I didn’t have time to answer him because Tabitha rushed into the room. With a swish of her hand, Creed disappeared. She took my face between her hands. “Child, I know you have a heavy burden. I will do all that I can to help you; however, you must understand, I cannot risk exposing myself or Heath in the process of protecting you. The only way I will do so is if there is no other choice. Do you understand?”
We’d been over this already. “Yeah, I get it. I’m on my own for a while. I’m not happy about it, but I understand.”
She nodded. “Ammon will think only hours have passed when he reaches you. Some council members may question the timeline. I need you to focus at all times. If any one of them catches even a hint of what has transpired here, I will not be able to protect Heath.”
I nodded. This was part of our deal. She hadn’t manipulated time, just memories. “Thank you for helping us.”
She reached out and her cool fingers curled around mine. “Be safe. I worry for you.”
Another wave of nausea hit me, and I fell to my knees. “You’d better go,” I said.
Her sudden departure hit me like a thunderclap.
I was alone. In the darkness.
Chapter Three My body shook with fear and regret while my mind screamed at me to remember Heath—to remember the man I loved, but I couldn’t let my thoughts wander. From this point forward, all I could do was focus.
Footsteps clattered like an army coming for me. For all I knew Zach had brought an entire platoon with him.
Light penetrated the blackness and focused on my face. I threw an arm over my eyes while trying to stave the urge to vomit again.
Zach’s voice cut through my fear, severing my trepidation. “Rayla!” He pulled me up into his arms, devouring me in his embrace. “I’ve been so worried for you, love. Are you okay?”
He took a deep breath. “I am so sorry about what happened. I had no idea Ainessa was that close, or I would never have let my guard down.”
I blinked a couple of times. “You aren’t angry with me?” After all, I’d nearly fried him.
He chuckled. “Are you kidding me? You’re the reason I regained my wits.”
“I could kill my sister for interrupting us when she did.”
All sorts of emotions I didn’t want to feel rushed through me. Damn this bonding thing. “Zach, I—”
He shushed me. “I know. I have a lot to explain, but we’d better leave this place before the inhabitants decide to make us permanent residents.”
I nodded, not knowing what else to do. Without another word, he pulled me into the tunnels. “Right, no, I think it was left.”
“Are you kidding me?” I asked, feeling a strange ripple in my side. I couldn’t be sure if it was from his touch or an effect of the bond.
“I was a little preoccupied finding you to worry about which way I went.”
“Why don’t you just transport us from here?”
He gave a sharp shake to his head. “Too dangerous. You are much too fragile at the moment. I won’t be able to focus on the journey without a little help.”
He gave a laugh. “You think I don’t know what’s happening inside you right now? You’re too weak.”
“It’s not like I’ve been bonded before. How would I know that,” I said, trying to reign in my emotions.
Lifting his hand to my face, he ran his thumb over my forehead. “I know I wasn’t your first choice, but I’m still hoping to change your mind.”
It wasn’t like I could argue with him. Not now, at least.
Looking up and down the corridor, he pressed his lips together. “Where has Jafan gone to now?”
“Jett’s here?” I asked, incredulous.
He shoved his dark hair out of his blue eyes. “Truthfully, he’s the one that found you. I’m not sure if it was the jolt or what, but for some reason, I couldn’t pinpoint your signal until we came down here.”
Focus. I had to focus. I couldn’t blow this now. I took a deep breath, centering my mind then said, “Wow, that’s weird.”
A voice called from down the tunnel, but it was too far away to make out what he’d said.
“Over here,” Zach yelled.
Two figures came into view. One was most certainly Jett, and the other…Nicco? What was he doing here?
Nicco’s eyes traveled over me, and I could have sworn I saw relief there. I wished I could offer him the same expression. There was only one reason I could think of that he would be here: to make sure I came back.
Jett closed his eyes, shaking his head. “You’ve got to be the most frustrating woman on the planet.”
I narrowed my eyes at him but offered him a playful smile. “Good thing you don’t have to deal with me on a regular basis then, huh?”
Instead of bantering like I had become used to, he grunted. Was he mad at me for not picking him after all?
Zach clamped his arm tighter around my shoulders. “We’d best leave.”
Nicco and Jett both gave a short nod, and before I knew it we were drifting on a matter stream. My vision blurred with the movement, which only managed to make my already sketchy stomach worse. The normal dizziness I had to deal with while traveling this way didn’t help matters, either.
By the time we stopped moving, it was all I could do to keep myself from barfing again. When I recovered enough to notice my surroundings, I quivered.
Instead of bringing me to his home, Zach had taken us to the Crystal Castle. A slight groan escaped me, and I stumbled away from his light hold. “Why are we here?”
Zach wouldn’t look at me when he responded. “Our presence has been requested. Seems some charges have been filed against Heath. You are to be a witness.”
Already? My stomach twisted into a knot at the mention of Heath’s name. I’d known he might get in trouble, but the reality sent me reeling. Not only would I have to control my thoughts about him, I was going to have to keep my love for him hidden from the discerning eye of the council members. The only problem was I didn’t know if I could do it, especially if they wanted me to testify against him—no way could I do such a thing.
Nicco walked up next to me, pulling me a short distance away from Zach. “Are you unwell, my lady?”
If I was, did that mean I could skip this meeting? No. I had to face this no matter how much I would have preferred to be anywhere else on the planet, including the dark realms. I had to act indifferent to the situation.
Nicco looked behind us where Zach and Jett discussed the meeting. I could barely concentrate, and I had no idea how I was going to get through this.
When his warm hand came to rest on my shoulder, I gave a slight gasp. His fingers dug into my skin, which should have hurt like mad, but somehow, his touch soothed the aching inside me.
He leaned in closer to me. “Take my strength, my lady.”
A barrier in my mind gave, and I shook from the onslaught of pure energy that coursed from him through me. I searched his softened black eyes, not sure what to make of this new side of him. Maybe he had been ordered to protect me, but this hardly seemed like a usual occurrence.
Also, why didn’t Zach or Jett seem to notice what was going on here? Truth was I didn’t mind the few moments to gather some much needed strength. My trepidation fled along with my nausea after only a few seconds. I gave Nicco a curious stare, but he shook his head. “No questions.”
I nodded, grateful for the help, but I still didn’t have a clue what was happening between us. When he let go of me, my discomfort was completely gone. In fact, I was quite sure I hadn’t felt this good since before I went away to college all that time ago. “Thank you,” I whispered, giving a tight squeeze to his hand.
He nodded then stepped away from me. The minute I was out of his shadow, Zach turned to me. “How did you get all the way over there?” His eyes softened with a compassion that surprised me given that I’d blasted him hard enough I’d been worried I’d killed him, immortal or not. “Are you still feeling ill?”
“I’m fine,” I said. And the amazing part was that I meant it. Somehow, I just felt like everything would work out okay now.
His eyes traveled over me, but I tried not to stiffen at the desire I saw there. Didn’t seem to work because he cringed slightly when our eyes met. “We should get going then.”
I nodded and he led me up the Crystal Castle’s glowing steps. When he took my hand, I let him, although, it was one of the strangest sensations I’d ever encountered.
I no longer felt attracted to Zach.
His touch was comforting, in an odd way, but the electrical charge he’d created in me back at school was nothing more than a measly ember. My mind wanted to think about Heath so badly I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from going there.
I just hoped this wouldn’t be the worst day of my life. Even though part of me thought better of doing it, I leaned toward Zach to ask what he knew about the situation. “What are the charges?”
Zach glanced at me sidelong, patting my hand. “Not to worry, love. He will come out of this okay. He always does.”
I cocked my head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“This isn’t the first time Heath has been charged with overstepping his bounds.”
I held in my sigh, but barely. Overstepping his bounds was a far sight better than treason, but I couldn’t quite breathe easy just yet. “Who brought the charges against him?”
“You have to understand,” he hedged, which made me wonder who he was really trying to protect. “We have laws for a reason. Queen Rachel has demanded retribution for the perceived damage done to the fire realm when Heath allowed you out of Ignis against her wishes. She has charged him essentially with insubordination and has demanded he be stripped of his title and that he be demoted to underlord, once again.”
My muscles bunched up. “I hardly think she’d be complaining if I had ended up bound to him instead of you,” I said, a little too breathless.
Zach narrowed his eyes at me, but it seemed more a curious look than anything. “She believes Heath has harmed the fire realm in the eyes of the council. Her only option is to try to use him as a scapegoat to save alliances that might otherwise be in jeopardy.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I complained. “She was all too happy when he defeated Finn in that ridiculous battle she orchestrated. Even though she pretended otherwise, I’m pretty sure she got what she wanted, and since when was Ignis allied with anyone?”
He leaned in closer. “She looks foolish, Rayla, and she’s trying to cover for herself by blaming him for a perceived failure.”
“But how does punishing him make her look better?”
He shrugged. “The council rewards initiative, yet when given slightly different circumstances, they will not hesitate to inflict penalties for the exact same act.”
Good to know. Not hard to see how the lords had gotten their shifty natures.
Zach chuckled, and my brows furrowed until I realized I’d let that thought slip through. Even if I had to picture pink elephants dancing through the mighty council room, I needed to make sure no other thoughts skated by unnoticed.
Zach frowned at me. “I realize why you would think you can’t trust me, Rayla, but now is not the time to keep things from me.”
I nodded because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. We were nearly to the council chambers, and I had the urgent need to turn around and run. Pretty soon, I lagged behind the rest of them.
Unfortunately, Zach came back for me. “Don’t be nervous,” he said. “You’re not the one on trial here.”
I laughed. I should be.
“Rayla, this is hardly the time for humor—”
I held up a hand. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m really on edge. Can’t we just go back to your place?”
The look he gave me sent my stomach into a riotous twist of emotions again. As far as Zach was concerned, he’d almost gotten me to give in to our connection. Did he think we would pick up where we’d left off?
I was beginning to think I’d made a huge mistake by listening to Tabitha, but then again, she’d risked quite a bit by altering memories. I was sure rearranging timelines for so many people had to be near impossible.
I had to deal with the consequences of my decision. She had given me no guarantees. That was part of her bargain and the risk of memory manipulation.
Heath was better off not being the lord of fire, anyway. He’d be less conspicuous, but if I knew anything about him at all, this would eat him up from the inside.
Zach squeezed my shoulder. “We can delay no further, love. The session is about to begin.”
I nodded and Zach escorted me through the massive doors into the enormous black and white room. My eyes ate up the space searching for Heath, but he wasn’t there yet. Part of me sighed in relief, but the other part of me ached for even the slightest glimpse of him.
We followed Jett and Nicco into a lower level booth that faced the dais. Once I was situated next to Zach, I glanced around. Unlike the last time I’d been here, only a few boxes lined the other walls, and I couldn’t see who was in the box next to us. When I realized most of the boxes would remain empty, I whispered, “Tell me why we’re here again.”
“I’m not so sure I am privy to all that goes on here.”
That was no help. “If you had to guess?”
Zach smirked at me, his blue eyes lighting up. He patted my hand. “Perhaps to teach you a lesson about how fae politics work.”
That was what I was afraid of. I nodded and decided it would be better for me to keep my mouth shut.
Valen, the council chairman, walked through a small door I’d never noticed before at the front of the room. He was followed by his queen, which I still didn’t know her name, and queen Rachel. The king of the fire realm was the last through the door.
Queen Rachel took her bondmate’s outstretched hand and glided down the steps. Her eyes found mine, and I would have sworn she was gloating, but why would she care what I thought?
Valen took a seat in one of the ornate thrones, giving me a once over that seemed a little too interested for a bonded man, but thankfully, he moved on as he addressed the court. “My lords and ladies, we have little to discuss today, yet the matter we bring before you is most grievous. I learned of Lord Heath’s misconduct months ago; however, I wasn’t made aware of the direct impact his actions have brought to the fire realm until recently. Long held alliances between Ignis and Eldrea have been threatened; therefore, swift action must be taken.
A chorus of murmurs swam through the room, mine among them. “What’s he talking about?” I asked Zach.
He clasped my hand. “I’ll answer your questions later, but right now, I need you to be completely silent. It’s best if you don’t react to anything that happens.”
Yeah right. How was I going to do that? I nodded for his benefit and turned my attention back to Valen. Only he wasn’t speaking anymore.
Queen Rachel stepped forward. “Your majesties, I beg of your indulgence for a few moments.” She waited a second and when no one commented she continued, “Thank you. As many of you may know, Lord Heath is an outstanding member of our realm…when he desires to be. The issue I bring to you today has more to do with recent events that have left our friendship with our brother realm in question. I’ve come to learn that a pact was created between Lord Heath and Lord Jafan in relation to the protection of the Elemental Rayla Tate. This agreement held stipulations that should Lord Jafan become incapable of fulfilling his duty to his realm in obtaining said Elemental, the obligation would then fall to Lord Heath.
“Even though circumstances have warranted a significantly different outcome, I believe Lord Heath was not only capable of bonding with the Elemental, he had prime opportunity to do so while on the island the Order occupied.”
The crowd murmured and whispers started. Queen Rachel’s voice rose above the low hum. “It is my belief that Lord Heath has betrayed his people by allowing another to stop the union already in progress. I’ve asked for the opportunity for that union to be consummated—”
I nearly choked on my saliva. If this woman only knew how much consummating I’d shared with Heath, she’d be begging her pardon.
“In light of recent events,” she said. “I’ve been told that outcome is not an option; therefore, to maintain our good standing with the earth realm, I propose Lord Heath be stripped of his titles, his lands, and his status as lord of fire. We shall hold a tournament of champions as soon as we are able to gather our underlords. Lord Heath has made his intentions to refuse to bond with another Elemental clear. That is why I invoke our right to obtain another champion. Demoting him will not only appease the insult he inflicted upon Eldrea, it will ensure the strength of Ignis. I do hope at some point, Lord Heath will have the courage to wield the title of lord of fire, but he has proven himself unworthy.” She bowed her dark head and said, “We shall leave it to you to decide. Thank you.”
After she was done speaking, she picked up her skirts and took her husband’s arm. They walked up the dais steps then disappeared into the small room they’d come from. I heaved a relieved sigh. As far as I was concerned, it could have been a lot worse.
Zach leaned in closer to me. “It’s not over yet, love. All I know is she’s hell bent on getting Heath out of her court. I’m not sure what the bloke did to deserve Rachel’s wrath, but she hasn’t shut up about removing him for weeks. The council has to act now.”
Valen flowed down the steps before he paced the black and white floor, straddling the line the entire way. His head turned slowly and our eyes met. He searched my face. For what, I couldn’t be sure, but after a moment, he walked toward me.
Each step that brought him closer was like a jolt to my pulse. Sweat trickled in tiny streams down my back and pooled on my palms. Little zings of electricity danced in my stomach. Since when did Valen affect me like this? Zach stiffened beside me, but didn’t say anything until Valen was right in front of us. “Your liege,” said Zach. “What may we do for you?”
Valen ignored Zach, still staring at me, his eyes seeming to find my internal barrier. “Seems you’ve learned some skill since the last time we met, Rayla.”
I gave him a tight nod.
He inclined his head toward me. “What are you hiding from us?”
My courteous smile drained from my face. “What makes you think I’m hiding anything?”
His expression remained open, unreadable. “Your thoughts have been easy to discern previously. Something has changed in you. I cannot quite name it, but I will find out what it is you are keeping so heavily guarded.”
“What?” he said. “No arguing? So unlike you.”
Zach leaned forward. “Do you have a specific question for my bondmate?”
Valen laughed. “No insult was intended, Lord Ammon. I am merely curious.”
Zach’s jaw tightened. “Rayla is very tired from her ordeal. I think it is best—”
Valen’s eyes still clung to mine as he cut Zach off. “You shall not leave court until I give word. Is that clear, Lord Ammon?”
Zach stiffened. “I have a realm to look after.”
Valen cocked his brows. “You may go if you like, but she stays.”
The scoff that came out of Zach startled me. “I’m hardly leaving without her.”
Giving a huff of contempt, Valen lashed out at Zach, “You have your orders, Lord Ammon.”
Zach bowed his head. “Yes, your majesty.”
That was it? He was just going to let Valen boss us around?
The gigantic doors to the council chambers opened, sending a chill into the room. Heath strode in, head held high in clear defiance, his braid trailing over one shoulder. He walked to the middle of the room and waited, setting his legs in a wide stance.
He hadn’t even glanced at me. It was all I could do to keep myself from jumping the banister and racing to his arms.
The door at the top of the dais opened and Queen Rachel came out again, this time her bondmate stayed back. She strode up to Heath, hell’s fury swirling in her eyes.
Without a word said, she slapped his face.
He didn’t even flinch.
She reached out and touched the end of his long braid then cocked her head at him, her dark brows lifting. “Lord Heath, you have failed your kingdom. You have brought disgrace to your realm and have no right to wear such a badge.” Badge? When she leaned down, I couldn’t see what she was doing, but she came back up wielding a knife. I couldn’t even gasp. My body stiffened, my power sliding to the surface. What was she going to do to him?
Once again her voice filled the chamber as she circled him. “For misconduct and failing to act in the interest of your nation, I strip you of your titles, your lands, and your power.”
I couldn’t hide my emotions any longer. Fear climbed up my face as I leaned forward, but Zach’s arm pressed me back into my seat.
The horrible woman stopped in front of Heath and raised her blade to his cheek. In a horribly slow motion, she slid the knife down his jaw line, drawing a bright line of blood.
“What is she doing?” I hissed, ready to light her up.
Zach shushed me. “It is nothing more than a flesh wound. Hold your tongue.”
My heart thudded against my ribs. I couldn’t let her do this. I had to stop this.
My scream died in my throat as a hard hand clamped onto my shoulder and a deep voice whispered into my ear. “If you care at all for Heath you will control yourself.”
I clenched my teeth together and balled my fists. When I looked up again, Queen Rachel stood at Heath’s back. She picked up his braid, and in one quick motion sliced through it, severing it at his nape.
Before I could react, I was yanked from my chair and whirled around. I gazed into coal black eyes, wondering for not the first time why they looked so familiar. Then everything went dark.
***** I woke to the bright light of morning. It had been so long since I’d seen daylight my eyes refused to stay open. My arms and legs might as well have been glued to the mattress for how much I could get them to move. Nothing seemed wrong with me, really. I just felt heavy, like I’d been asleep for a really long time.
“Good morning, sunshine,” said a familiar voice.
My eyes popped open, and I scanned the room until I found her. “Lacey?”
She smirked at me. “Expecting someone else?”
I smiled at her, but I wasn’t feeling it. There was a good chance I’d never feel happy again. When she continued to stare at me I realized I hadn’t answered her. “Uh, I don’t know, but certainly not you. I was beginning to think you’d pissed someone off and gotten yourself shipped off to the dark realms, or worse.” I’d secretly wished for just that not so long ago. I’d wanted to see her so badly, to make sure she was okay.
She frowned at me. “Yeah, well, when I heard you were here, I insisted on seeing you. Some dickhead guard finally brought me in here. The minute I was through the door he locked me in.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Seems like I’ve been waiting for you to wake up for hours. Any longer, I would have poured that trencher right over your head.”
I sat up too fast, and dizziness made the room spin. “Well here’s to waking up dry,” I said, smiling for real this time. “It’s so good to see you.” I stifled a yawn. “Just give me a minute to get my head on right.”
She leaned against the bedpost and threw out her hand. “Sure thing. Take your time. It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do.”
The intense glow in the room contrasted against her dark skin, which only highlighted how tall she really was. All things considered she looked pretty good, although seeing her in a yellow ball-gown brought a chuckle out of me. My eyes traveled down to her slippered toes and back up.
She made a face. “Not you too.”
I lifted myself onto my elbows. “Too?”
Her feet shifted uncomfortably. “Saw Roger a few days ago. He wouldn’t let me live it down. Made such a fuss about how great I looked in a dress, but I could tell he didn’t like it.”
The tiny hairs on my neck rose in anticipation. There was a good chance he would know where Travis was. “Roger’s here?”
She shrugged. “Hard to say. Since I refused to play the fae courting game, they’ve kept me pretty much locked up. Not very different than the Order if you ask me.”
I nodded. “How long have you been here?”
Her hand shot out to the side, moving higher with every word. “Days, weeks, years, who the hell knows?”
I could empathize. Time didn’t seem to mean much in Faeresia. All humor drained from my face. “You’ve got to tell me what’s happening.”
One side of her mouth tilted up before she gave a sad shake of her head. “At first, I was really encouraged. I thought we’d actually get a choice with you making such a show, but each Elemental that comes here to bond seems different than when they left. It’s like they can’t think past their hormones or something.” Her eyes grew distant, but her voice stayed strong. “Yeah, I’ll admit it—the guys here are hot, but it’s not like that’s all that counts. I’ve known some of these girls most of my life, and every time I see one of them it’s like looking at a stranger in a friend’s body.”
My jaw clenched. “I know exactly what you mean. I saw Robin before she bonded.”
Lacey grunted. “She was one of the worst. At the island, all she could do was talk about how she’d off herself if the fae ever got her. She refused to go with any of them, like me, for a while, but the minute she saw Strayak, her brain went on vacation. I’m not saying I think she should have killed herself instead of bonding with him or anything, but for her to come back here two weeks after meeting him for the first time all twitterpated just reeks of wrong.”
“Bambi fan?” I asked with a chuckle.
A bright grin covered her mouth. “You could say that.”
I let a smirk slide onto my face while I gave her a nod. “I felt the same way. I couldn’t believe how she acted. And the way she talked about him made me want to barf. I’d have said no to him the minute I heard his name.” Lacey gave a short chuckle and her eyes lit in amusement, so I went on. “Can you imagine? Every time you said it, it’d be like throwing up a little in your mouth.”
She laughed. At first it was a short chortle like before, but soon it morphed into a full-out belly laugh. The contagious sound grabbed hold of me and soon we were feeding off each other’s giggles. I hadn’t laughed this hard in ages…maybe even before I set off for school, and something tight inside me finally released.
We went on like that for a while, but suddenly the light in her eyes drained, replaced by an ominous shadow. “I’m supposed to meet someone in a few hours.”
A dark panic washed over me, but I wouldn’t let her see it. “Who?”
Her usually boisterous voice came out barely a whisper. “They haven’t told me his name.”
“Can’t be as bad as Strayak,” I said, but the moment for laughter had gone.
She gave me a token smile. “What am I gonna to do, Rayla?”
My mind jumbled with images of her and Roger at the island: secret glances every time I turned around. “Do you love him?” I asked. Roger had made it clear how he felt about her, but I’d never been able to get her take of things.
Recognition flitted into her eyes even though I hadn’t said his name. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think I do. Then I see his dark side, and I want to run.”
“Everyone has a dark side,” I said, thinking back to when I killed Frick. I’d gone over it so many times, but I couldn’t come up with a scenario that didn’t end with him dead. One day I was going to find out what his real name was. One day, I was going to face what I’d done. Lacey opened her mouth as if to respond, but I butted in. “I get what you mean about him. He’s kind of hard to understand.”
She nodded. “I’ve known Roger a long time. Too bad I’ve never been good enough for his family. The closer I came to the age of power, the harder it was for my parents to handle the thought of losing me to the fae, so they defected to the rebellion. The first time I saw him after that was on the island. He seemed so different. He wasn’t the fun-loving guy I thought I knew. Part of me wants to fight for him, but the other part of me says, ‘what’s the point’? He’s an Order man. I don’t know if I can deal with that.”
“So you grew up with him?”
She walked over to the window and gazed out into the distance. “Not really. We saw each other at festivals and other Order events. He was a mean little brat as a kid. When he picked on my sister one too many times, I knocked him out.”
A giggle erupted from my chest. “How old were you?”
“Ten.” Her shoulders lifted a bit. “Even then I was tall for my age.”
I burst out laughing and she turned, a huge smile splitting her mouth. “For some reason after that, he wouldn’t leave me alone. Every time he saw me, he’d come and pester me. Somewhere along the way, I learned to care for him. I even loved it when he’d tease me.”
Seemed to me that Lacey might have deeper feelings for Roger than she was willing to admit, maybe even to herself. “Do you know where he’s staying?”
Her teeth clamped together. “They won’t tell me. I think they know about us, so they’re trying to keep us apart. It was just a fluke I ran into him anyway. I’d finally ditched my escort when she happened to slip on some water in the hallway. The minute she went down, I ran.” I snorted and Lacey grinned. “I hadn’t gotten any time alone in so long I was going to kill the woman with a lot more than kindness if she didn’t get out of my face.”
I gazed out the window into the glowing morning. Thoughts about school and my time here mingled as I searched for something I could offer to help her. When I came up empty, I resorted to mere words, hating myself for doing it. I had no idea what to tell her, so I tried to recall what I had done to stave off the lords. “The most important thing is to remember why you don’t want to bond with him…I guess to remember who you are.” I looked directly into her eyes. “I’m not going to lie to you, Lacey. They are hard to resist. Once their compulsion hits you, it’s like you’ve known them forever and can’t think of another person while they are near you. You can barely remember your name, but you have to fight it. If you throw off the compulsion, you might have a chance.”
Her face fell, and I had a hard time not giving her a canned line about how everything was going to be okay. Finally, she said, “It just doesn’t seem right for them to have this much control over us. I’ve been trying to avoid this, but now, I can’t. What if I can’t fight him?”
I tried not to let my hurting for her show. With my shoulders squared I told her, “I’m going to change this, Lacey. I’m going to make these people see.”
From the look on her face, she wasn’t buying it. “How?”
I rolled the edges of my silk nightgown between my fingers. “Any way possible.”
“No offense, but that isn’t very comforting, Rayla.”
My eyes searched her face, and I sighed, shaking my head. “I know. Honestly, I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen, to you, to me, to my family. But I swear to you, as long as I have the ability to think for myself, I will not stop until things are different.”
She nodded. “I guess that’s all any of us can ask of you. What’s been happening, anyway? No one will tell me a thing other than you bonded with Zach.” Her eyes searched my face for a second before she said, “I was kind of rooting for Heath myself.”
At the mere mention of his name, tears pushed against my eyes. Me losing it was the last thing Lacey needed to see, so I turned away from her. “I’m still trying to figure things out, but Zach’s a good person.”
“I never said he wasn’t.”
Slowly, I faced her again. Did I dare tell her what had happened with Heath? I couldn’t, but I wanted to so bad I had to bite my tongue. “I guess you and I are still kind of in the same boat.”
She gave me a hard stare. “How do you figure?”
“Neither of us knows what the next few hours will bring. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’m trying to fix them now.”
Lacey’s dark eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Can’t really talk about it right now, I promise, one day I’ll explain everything.”
She nodded, but I didn’t miss the hurt in her eyes or the proud set of her mouth. “Probably for the best,” she said, “but I want you to remember one thing. You’re only responsible for you. You can’t take on the faults or the troubles of everyone around you.”
I nodded, not able to look her in the eye. “What would you do if you were me?”
She grunted. “I’d have fried that skinny princess the minute I had access to my power. You’re lucky, you know. The rest of us have to wait for it then by the time we get it, we’re pretty much shackled to the will of our bondmate.”
Should I have told her I had concerns that Ainessa was more powerful than me now. If it hadn’t been for Heath’s help, I may not have gotten away from her even though she was using Zach to compel me. I thought better of it and went on. “I’ve been trying to figure things out, but it’s harder to control the elements than you might think.”
She touched my elbow. “Not trying to say it’s easy, Rayla. I’m just reminding you that you have choices the rest of us don’t. I hope you remember that.”
“I’m trying,” I said, giving her a grim smile.
“What a pair we make,” she said, flopping onto the bed. After staring blankly at the ceiling for a second, she twisted, eying the door. When her face sparkled with mischief, I knew I was in for it. “Hey, do you think since you have some control over fire you could melt that lock or something? I could probably break the thing down, but I don’t think making noise like that would help to get us out of here.”
I smiled. “Couldn’t hurt to try.” Once I flashed some more appropriate clothes on, I moved to the door.
Lacey’s hand snagged my shoulder. “Hold on a minute there, Chica.” When I turned to face her, her eyes were narrowed at me. “You’ve got skills like that and you’ve been letting me stand here in this ridiculous dress?”
My hand shot up to my mouth as I covered a gasp then a chuckle. Tabitha would kill me for this. She growled at me, so I held up my hands. “Okay.” I really shouldn’t have but I blinked her into some jeans and a hoody. “Happy?”
Her upper lip curled back in disgust. “You could at least give a girl some style.”
I lifted my head toward the ceiling and laughed, trying to imagine what Lacey would think was stylish. “I’ve got it,” I said. Without another word, I covered her in red leather. “That more to your liking?”
Her eyes traveled down her body, and she toyed with the tight vest. She shrugged. “I could get used to it.”
I just bet she could. When I smirked, she pursed her lips together before she waved me forward.
Opening the door took me less than two seconds. I just stared at the knob and told it I wanted it to open. And just like that, it did.
Seemed to me my powers worked best when I didn’t concentrate so hard, when I let them flow and trusted that they would be there for me. From what I had gathered from listening to the lords, though, mine was a very unusual case. It was almost like my powers were different than theirs somehow. Tabitha had warned me about using my powers like this, but it was just me and Lacey. I didn’t think it would hurt.
Seemed weird that Valen hadn’t ordered my room guarded since he was so bent on keeping me here, but not one person lingered in the hall. It was probably the whole bound to the realms thing that the royal guard did to me.
A shudder slithered through me at the thought of that guy. I wouldn’t have been surprised if my head had been between my legs when he’d finished with me. Thankfully, I had come out of the ordeal mostly intact.
Gulping a breath, I grabbed Lacey’s hand and made for the stairs. It occurred to me after a few steps we should have at least had a plan of where to go.
No time for thinking now. We darted down a side hallway I’d never been down. Even though I knew it wouldn’t be easy, I’d hoped we could find the servant’s quarters or, at the very least, a way out to the gardens.
Not knowing what else to do, I focused on making her invisible. It was a little risky, but, if I wanted to get her out of the castle, desperate measures were the only thing that had a chance of working. Unfortunately, after all my attempts, she still stood there, all six feet of her, glaring down at me like I’d just used the last of her cherry lip-balm.
Her nostrils flared before she hissed. “Why did you stop? If we wait here long enough someone will catch us.”
Lacey’s breath heated my neck, and I wanted to tell her to back off, but I didn’t dare. When we made it to another corridor, I peeked around the corner. Heaving a relieved sigh, I crept forward. Lacey was still masquerading as my shadow, so I stepped it up. Something nagged at my mind about this place, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. It was familiar in an odd way, yet I still had no idea where we were going.
Disembodied voices floated around us, deep and masculine. Lacey’s eyes went huge. Not knowing what else to do, I pulled her into the first door we came upon.
When I spun around, I let out a little gasp. A large Grecian style pool lay in the middle of the gigantic room with no windows.
Crap. This was where they’d brought me to get ready for my bonding. No wonder it seemed familiar. What was I doing thinking I could get Lacey out of the castle when I hadn’t even been able to do it for myself?
Although, on the up side, this room might be the last place they’d think of as a suitable hiding spot—that was if they were even looking for us yet. I hated feeling paranoid, but considering what I’d gone through recently, I had a reason to be.
Lacey walked up next to me. Her mouth gaped open as she took in the billowing waterfall and the lush valley below. “Why aren’t there any windows in here?”
I shrugged. “You’d have to ask the architect. Let’s just say this isn’t my favorite place to be. Although I’d thought it, I never got around to actually asking anyone that question. Ainessa had shown up and ruined an already bad day with her demands.”
A muscle jumped on Lacey’s cheek as she stared at the tub. She looked over and asked, “What is it?”
Trying to make my voice more casual than I felt, I said, “There’s something weird about that water. It changes us. I think it’s why we don’t age while we’re here.”
Her hazel eyes clamped shut. “Great. You want to blink a bow on top of my head before you hand me over? Why do I listen to you?”
Ignoring her sarcasm, I pushed past her to track the perimeter of the room for a way out. “Stop complaining. We’ve got to figure out how to get you out of the castle. This is better than hanging out in the hallway. Help me look. For all I know there could be a door I never noticed.
She gave a mournful shake of her head. “Then what? Where am I supposed to go?”
A thought hit me. “I could try to get you to Gibbit.” Memories of our last encounter rushed at me, so I added, “I’m not really sure where he is or if he’d even help us. I haven’t been the best of friends to him lately.” I traced every line of the room, sure there had to be a way to at least hide Lacey.
Maybe that was the key: hide. Zach had hidden me from the lords for a while back at school with his powers. Maybe she couldn’t disappear, but she could be cloaked. The problem was I hadn’t exactly learned the skill. When it came to controlling space.
For a moment I considered that Lacey might be better off if she went through with the bonding. Yet, it needed to be her choice. Just about the time I was going to give up, I thought of something else. Could I teach her to resist compulsion?
“I have an idea,” I blurted.
“Should I take a turn in the pool while you ponder it?” she said after I didn’t continue.
The specifics were still solidifying in my mind, so I held up a finger. “You need to learn how to resist compulsion.”
“Right. That’s your brilliant plan?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Rayla, I hate to break this to you, but I have maybe an hour left before my new bondmate will be here.”
I frowned, not knowing what else to do. “We’re kind of out of options. If I set one foot outside this castle, I’m sure they’ll send the goon squad to come get me. You being with me will only put you in danger. Besides, I don’t want them to use you against me. If you can learn to resist compulsion, you might be able to resist the bonding, too.”
“Yeah, and what if I end up killing myself instead? I actually like living.”
I wrapped my arms around myself, suppressing a shiver. I didn’t want to think about that. I didn’t want to think about a lot of things, but I had to figure this out.
Just then the door opened and a dark figure walked in. My heart exploded in my chest. This was just great. We had nowhere to hide.
It took me a few seconds to recognize Heath with his new haircut.
Before he could even turn around completely, I launched myself at him. His face twisted with pain, and almost simultaneously unexpected rage. His arms clamped around me, but it wasn’t an embrace. His body shook and his voice came out dark. “What are you doing in here?”
I could ask the same thing of him. For one horrible moment, I considered that he might be the man Lacey was supposed to bond with, but that couldn’t be it. I didn’t have any more time to think, though, because he crashed his lips against mine.
Our kiss held a hunger I couldn’t quench. My hands explored his back, his shoulders, his arms, his hips, pressing him closer.
His teeth clanged against mine and he groaned. I stopped breathing entirely as he devoured my mouth.
A disturbed grunt interrupted us.
I made myself back away from Heath for the second time in so many days. All thought of Lacey left my mind when I took in his rumpled, short hair.
My lips curled up in disgust. It wasn’t exactly a buzz cut, but knowing the humiliation he’d gone through boiled my insides.
With shaking hands, I feathered my fingers through the thick, dark strands. It was still amazingly beautiful, just like him, but I ached for him.
I shook my head, my voice coming out in a whisper. “I’m so sorry about what happened.”
He grabbed my hand and set it at my side. “It is merely hair, Rayla.”
But it wasn’t, and I knew it. I nodded anyway. If he wanted to play it down, I was going to let him.
When I had recovered enough of my brain to notice, I realized Lacey was standing right beside me. “What happened?” she asked.
That was a loaded question. A question I couldn’t answer.
Heath seemed to not want to go there as he extended his hand and swiftly changed topics. “You must be Lacey.”
She grinned at him. “Good to see you haven’t abandoned Rayla.”
“Never,” he said, and I knew he meant it. The scary thing was a part of me knew he would give up his soul for me. The image of him standing in front of Valen being sentenced haunted me still. I didn’t know what losing one’s soul entailed, but it didn’t sound like the best idea in the world.
“Can you help me get Lacey out of here?” I asked.
Heath’s eyes caressed mine. “I’m already on it, but you’re going to have to cover for me.”
“They can’t know I saw you. They have to think you assisted her. You’re going to have to come up with something good.”
I swallowed, my mind racing for an obvious answer, yet none came. I reached out and clasped his hand. “I’ll do my best.”
“This is special,” said a lilting voice from behind us.
My stomach turned to goo. When I whirled around, Zach glared at me. Then his strange eyes shifted to Heath, filling with contempt so dark, I gasped. “I’ve given you all the leeway I’m going to. Rayla belongs to me.” He marched up next to me and clamped his hand on my arm. It wasn’t a vice grip, but he wasn’t about to let me go.
“Zach,” I said.
His jaw worked before he let out a stilted, “We’ll talk about this later.”
He nodded at Lacey then faced Heath again. “I’ll not say anything about the girl, but if I catch you near Rayla again, I’ll turn you in myself.”
Anger, resentment, betrayal but, mostly, fire burned my veins. “Who do you think you are?” I spat at him.
He gave me a calm glance. “I happen to be your bondmate.” His expression hardened. “You will learn to respect what that means.”
Before I could say another word, Heath took Lacey by the arm and yanked her into the hall. I gulped down my rage and faced Zach again. “You need to let me go.”
His eyes raked over me. “Never.”
Pure hatred contorted my face. Where had the loving lord I knew gone?
He stepped nearer. “Even if I could stand the thought of losing you again, our bond is too important.”
“How can you say that knowing your sister—”
“I’ve already told you she doesn’t control me. She used an old parlor trick on me, and I was too caught up in having you with me to realize what had happened…until it was too late.” His fingers caressed my cheek, and I shot away from him, covering the spot he touched as if my hand could take away the sensations he caused in me. Even now, my body hummed for his touch. The rest of me would blast him into eternity if he did it again. His voice came out sad. “I’ll never forgive myself for letting her break us apart.”
“I love Heath,” I blurted.
His eyes fell to his shoes. “I know.”
My voice raised a few octaves. “And you don’t care? How can you want me knowing I’m in love with another man?”
He still wouldn’t look at me. After a moment of silence, he said, “I will change your mind.”
“Impossible,” I said.
When our eyes touched, love stared back at me. “All things are possible if you are willing to work hard enough.”
I clamped my eyelids shut, wishing I could drift somewhere safe, somewhere I could love the man I chose without having to deal with the man I had rejected.
A soft but unyielding touch alighted on my arm. “We need to get you out of here.”
I nodded, keeping my eyes closed. If there was one thing worse than having to be with Zach, it was having to be here with him. Even though Tabitha had taught me how to keep the council out of my mind, I hoped my effort equally applied to Zach. I couldn’t be sure.
He led me outside and into the woods that surrounded the castle, keeping his light grip on my arm the entire way. When he finally stopped he didn’t say a word. His arms wrapped around me, and I felt the slight tug of the matter stream, but something intangible kept us grounded right where we stood.
Zach unleashed a growl that sent ice to my toes. Instead of trying again, he pulled me back into the castle. He walked so fast I stumbled, attempting to keep up with him.
When his rant started, I knew this was bad. Even with his strong words, his voice held an edge of uncertainty. “If he thinks he is going to keep you here so he can steal you out from under me, he is wrong.”
At first I thought he was talking about Heath, but how could that be right? Heath was nothing more than an underlord now. He didn’t have any say when it came to the workings of the fae council. I wasn’t even sure how much power they’d left him.
With anxiety setting my heart racing, I made Zach stop. Was this the mystery man Tabitha had warned me about? “Who are you talking about?”
He sighed, and the sound held an old contempt. “Valen.”
“What?” Confusion clouded my mind. Valen had never shown an ounce of interest in me…until the trial. “Isn’t he bound?”
Zach’s shoulders tensed. “We all thought his bondmate had years left. He’s been strong, stronger than any lord has ever achieved, but she’s suddenly taken to her chambers. He’s assured us she will be fine, but her power is waning, Rayla. It won’t be long until he takes her back to the mortal realm. He went hysterical when he received word of your abduction.”
Abduction? Who did they think abducted me? I was the one that hit Zach with that lightning bolt.
“Even now,” he continued. “We are searching for the wraith leader. We have come close. In fact, the guard almost pinpointed him when we came to rescue you.”
I shook my head, stunned at how clueless the fae were. I had a feeling Creed could look after himself, but what if he couldn’t? What if I had put his whole race at risk simply by naming him?
With things happening the way they had, I couldn’t remember if Zach knew about Creed. My mind was such a jumbled mess lately I was bound to mess up if I didn’t watch what I said and, worse, what I thought.
Somehow, I had to figure out how to fix this mess I’d made. So many people I cared about stood to get hurt if I did the wrong thing.
Zach stayed silent, as if he was lost in his thoughts, too. For a split second I wondered if I should try to establish a mental link with him, but that idea fled as fast as it came. I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk giving him the chance to forge an unbreakable link with my mind.
Heath had done it, so it was possible.
When Zach guided us toward the council chambers, I stiffened. I didn’t want to see any of those people, yet here we were barging through the gigantic doors into a session.
All eyes trained on us, but none looked surprised.
Valen stood at the front of the room clothed in black robes that skimmed the cold marble floor. As he turned, part of his body shifted into the white half of the room and the fabric of his robes turned white as if absorbing the dominant color around it.
In a way, it was an odd sort of camouflage. Now if only it could cover up his smug face. A face, all of a sudden, I wanted to punch.
Valen walked closer. With every step, his smile grew until he might as well have been the Cheshire cat when he stopped a few feet away from us.
“Welcome Ammon, and…Rayla, don’t you look lovely today.”
Zach flat out frowned at the man. “What is this, Valen? I heard of no session today.”
Valen gave Zach a disapproving frown. “Chairman, if you will, and we,” his arm swept sideways as he pointed out the other council members, “assumed you’d have other, more pressing…” he smiled, “…issues to address now that you have Rayla back.”
Zach scoffed. “I’d love to, but it seems someone has blocked my ability to travel.”
Valen paced in front of us, his hands clasped behind him. “Only a precaution, lord Ammon.”
Zach’s question came out as a hiss. “Why?”
Valen smirked. “With the wraith still posing a threat, we determined it is in the best interest of our realms for Rayla to remain here, where we all can oversee her protection.”
“I am perfectly capable of protecting my bondmate,” snapped Zach.
A pasty smile parted Valens lips. “Ordinarily, I would most definitely agree with you; however, given the circumstances of her abduction, we feel she would be better protected with the guard at the ready.”
Zach clanked his jaw together. His voice came out tight, as if it had been poured through a strainer. “Then send them with us to Eirie.”
Valen clamped a hand on Zach’s upper arm. Normally, I would have thought it was a friendly gesture, but right now it seemed like a threat.
“I don’t want to stay here,” I put in before Valen could say anything else.
“You see,” said Zach. “Rayla wishes to go home. I haven’t even begun training her in the elemental arts. We need time before we are saddled with court.”
Valen’s eyebrows shot up. “Court is a burden to you, young Ammon? I am sure we can figure out another plan that would insure Rayla’s wellbeing.”
“I’m not staying here!” I shouted and the buzz in the room stopped.
Valen’s eyes flared then narrowed at me. “My dear, you have uttered your last command. You will learn your place in this court, and if your current bondmate cannot control you, another will be appointed.” His eyes honed in on me, making me shudder. “Have I made myself clear enough for your young mind to understand?”
My insides burned with humiliation and rage. Who did this man think he was? God? From the steely look he gave me, there was no alternative.
No one else in the room uttered a word. Zach even looked stunned.
I had expected him to defend me, but he just stood there. Silent.
Zach was right. This man wanted my power, and he would use any excuse he could to usurp the already fragile bond Zach and I shared.
I lowered my face. “Forgive me, Chairman. It has been a trying few days.”
His soft hand clasped my wrist. My eyes snapped to his.
They were ordinary eyes, nothing special about them. In fact, he was homely compared to the man at my side, yet in those eyes, I saw my captivity.
I forced a smile, but I wasn’t about to say another thing.
He turned to Zach. “You see that? All she needs is a bit of guidance, a firm hand.”
Man, I wanted to fry this guy. Or better yet, flick his jackass self into the nearest black-hole.
Keeping my mouth shut was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. The arrogance of these people astounded me, but if I wasn’t careful, I could end up as another man’s bondmate, even Valen’s. The ewwness of that thought slithered down my body all the way to my toes and back up to my mind. No matter what, I had to keep that from happening. I’d have to check on his bondmate to see how she was faring. Maybe I could help her somehow.
Valen patted my hand. “The guard will show you to your new quarters. Rest assured, my lady, we have taken every effort to make sure your stay in Lombarda is comfortable.”
Valen seemed to be waiting for a reply, so I gave him a curt, “Thank you.”
Zach placed his arm around my shoulders then ushered me toward the exit. Right before the big doors swung open, Valen spoke up. “It really is good to have you here, Rayla. We eagerly await your presence in court.”
When the doors whooshed by, I raced out the door. My lungs refused to expand. Zach kept up, but he was no longer the one leading. My mind wouldn’t stop replaying the look Valen had given me just now, full of lust, full of greed. We followed Nicco through parts of the castle I had never been and up several flights of stairs.
What if Valen really was the new threat Tabitha told me about? He seemed the most likely option, but how could I be sure? Luke was still at large but Tabitha should have known if it was Luke. I tried to focus on my surroundings to distract myself, but the severity of my situation wouldn’t let go of my mind.
I wanted to talk to Zach about this, but raising questions in the corridors wasn’t the best idea. Seemed odd to me the fae didn’t use escalators or teleport pads to get places since they weren’t allowed to drift inside the castle.
The higher we climbed, the more nervous Zach seemed.
Finally, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I said, “What’s going on?”
All he did was shake his head, as if to say not now, maybe not ever. He was still refusing to give me answers, and I was sick of it. If he thought he was going to control me, he was sadly out of it.
Figuring I wasn’t going to get anything from Zach right now, I quickened my step until I walked next to Nicco. I gave him a quick glance. “Hey,” I said. He nodded in response. “So, where are we going?”
“Chairman Valen has asked that you be placed adjacent to his quarters.” Was that disapproval I noted in Nicco’s tone? “He seems very interested in your safety.”
I scoffed. “If you ask me, he’s more interested in my power.”
A sharp chuckle escaped Nicco, but he recovered with a cough. “It is unwise for you to speak your mind so freely, my lady.”
“Yeah? Tell me about it.”
He glanced at me sidelong. “A word of advice?”
I shrugged. “Sure, if you’re offering?”
His jaw clenched. “Make every effort to gain control of your power as quickly as possible.”
“Great idea in theory,” I said. “Harder to put into practice.”
He gave me what looked like a secretive smile. “We shall see. Sometimes things are not as difficult as they seem.”
I totally didn’t get him. Here he was, supposedly this imposing force that put fear into any person he happened upon, but the more I got to know him the more comfortable I felt around him—like he was my protector and always would be. It was stupid to think that way because he was a royal guard for heaven’s sake, but he’d done things to protect me when no one else would. Things that would have gotten him in trouble if anyone found out.
We walked down another brightly lit corridor that reminded me more of a centuries old assembly hall than a mere hallway. The translucent stone arched up into a sharp peak at least a hundred feet above us. So many things about this castle were lovely, amazing even, but I couldn’t let myself linger on things that didn’t matter. I had to focus on what did.
Too bad I still didn’t know what was most important. I got lost in my thoughts for a while, and Nicco didn’t say anything else.
Zach still trailed behind us. I glanced back a couple times, but his gaze stayed locked on the floor. His face was unreadable. He had to be fuming at me right now, and I sort of felt bad about that, but what did he expect from me? I’d given my heart to another man, and I intended to figure out a way to have Heath in my life instead of Zach.
It wasn’t that I didn’t care about him. I felt awful about what had happened between us, not to mention how badly I’d hurt him, but it wasn’t like I could just flip a switch and shut off my feelings for Heath.
My mind wandered back to when Ainessa told me if I allied myself with her, I could have had all the lords I wanted. The thought was more than repulsive. How could she even think such a thing?
Once I had decided who I wanted, that was it. My caring for the other lords would never die, but I couldn’t think of them in a romantic way anymore. I wouldn’t betray Heath like that.
My body was just going to have to learn what my mind already knew. I belonged with Heath.
He was a part of my soul now, and nothing these people did was going to change that. Finally, Nicco stopped in front of an unassuming set of doors. The thing that bothered me was an identical set lay across the hall only a few feet away.
I turned to Nicco. “Is that—”
He gave a sharp nod then let me into my new chambers. The bright space belonged in a dream. A wall of windows greeted me, casting the gilded room in a celestial glow. Even though the view of the valley was stunning, a sting of disappointment stiffened my spine. I’d been hoping for a balcony. Fat chance with my track record.
I bypassed the cream sofa that was set on a luxurious monchromatic rug and made for the windows. The mist from the waterfall was barely visible up here, and apart from the occasional scuffling of shoes, the room was soundless. In an odd way it reminded me of my time in Altasia with clouds being the only thing in sight. I shook my head, like I needed a reminder of that. When an unwanted shiver sliced through me, I turned away from the scene.
Tabitha had made known to me I’d have to face Luke at some point. I’d been trying to get my mind used to the idea, but every time I thought about him, I recoiled both mentally and physically.
Ainessa having been in control of him didn’t help me accept what he’d done to me.
I wanted to think I would have had a chance in defeating him on my own if Creed hadn’t shown up, but that was just wishful thinking. He’d overcome all my defenses in no time flat.
The onslaught he’d unleashed on me had been nothing short of relentless. What would he do when he saw me again? I wanted to think he’d apologize and plead for my help in getting Ainessa out of his head, but the more realistic idea would be that he’d still be trying to figure out a way to claim me.
He’d made it clear he wasn’t giving up. Just like Ainessa. They were of the same mind, so I should have thought of them as the same person, but I couldn’t do that. Not really.
Somewhere inside the beast Luke had become was the vulnerable man that had pleaded with me in a carriage to help him save his people. His intensions had always been honorable, but his approach could have used some work.
Zach came into my periphery, his silhouette a dark shadow against the glow of the room. In a voice more suited to church, he said, “What are you thinking?”
Him having to ask that question gave me some hope I had made progress in controlling my thoughts. I shrugged. “This whole thing is strange, surreal.”
He nodded. “I’ll get us out of here, Rayla. I promise.”
I stared at him, searching his eyes for that tale-tell line of green. It wasn’t there. At least I didn’t think it was. Even if I hadn’t already pledged my devotion to Heath, I couldn’t trust Zach. Not after what had happened.
“It doesn’t really matter,” I said.
His hands shot out and he grabbed my shoulders. He yanked me to face him so fast my head spun. “You don’t think I know what you’re up to? You don’t think I can see where your mind has gone? Where your mind always goes when you have a quiet moment?”