THE HEART MOON
Enchanted Lyre Books
Cover image by Tori Minard from photos by
Copyright © Tori Minard 2011
This story is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are invented by the author or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental. All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author.
Damn. The one interview Laine really cared about, and it had gone south already. She could tell the interviewer didn’t like her, though they’d only met a few minutes ago.
Never going to happen.
The phrase slid from the interviewer’s mind and into Laine’s consciousness, leaving a trace of psychic slime in its wake. The woman smiled stiffly at Laine and pushed a strand of artfully highlighted blond hair away from her face. Her contempt flowed from her like an icy breeze, making Laine shiver. The cold of it crept through her business suit and into her skin, her muscles, her bones.
Come on, Laine, you know that woo-woo stuff isn’t real. You’re just nervous.
“Well,” the interviewer said. “Hmm. So, tell me about your strengths and weaknesses and how you think they might affect your work here at Price and Campbell.”
Laine returned the smile with what she hoped was sincerity. Strengths. Strengths. “I learn quickly. And, um, I really care about the quality of my work. It’s important to me to do a good job.” Great. That sounded stupid. Like anyone would tell an interviewer it was important to do a bad job. “I’m hardly ever sick,” she added with false cheer.
“Well, that’s certainly important.” The interviewer folded her hands and adopted an interested expression.
Weaknesses, right. What could she say that wouldn’t be lying, but wouldn’t exactly be true either? “I have a tendency to work so hard that I get a little burned out.”
“According to your application, you were fired from your last job. Can you tell me a little about that?”
Familiar heat crept up her neck and over her face. It failed to dispel the ice that had already invaded her. She’d known this question was coming. Any prospective employer would want to know why she’d been fired. The interviewer asked the same thing at every interview she’d had, and it was foolish to hope that this one would be any different.
She lifted her chin and met the woman’s eyes. “My boss and I had a difference of opinion about how the work should be organized. We, uh, both decided it would be best for me to find a job that was a better fit for me.”
The blonde’s smile turned downright brittle. “I see.”
The woman’s judgment and disdain filled her mind just as vividly as if it came from within her own being.
Don’t be silly. You can’t possibly know what she’s thinking.
“It was very disappointing for me. I enjoyed my work there.” Now that was a lie. She hoped that the twinge of guilt she felt didn’t show on her face.
“Well, you certainly are qualified for this position, Laine. Thank you for coming in today. We’ll let you know as soon as we’ve made a decision.”
They shook hands amicably. Laine collected her umbrella and her portfolio with her resume and meager references and left the office with her head high. She wouldn’t get the job. No-one had called her back after an interview. Nobody wanted to hire someone who’d been fired for insubordination, no matter how well-qualified she was.
When she emerged from the office building, it was drizzling. Laine walked through the mist to her car without bothering to put up the umbrella. Right now she didn’t care much about her hair style being ruined anyway. She was done with interviewing for the day.
God damn it. How many of these little torture sessions would she have to endure before someone hired her? She was running out of money. And she’d had enough of explaining herself to unsympathetic strangers who probably wouldn’t understand even if she told them the truth about what had happened between her and her boss. She wasn’t sure she understood it herself.
Laine got in the car, drove out of the business-park lot and onto the street. Insubordination. Seemed like she had trouble with it in every job she took, although she’d only been fired for it once.
It wasn’t as if she decided to be insubordinate. She just didn’t relate well to authority figures. Her lips crimped at the corners. Yeah, that was a little bit of an understatement. Laine Hamilton and The Boss didn’t mix well, never had.
She drove aimlessly, heading back to Portland without thinking about where she intended to go. Home seemed a pale destination, insufficient to drive the interview and all its cousins from her mind. She needed something else, a release of some kind.
Cornell Road took her on a winding route into the heavily wooded West Hills, past the Audubon Bird Sanctuary and along the edge of Macleay Park, which was a small projection of the enormous Forest Park. She’d been there a few times. Ancient firs and spruces loomed over dirt trails crowded with sword fern, Oregon grape and salmon berry. Not a place to walk in high heels. But when Laine reached a residential area at Macleay’s border, she turned onto one of the side streets and drove until she reached a playground that seemed to be connected to the larger park.
An older play structure and swingset sat on a lawn dotted with huge maples, oaks and firs that had obviously been there for decades. A handful of kids ran around screeching and giggling while their mothers watched and smiled. This was what she needed to get the awful interview out of her mind. She pulled up at the curb and killed the engine.
Roan McAllister—also known as Roan Tanais—removed his leather jacket and his shirt, and settled his bare back against the maple’s rough trunk. He closed his eyes, turning his face to the Oregon sky. Weak January sun filtered through the bare branches. Up here in the tree, he could almost forget about the human world, forget about Barrett and the Unseelies and the accursed Shield, and imagine himself home again.
A flock of chickadees, unsettled by his climbing, fluttered down to land on the twigs all around him. If he sat still enough, they would eventually land on him.
The shouts and laughter of a handful of human children carried to him from the other side of the park. He opened his eyes briefly. The kids clambered over the playground equipment, almost as gracefully as Amaki children would, while their blue-jeaned mothers watched from benches and chatted.
He observed as another woman, dressed in a boxy dark-blue skirt suit, walked across the bark chips and sat in one of the swings. The clothes she wore dwarfed her small frame. She gave herself a push, glancing at the children with a smile. Odd. He’d been here many times over the past month, and he’d never seen an adult human on the swings.
He closed his eyes again and let some of the old maple’s energy seep into him. She was still dozing in her winter sleep and didn’t have much to spare, so he only took a little. His people needed the energy of the green world to sustain them. Without it, they lost their mental stability and turned vicious. Like the Unseelies.
His maple grew on the far side of the park from the little playground, where civilization edged into the mini-wilderness of Forest Park, and he liked it that way. It amused him to observe the humans going about their business, completely unaware of the magic in their midst. However, he didn’t need interference.
Mothers didn’t look over here very often, didn’t seem to notice the shirtless man sitting in a tree, and people rarely walked into this end of the grassy space. Their ignorant and noisy blundering stayed on their side of the park where it belonged.
The children’s voices and the birdsong blended together like background music as he settled more deeply into the peaceful aura of the tree. The harshness and anger slowly drained out of him. In its place came the quiet green that his Amaki soul craved.
Barrett had the Tanais Shield. Roan just had to find out where he was hiding it, and steal it back. As soon as he acquired it, he could use it to cure his brother, bring him out of his coma. If he wanted to help Tam, he needed to get his mind off his problems, let the tree fill him with the peace that would keep him strong.
A woman’s heels clicked rhythmically on the concrete path that wound through the park. While children in the playground didn’t bother him, it was disruptive to have humans bumbling around directly under his tree. Roan swore silently. Confound it; she ought to have stayed next to the benches where she belonged. Peering down through the branches, he saw the drab woman from the swings. She had an open cell phone held to her ear.
“Yes, I know that,” she said into the phone. She paused, frowning. He could see the tension in her hand as she clutched the cell.
She had a beautiful young face that didn’t match the outfit she wore. Her dark hair was scraped back into a knot so tight it looked painful. He willed her to go away. She didn’t.
“I don’t have the money right now,” she said. “Can’t you give me an extension?”
Go away, he thought at her.
“Where am I going to go, then?” Her voice took on a harsh note. “Yeah, thanks a lot. That’s real generous of you.”
She snapped the cell closed and shoved it into a shapeless black purse. Then she raised her head. A pair of extraordinary green eyes stared straight at him and widened. The woman backed up a step. As they looked at each other, Roan felt a shock of connection form between their two energies, something he’d never experienced with a human.
His energy centers expanded without his conscious volition, making him wide open and vulnerable to her. Instant lust flared inside him. Damn it – he didn’t have the time for this.
He tried to squelch his reaction to her. With a wrenching act of will, Roan closed down his centers to stop the flow of energies.
Her gaze flicked over his bare torso and then away, as if she were embarrassed by his lack of a shirt. “Just what I need. An eavesdropper,” she said in a tone of disgust.
Roan shrugged and tried to relax the tightness in his jaw. “It was hard not to, with you barking into your phone like that.”
“I was not barking.”
“It sounded like barking to me.”
“Asshole.” She turned on her heel and stalked back the way she’d come.
What a bitch. As if he was deliberately listening to her precious conversation. It was a good thing she was leaving. Roan frowned at her retreating back for an instant and then threw on his shirt and jacket.
If he were wise, he would let her go. He wanted her to go, so he could get on with what he’d been doing before she interrupted. But that energy connection was still there, nagging at him like an itch he couldn’t scratch. Roan jumped out of the tree, catching up with her in a couple of quick strides.
She visibly started when she noticed him beside her. He’d forgotten to move slowly, like a human would have. Gentling his pace to match hers, Roan looked down at her, caught between inexplicable lust and irritation at her behavior.
“Leave me alone,” she said.
“Do you always attack innocent bystanders? Maybe I should warn those kids that it’s not safe with you around.”
She glared at him. “What is your problem?”
“I have no problem. I was peacefully enjoying my tree when you came along. The question is – why are you so angry that I overheard you?”
She clutched her purse more tightly to her side and walked faster, as if she thought she could outrun him. “It was a private conversation.”
She could have stayed in her car if she had wanted keep others from overhearing her. “Maybe you shouldn’t have your private conversations in the park,” he said.
The human walked a little faster, her heels clacking on the pavement. She wanted him. She was afraid of him. He could smell it. The combination of fear, desire and bitchy attitude brought out the predator in him, made him want to take her down a notch.
She was highly unsuitable as a partner, even for a single encounter. But, Earth’s bones, he’d like to teach her a lesson.
Laine forced herself to look straight ahead. She could no longer hear the children playing. Why was this man following her? Surely he could see that she didn’t want to have anything to do with him. If he wanted to have his tree to himself, he ought to be happy, because she was obviously leaving.
Who sat half-naked in a tree in winter, anyway? She sneaked a sideways glance at him. He’d put on a worn black leather motorcycle jacket, complete with chains and a red knotwork design on the sleeves. Long black hair fell over his collar and around his face. He was tall enough to tower over her. He gave her a knowing smile, as if he were aware that she wanted to look without being seen looking.
Her face burned. She was not attracted to him, even if he did move with the sensuous ease of a panther. Even if he did have lips that tempted her with fantasies of kissing him. He was not her type. Couldn’t he see that he wasn’t her type? She looked normal. He looked like he belonged in a biker gang.
Besides, there was something off about him. He exuded an energy that she couldn’t quite describe, not even to herself. Something almost . . . otherworldly.
Oh, for crying out loud, Laine. You need your head examined. There’s nothing otherworldly here, just a strange guy at the end of a really bad day.
Laine rounded the play area and noticed, for the first time, the black motorcycle parked behind her old blue sedan. It must belong to him. Thank God that she was almost to her car. She glanced over at the benches, thinking that she might ask one of the other women for help, but they and the children had all gone. Laine rummaged in her purse for her cell phone. If she had to, she would call the police.
He was no longer beside her. Should she look back to see where he’d gone? But that would tell him just how scared he made her, and he’d probably think she was looking because she found him sexy, too. A jerk like him didn’t need the ego boost. After a moment’s hesitation, she looked anyway and saw him standing on the path a few yards back, his arms crossed over his chest as he watched her.
The pointed toe of her left shoe caught in a crack in the pavement. Her right foot twisted underneath her and pain stabbed up through her ankle. She stumbled. Throwing her hands out to catch herself, she tumbled awkwardly to the concrete and landed on her hands and knees. Oh, damn. It hurt like hell. She must have sprained her ankle.
Laine pinched her eyes shut and clenched her teeth, fighting the agony in her joint. Her heart pounded frantically as she thought of the man behind her. She wanted to get away from him, but she couldn’t escape with her ankle in so much pain.
“Here, let me help you.”
Laine gave a startled gasp, her eyes popping open at the sound of his voice. He’d gotten to her much more quickly than she had expected. She took a breath and tried to calm herself before she responded. He wasn’t a monster. Everything would be alright, as long as she could send him away.
“No, I’ll be fine,” she said in a surprisingly normal voice. “Thank you.” She tried to rise, but her injured ankle refused to bear any weight at all and she wobbled, bent over and supporting herself on her hands.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t walk like that.” He crouched next to her, looking concerned. He had mismatched gray eyes, one an unearthly pale silver and the other a slightly darker blue-gray, both surrounded by a smudge of black lashes. He reached out and scooped her into his arms, standing up in one graceful movement before she had time to protest. Her heart began to race even faster as she found herself held against his body.
“What are you doing?” she squeaked.
“Is that your car?” He nodded his head toward her sedan.
“Put me down. I’ll be alright, just put me down.”
“I’m not going to hurt you, I promise. I’ll just get you to your car. It’s partly my fault that you twisted your ankle, so it’s the least I can do.”
Who did he think he was fooling? He was no Good Samaritan. “I don’t have any money, if that’s what you want,” she said.
He gave her a startled frown. “I don’t want your money. I’m trying to help you.”
Why would he want to help her? She didn’t trust strangers who said they wanted to help her. No-one had ever aided her for free; they always wanted something in return, something she wasn’t willing to give. She didn’t trust this guy, and she didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t listening to her.
“Put me down right now,” she said.
“No. Get out your keys and open the car.”
Laine bit back the furious scream that threatened to erupt from her. Maybe cooperation would get rid of him faster. She thrust her hand into her purse and produced her keys, clicking the remote as she did.
His arms and chest felt like solid rock against her body, and she knew that her heart was pounding from more than fear. The heat of him came to her through their clothes, along with a spicy masculine scent that reminded her of raw sex and made her core warm and achy. She hated her response to him. It was all wrong. She was in so much pain that it should be impossible to be turned on.
Somehow he balanced her in one arm while he reached down to open the car door. The strength it took to do that amazed her at the same time as she wished desperately to get away from him. He crouched down again, still holding her, and set her gently in the passenger seat with her legs sticking out the door. He covered her exposed knee with one large hand. The warmth of it seemed unbearably intimate. Laine stared at him in alarm.
“I’m going to look at your ankle now.”
“Oh, you must be a doctor. It was all the leather that tipped me off,” she said waspishly. As soon as the words left her mouth, she regretted the remark. It probably wasn’t wise to provoke this man when she was at his mercy.
He raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Instead he cradled her injured ankle in one hand and laid the other hand over the top of it. She flinched, hissing at the pain.
“Sorry. Just relax for me now.” His voice sounded even deeper and more velvety than before, and Laine found herself unaccountably drowsy, the tension leaving her as quickly as if he’d given her some kind of tranquilizer. She seemed almost to be floating, though her limbs were heavy. Everything felt very far away.
The peacefulness suddenly pervading her was wonderful, something she hadn’t experienced in a very long time. Maybe never. In fact, now that she thought of it, she was sure that she had never felt anything like this sense of pure safety and relaxation before in her life. Laine sighed. Nothing could hurt her when she felt this good.
She looked down at his striking features, the thick black eyelashes, black hair sliding into his face, long fingers wrapped around her ankle. His lips were just full enough. Full enough to bite. She wondered if his hair felt as soft as it looked. She would like to find out.
Why had she been so afraid? There was no danger, nothing to be afraid of. This man wanted to help her, and she wanted to let him. He was so beautiful, so beautiful that he didn’t look real. She wanted to kiss him.
“Would you let me kiss you?” she said.
He smiled, still focused on her ankle. “Not right now, Laine. Let me fix you first.”
He began to speak in some foreign language that she didn’t recognize, but which seemed vaguely familiar, as if she’d heard it all her life without ever learning what the words meant. He chanted them softly, rhythmically, and heat came out of his hands and into her joint. As the chant continued the heat built and built inside her flesh.
Maybe the heat would become unbearable. Maybe it would set her on fire and her ankle would start smoking. At some other time that thought would have alarmed her, but now it made her smile a little. Even unbearable heat wouldn’t truly hurt, not when she was floating this way.
What would her rescuer do if he accidentally set her on fire? She pictured a wisp of smoke curling up from her skin and the man staring at it with open mouth, and stifled a giggle at the image.
The chant stopped and he removed his hands. Damn. She’d liked the way they felt on her skin. Laine sighed again.
“How is it now?”
She struggled to bring herself back to normal consciousness. “Hmmm?” she said dreamily.
“How is your ankle?”
Oh, yeah, the ankle. Laine wiggled her foot. “The pain is completely gone. How did you do that?”
“Magic.” He winked at her.
Magic? She blinked. Frowned. What a smart-ass. The floating sensation drained out of her, and all the tension returned as swiftly as it had left, bringing her down with a jolt. I am not disappointed at losing my high. I’m just glad I can get out of here.
Frowning again, she got to her feet. Her benefactor moved back and she walked around the car to the driver’s side, hoping that he couldn’t see her blush. She refused to look at him as she slid behind the wheel. Had she really asked to kiss him?
“You’re welcome,” he said. She knew without looking that he was smiling.
“Thank you,” Laine replied stiffly.
“Still want that kiss?”
“No. I have to go now.” If he were a gentleman, he wouldn’t have mentioned her silly request, but obviously he was no gentleman. She had to get out of here, and she couldn’t simply drive away because the sidewalk curved around in front of her space, forcing her to back up before she could leave. She started the car, threw it into reverse and began to pull out of her parking spot. Something behind the sedan crunched loudly and Laine slammed on the brakes.
“I was planning on riding that bike today,” the man said dryly.
Laine closed her eyes and dropped her head to the steering wheel. This was the worst day of her life. First she’d had the job interview from hell, then her landlord threatened her with eviction, and now this guy and his infernal bike. She took a deep breath, lifted her head and rolled down her window. He had the oddest expression on his face. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was struggling to keep from laughing.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking,” she said.
The corners of his lips twitched and he pressed them together tightly. “You need driving lessons.”
“I don’t need driving lessons, I need a drink.”
He grinned. What the heck was he grinning about? She’d just run over his bike.
“Let me give you my phone number and the name of my insurance company,” she said.
“That won’t be necessary. It’s not badly damaged and I can fix it myself. I’m a pretty good mechanic.”
The last thing she needed was for him to come back later and claim that she had done a hit and run on him. On the other hand, she didn’t have any money to spare and she couldn’t afford for her rates to increase. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. But I advise you to look into the lessons, Laine. I know they’ll tell you it’s not safe to drink and drive.”
“Oh, yeah? You have any other advice you’d like to give me while you’re at it?”
“Yeah. You shouldn’t wear that kind of suit. It looks like something you borrowed from your grandma.”
She stared at him for a moment, completely at a loss for a response. “So first you’re a doctor and now you’re a fashion consultant. What a versatile guy,” she said finally.
She put the car into drive and pulled away without looking back at him. What a jerk. What a weird jerk. Her day had been miserable enough without him in it. Her hands were shaking. Maybe she really did need a drink. She still had to get home, though, and in spite of what she’d said, she would never drive under the influence.
I advise you to look into the lessons, Laine. I’m sure they’ll tell you it’s not safe to drink and drive. The arrogant, smug bastard. Who did he think he was? As if he’d never made a mistake in his life. He probably drove like a maniac.
Wait a minute . . . he’d called her Laine. She hadn’t told him her name, so how did he know it? A sudden chill came over her. What had happened back there? It was like he had her under a spell or something, because while she was in his presence she hadn’t really thought about how strange he was.
That whole encounter had been freaky, and she hated spooky stuff. God, what a day. She’d thought the park would be a good place to relax, and now she needed to get her mind off what had happened there. If only she didn’t have to drive all the way across the metro area to get home.
Roan watched as Laine pulled away. She smelled incredible, but what a hellcat she was. If it hadn’t been for his inconvenient sense of honor, he would have left her alone with her sprained ankle. The only time she had been remotely pleasant was when he’d calmed her . . . and then she’d wanted to kiss him. He grinned. He should have accepted her invitation.
That would be a lesson he’d love to teach her. Master her, make her lose that snotty attitude, lose control. He imagined her with her face flushed, hair out of that tight knot and spilled all over the sheets, thighs spread, her core all hot and creamy and ready for him. She’d probably be a screamer.
Fuck, no, what was he thinking? He didn’t do human women. They had all kinds of weird guilt about sex, and he didn’t have the patience for that. Amaki women knew precisely what they wanted sexually and how to get it, and they felt no shame whatsoever. They were exactly like him.
Roan turned to his motorcycle. He gave a careless wave of his hand and the bike righted itself, the damage gone. She was lucky she’d run over his machine and not some human’s. He didn’t need to report such incidents to an insurance company.
Two teenaged human girls came toward him along the sidewalk. They both wore too much makeup and jeans that looked like they’d come out of a can of spray paint. They sauntered a couple of yards into the park and struck casual poses, pretending to be interested in their conversation as they preened for him. Every so often one of them glanced his way and stroked her hair or giggled.
There were plenty of women at home who would be glad to take him between their thighs. He didn’t need these foolish humans, he needed to get home.
All he had to do was acquire the Shield. Cure Tam. If he could do that, the rest of this horseshit he’d been enduring for the past few weeks would become irrelevant. No more attempts to pass as human, no more late-night drinking bouts with the barbarian scum that called themselves the Unseelies. He would be free again, and so would Tam.
The girls giggled in unison. Apparently they didn’t realize that he had less than no interest in them. He swung his leg over the motorcycle and started it.
“Nice ride,” one of them said.
He put the bike in gear and sped away without responding. Their disappointment sent out tendrils of energy behind him that teased at the edges of his consciousness, until he turned the corner and vanished from their sight.
Somehow Laine managed to make her way through the crazily winding streets of the hills to Burnside Road. She’d meant to connect with Cornell again, but she’d taken a wrong turn. Commuters had already formed a long line of vehicles on the steep hill going into northwest Portland by the time Laine arrived. With a glance at her car’s clock she saw that it was four thirty. She had completely lost track of time in the park. With a sigh, she turned on the radio.
When she had moved up here from Ventura County, she had thought she was leaving all her traffic problems in California. Instead, it seemed that they’d migrated north with her. Not that traffic in the Portland metro area could really compare with southern California, but it was still a headache. She flipped radio channels until she found one that was playing some blues. Then her cell phone rang and she had to turn off the radio.
“So have you found yourself a job yet?” her mother asked before Laine had a chance to say hello. Laine winced. The last thing she needed right now was her mother’s nagging.
“No, Mom,” she said, doing her best not to reveal her mood in her voice.
“Are you looking?”
“Of course I’m looking.”
“There’s no need to be snappish.”
Laine took a deep breath and reminded herself to be patient. “Sorry. I’ve had a bad day.”
“Well, you’d probably have better days if you found a job. Meadow Schwartz just got promoted to a management position with that biotech company she works for. Her mother told me yesterday over lunch. Meadow is so ambitious.”
Be neutral, calm. Don’t let her get to you. “Uh huh. I remember that.”
“So, how’s the weather up there? It’s gorgeous here, 75 degrees and sunny,” her mother told her with exaggerated cheer.
“It’s drizzly here.”
“That’s too bad. Hey, you know who else I saw yesterday? Jeff. He’s such a looker; I don’t know why you two didn’t stay together.”
“Because he broke up with me, Mom. A year ago.”
“You know, it takes two to make a relationship work. If Jeff broke up with you, there must have been something going on with your end or he wouldn’t have done it. You have to give a little to get a little, if you know what I mean. Be more cooperative.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Mom, I’d love to talk but I’m on the freeway and the traffic’s just crazy. I’ll call you later.” Laine hung up before her mother could answer.
Jeff had broken their engagement two months after presenting her with a ring. Laine suspected it was because he’d expected her to become sexually available as soon as he’d put the engagement ring on her finger, and he’d been royally pissed when she’d still said no.
Their friends had all quit talking to her afterward. They still hung around with Jeff, though; she was the one who’d become a pariah. Laine knew that it was for the best that they weren’t together, but it had hurt like hell for a very long time.
Her mother firmly believed that it was Laine’s fault that her relationship with Jeff had failed, and she’d never stopped nagging Laine about it. If only you’d been nicer, Laine. You shouldn’t argue with Jeff. Men don’t like it when their women argue with them. In Mrs. Hamilton’s mind, a woman must always make herself agreeable to her man, even if it required her to play dumb. She was like a relic from a fifties sit-com when it came to relationships.
Laine stuck the phone back in her purse, then hauled it out again and turned it off to prevent further conversation.
By now, she had descended into the trendy Northwest Twenty-third area, but she was at a standstill again. At this rate, it would take her two hours to get home to her apartment in Gresham. Even when there was no traffic it took her forty-five minutes to get across the metro area.
Her stomach growled ferociously. Laine turned on Northwest Twenty-third and crawled along as pedestrians repeatedly ran across the street in front of her and other cars stole the available parking spots. By the time the crowds thinned, she was at the opposite end of the neighborhood, near a cluster of Victorian houses that contained a New Age bookstore, a “wellness center,” and a Thai restaurant.
What the hell. She could use a decent meal. She parked in the tiny lot in the back and went into the restaurant for a solo dinner. The food was painfully spicy and took her mind off her problems for half an hour. Afterward, she ventured into the bookstore for a dose of crystal power and ambient music.
The scent of smudge sticks and incense surrounding her, Laine gazed blankly at books about totem animals and reincarnation, while her mind drifted back to her encounter in the park. There had to be a sensible explanation for what had happened. The black-haired man had claimed to fix her injury by chanting over it, by using magic. He must be a hoaxer. Magic wasn’t real.
She couldn’t have actually sprained her ankle, because if she had then she wouldn’t be able to walk on it now. Sprains could be agonizing, and didn’t they cause a lot of swelling? No, she couldn’t have really gotten a sprain.
It was much more likely that she had simply been scared by the sudden pain and had made more of the injury than it was. Maybe her “rescuer” had mesmerized her somehow. His voice was so soft and deep, he could probably put women into hypnotic trance without even trying. He’d taken advantage of her vulnerability to get closer to her than she would have ordinarily allowed.
She had been disoriented by the events of the day, upset over the bad end to her interview, and that’s why she’d been so suggestible. Her face heated. Thank goodness no-one was around to see her blush. Asking a complete stranger to kiss her. If she weren’t already hiding behind shelves of books, she’d have the urge to hide her head under her jacket.
When she got outside she found that it was dark and raining hard. She had foolishly left her umbrella in the car. Laine held her purse over her head and dashed for the vehicle, rain splashing up onto her feet and ankles as she went. The only part of California that she missed was the sunshine. It seemed as if it had been raining here for three months straight at least.
She turned on her heater and her interior light so that she could check the map before she left.
Someday I’m going to figure out these crazy Portland streets. Making a mental note of her route, she started the trip home.
The radio had nothing that she wanted to hear, so she made her own music. She started with “Cry Me a River”, and followed with a string of her favorite jazz standards. Singing had always made her feel better.
In her mind’s eye, she saw the face of the man from the park. What kind of music did he like? And what would he think of her singing? He’d probably think her music went right along with her granny suit.
What the heck are you doing, Laine? He’s just some biker jerk, and besides he wouldn’t look twice at you. She forced herself to focus on her driving. But his gray eyes and lush black eyelashes lingered in her mind, watching her.
As she drove onto the Burnside Bridge, Laine glanced to her left at a huge neon sign with a leaping stag on it. Giant SUVs and pickups whooshed by on either side of her, throwing sheets of water onto her car until her windshield wipers could barely keep up even on the highest setting. She glanced to her right and saw nothing but darkness, but she knew that the cold waters of the Willamette were down there somewhere.
In spite of the difficult road conditions, her biker jerk continued to intrude on her thoughts. What would he think of her driving now? He’d probably say that she drove the same way she dressed – like an old lady. He’d probably laugh at her fears.
She wished she could banish him from her mind.
At the far end of the bridge, she had to get off Burnside and make her way to I-84. This was the part where she tended to get confused. She turned onto a dark side street In the blur of the deluge, she thought she saw a sign for Gresham, but the streetlight at the next intersection seemed to be out of commission. It was utterly dark ahead of her.
She leaned forward in the seat in an effort to see through the slashing rain. Suddenly her vision blurred. The air seemed thicker, harder to breathe. Laine blinked, slowed the car to a crawl, rubbed her eyes. It didn’t help. She crept forward, and after a car’s length the sensation disappeared. What was that all about? Please, let it not be some kind of neurological problem. That was just what she needed, with no job and no health insurance.
Beyond the intersection the streets were all dark, not one streetlight lit. How had she ended up here? She’d gone this way before, and that street should have funneled her right onto I-84. Laine sat at the corner, drumming her fingers on the wheel in frustration. The on-ramp back to the freeway had to be nearby, so she might as well start looking. She drove into the gloom.
All the buildings were unlit. The rain continued almost as hard as before, and she kept her wipers on high. Her headlights could barely penetrate the night. Laine drove a block, seeing no-one, and continued through the next intersection.
Buildings rose on either side of her, but she could hardly make out what they were. Some were hulking blocky structures and some were smaller, probably houses, but she couldn’t tell for sure. The darkness obscured all the details. After the first block, she saw dim flickering lights in some of the windows, as if the people inside were using only candles for illumination.
She saw no signs directing traffic back toward the freeway. She took a left turn and drove a couple of blocks back the way she had come. No freeway. No streetlights. Nothing but more dark and empty-looking buildings looming over her. Maybe she had lost track of how far she had gone. She went up a couple more blocks. Nothing changed.
“There’s something weird about this neighborhood”, she muttered. And this time, she didn’t even try to explain away the prickling between her shoulder blades.
Laine took another left and then another, trying to find the street on which she’d begun, but now everything looked different than she remembered it. The distances between the intersections even seemed unfamiliar, as if the pattern of the streets had shifted.
She went around in this way three times before she finally admitted to herself that she was lost. There weren’t even any street signs. She would have to stop and ask for directions. Laine suppressed a shiver at the thought of knocking on the door of one of those forbidding buildings or, even worse, going inside. At this point, however, she didn’t know what else to do.
She drove up to the next block. A light shone in one window, on what she thought was the third or maybe fourth floor of some great faceless pile. Should she ask for directions there? No, that wouldn’t work. She couldn’t expect people up there to hear her at the door, and she wasn’t about to hike all the way up there by herself.
The next block only yielded more of the same. Then she turned a corner and saw light somewhere ahead of her, spilling out of the downstairs windows of a big building on her right. She drove up and peered through the rain at a cube-shaped edifice with a parking lot attached on the side.
The lit windows had the proportions of Victorian architecture, tall and somewhat narrow, and she could just make out Victorian-style stonework around their frames. Laine pulled into the parking lot, which already contained a battered red pick-up and a couple of motorcycles. Great. This was probably a sleazy biker bar, and she was about to go in there alone.
Laine considered her options. Going inside felt risky, maybe even dangerous, but not as scary as knocking on the door of one of those other places she’d passed on the way. The only other course she could identify was to wait out the night in her car and hope that no-one unsavory noticed her.
She checked her gas gauge, and found she was down to a quarter-tank.
If she drove around all night, she might just run out of gas before the sun rose. In this neighborhood, that probably wouldn’t be a good idea. It might trap her here or force her to walk out, and she didn’t relish the thought of walking in high heels through the rain for what could be miles before she reached a safe place. As much as she hated the idea, going inside this bar, or whatever it was, probably made the most sense.
Laine got out of the car and locked the door, leaving her umbrella in the passenger seat. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.
“Whatever this place is, someone inside will help me.”
A lamp attached to the side of the building illuminated what seemed to be a hand-painted wooden sign over the door. The lamp had a real flame inside it, like a gaslight. Laine frowned at it for a moment. Where would anyone would find working gaslights in this day and age? Then she examined the sign. It read “Unseelie Court Hotel and Tavern”. What an odd name.
Inside was a small vestibule. On her left, a pair of large double doors led into a spacious room that must contain the tavern because she could see and hear groups of people inside, laughing in the smoky air. She ignored her trepidation and entered the tavern.
The room had a high ceiling and the elaborate moldings of a typical Victorian building, with several large gaslight chandeliers down the length of it. The furniture looked like it might be original to the building, it was so old-fashioned, and the wooden floor under her feet was warped and uneven. The smoke in the air reeked of marijuana. Or maybe it was sage. She couldn’t tell for sure. Smudge sticks had always smelled like pot to her.
Some of the patrons near the door actually stopped talking and stared at her. She gave them a nervous smile, which none of them returned. Okay, so they weren’t very friendly. She could do this. She had to do this. Laine lifted her chin and tried to look confident.
It was a biker bar, alright. All the men wore black leather vests or jackets and some even had leather pants, mostly festooned with chains. She thought of the man in the park. He’d been dressed like these people. The odd thing was that each face she saw was either beautiful or hideous. Not one person looked average.
The women, even the ugly ones, had skin-tight pants or micro-mini skirts, see-through tops or vests with no shirt underneath. They all wore the kind of extreme high heels she associated with street prostitution, or maybe mild fetish gear.
As she passed, both men and women followed her with their eyes, their gaze as predatory as a pride of lions watching a gazelle. A peculiar lust emanated from them. The hair on the back of her neck stood up and a chill trickled down her spine. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. These people were strange.
It was more than the way they were dressed, more than their remarkable faces. There was something about the way they moved that struck her as wrong. Unnatural. What was it? She couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
With her head high, she continued through the room to the bar on the other side. I know what I’m doing. Don’t mess with me. If she turned and ran, someone would follow her. Any show of weakness or fear, and they would be all over her.
The bartender, a greasy-haired blond with a face riddled by crater-like pockmarks, looked her over as if he were appraising merchandise. He had mismatched eyes, like the man in the park, except that his were blue and brown. How odd. You just didn’t see mismatched eyes that often and here she’d seen two sets of them in one day. Laine chose a stool and set her purse on the bar top.
“What can I get for you, Miss?” he said, with an insolent smile.
“I need directions to the freeway. I’m trying to find I-84 East.”
He picked up a beer glass, polished it with a towel, set it up on a shelf. “That so?”
This was not going well. Maybe she ought to have stayed in her car. Don’t let them see your fear.
“Can you help me, please? I seem to be lost,” Laine said.
“I only give directions to customers,” the bartender said. “You gonna buy something?”
In spite of her fear, or maybe because of it, she felt her temper beginning to rise. He was playing games with her, for reasons she didn’t yet understand. “I wasn’t planning to. Most people don’t mind giving directions for free.”
“Well, I ain’t most people,” he said.
Laine pinched her lips together. She shouldn’t have to buy something to get directions, but it seemed that once again she didn’t have much choice. While she hesitated, another blond sidled up to her on her right and she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye.
One of the good-looking ones. He was almost as tall as the biker in the park, and when he leaned his elbows on the counter his head was still higher than hers. He had one dark blue eye and one hazel, and classic features under his shaggy gold hair. His expression said he’d like to have her for dinner. As the main course.
It took all her inner strength to sit on that stool with nonchalance, because her skin crawled at the idea of him touching her. She could tell he was thinking about it. Something about him gave her a major case of the creeps, even though he was handsome. She lifted her chin, looking into the bartender’s mocking eyes.
She didn’t want anything alcoholic under these circumstances. “I’ll have some tomato juice, please.”
“Don’t have tomato juice,” the bartender replied.
He didn’t have tomato juice? What kind of a bar didn’t have tomato juice? She thought every bar in the country served Bloody Marys. “Okay, seltzer then,” she said after a pause. “With a twist of lemon.”
The bartender grinned. The man next to her laughed outright. “She wants a twist of lemon, Art,” he said.
“No seltzer, either,” the bartender told her.
“Well, what do you have?” Laine snapped.
“Beer, whiskey, mead.”
That was their whole menu? That didn’t even make good business sense, and what the hell was mead, anyway? She’d never heard of it. “You only serve three drinks?”
“Yep. Beer, whiskey, mead. Now, if you were to come back in the morning you could have all kinds of shit. Coffee and orange juice, even. But right now, you gotta choice between beer, whiskey and mead. What’s it gonna be?”
“Beer,” she said tightly. “I’ll have a beer.”
“Good choice,” said the man leaning on the bar. She refused to look at him. He reached over and stroked her arm. Laine tried to pull it away, but he closed his fingers around her limb. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”
“I already have a boyfriend,” she told him. It wasn’t true, of course, but he didn’t know that.
He widened his eyes. “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry,” he said, in an exaggerated tone of apology.
Laine reached across the bar and scooped up some peanuts from a dish on the counter. When she put them into her mouth both of the men laughed. This was getting weirder by the second. Her stomach gave a nauseous twist.
“Hey, Art, she likes our food,” the tall biker said. “Maybe she’ll stay awhile.”
“Maybe she’ll break up with her boyfriend for you,” Art said. He shoved a full glass of beer at her, holding out his hand for the money. Laine gave him a ten dollar bill, and he kept all of it.
Drinking was a really bad idea just now, but she took a couple of sips anyway. She set the glass on the counter. The beer tasted better than any other beer she’d ever had. Laine stared at the glass with its amber liquid. She picked it up and took a third, very large, sip. Yeah, that was good beer. “Now can I have my directions?”
Art stroked his chin. “Well, see, that’s a problem.”
“What do you mean, it’s a problem? I bought something, I’m a customer, now please tell me how to get back on the freeway.”
“See, honey, this is kind of a special neighborhood we’ve got here,” the biker said. “It’s easy to get in, but hard to get out.”
“Real hard,” Art said.
Laine swallowed painfully. She glanced around and realized that others had gathered to listen to the conversation. A small crowd of leather-clad men and women had formed in back of her, and when she looked at them they spread out to flank her on three sides. She noticed that every one of them had mismatched eyes. All of them were smiling, but not in a friendly way. She was in trouble. Deep trouble.
Roan tilted his beer glass and watched the amber liquid slosh up the side, leaving foamy trails in its wake. He’d been nursing the same glass for an hour now, only sipping it every so often for show. Even at this small table in the darkest corner of the tavern, he had to keep up appearances or risk rousing the suspicions of the Unseelies who surrounded him.
He wasn’t here for the drinks or the company. His real reason for lurking here every evening was so he could have easy access to the minds of most of the members of the Unseelie Court Gang. They all gathered here at night to carouse, listen to music and get utterly plastered on the potent liquor that Art served.
Roan preferred the ones who smoked weed. At least they were mellow and therefore less prone to violence. The drinkers, and most of the Unseelies were heavy drinkers, tended to end the evening with a bar brawl. Roan didn’t mind fighting when he had to and he was a master swordsman, but he didn’t revel in bloodletting.
Somewhere, one of these people had information about Roan’s family Shield. His Uncle Galen had had the keeping of it when Tam had gotten sick, but when Roan had gone to fetch it for his brother, Galen had no longer possessed it. He had asked his uncle to produce the Shield, and Galen had laughed in the peculiar tittering way of plague-induced dementia.
“Gave it away,” he’d said. “Unseelie Barrett, he knows what to do with it. Wasted with us, you know. Barrett’s the man to guard the Shield. He knows what it’s really worth.” Then he’d glared up at Roan and pointed a gnarled finger at him. “Who are you, anyway? How did you get in here? I don’t talk about the Shield with people I don’t know.”
Now Roan spent every evening picking at the memories of unsuspecting gang members, trying to uncover a clue about the Shield’s location. No-one seemed to know anything, not even Barrett himself. Roan had searched the building, too, although he hadn’t been able to get inside Barrett’s quarters. They were heavily shielded against uninvited entry. He was beginning to wonder if the whole thing hadn’t been made up by a delusional and dying old man.
He sensed a knot of fear and aggression coming from the bar area and he looked up to see what it was. It seemed a little early for the fighting to begin. There was a crowd of people gathering at the bar, but he couldn’t tell what was going on up there. Roan shook his head and drank some more beer. These people disgusted him.
Their idea of fun was tormenting stray animals, and the gods help any human unlucky enough to wander into the territory.
Roan focused his attention on the people at the bar, and to his dread he detected the energy signature of a human woman. His jaw clenched. This could not happen again. As much as he despised the humans, he could never stand by while Barrett and his friends tortured one. He was going to have to intervene in a hurry, before Barrett had made an official claim on her.
He walked over to the bar, shouldering his way through the crowd. Then he saw the woman’s dark head and drab suit. It was the woman from the park. Laine. Barrett had his hands all over her, ignoring her protests and laughing at her.
By all the gods, what was she doing here? Surely she hadn’t come in with one of the gang. He’d never heard of a human simply wandering in by accident. They had to be escorted into the territory because it was shielded and warded against them. But Laine Hamilton wasn’t the kind of woman to fall for a come-on from one of these bastards. She couldn’t have been brought. She must have come here on her own.
Wonderful. Just his luck that the human he felt honor-bound to protect was someone he couldn’t stand. He must have offended the Powers That Be, and this was their way of putting him in his place. Roan dragged his fingers through his hair. There was nothing for it but to take his punishment like a man.
“Let me help you, doll,” Barrett said as Roan came up behind him. “I just want to help you.”
“I don’t want your help. I don’t appreciate whatever sick game you’re playing here. Now take your hands off me,” Laine said.
He had to admire her spirit. Her hellcat nature was apparently good for something, although it wouldn’t stop Barrett from taking her. Roan placed himself at her back and put his hand on her shoulder. She turned her head and gave him a ferocious glare and then stared, her eyes round.
“This one’s mine, Barrett,” Roan drawled.
“Fuck off, McAllister.”
He’d grown so accustomed to his alias that it didn’t seem odd anymore, but it still rankled that he had to use it. The irritation sharpened the tone of his voice. “’Fraid I can’t do that. I saw her first, and I want her.”
“You didn’t see her first,” Barrett said. “You didn’t even know she was here until just a few minutes ago.”
“We met this afternoon, in the park. Didn’t we, babe?” Roan slid his hand down her back to her waist as Laine nodded in agreement.
“No way,” Barrett said.
“You’re always ragging me about getting myself a woman. Now I’ve done it and you’re trying to take her away from me. How do you think she found her way into our territory? You know humans can’t do it on their own. She was all over me in the park, weren’t you, baby?” He gave the two of them a self-satisfied smile. “We have a bond.”
As soon as he’d said it, he was sure it was true. It was the best explanation for how Laine could have wandered into Unseelie territory by herself. The healing he’d done on her had strengthened the connection they’d made by the maple tree and had allowed her to find her way in. It may even have called to her in some way.
“If you’re so bonded, how come Chickie here came alone? How come you waited so long to come over?” Barrett said. “She’s mine. Go find some other piece of tail.”
“Don’t make me fight you over this, man.”
Barrett grinned. “You’ve wanted to fight me ever since the night you got here.”
“Maybe so. But do you want to fight me?” Roan stood with one hand still on Laine’s waist, the other hanging relaxed by his side. He was surprised that Laine hadn’t protested him touching her. After the way she’d behaved in the park, he hadn’t really expected her to play along.
“Nah. I don’t wanna fight you,” Barrett said in the hearty voice that he used when he wanted to seem jocular and friendly. “Enjoy her, McAllister. She looks tasty.”
Roan grinned back at him, his body still tense under his outward calm. He gave Laine’s waist a little tug to draw her away from the bar, but instead of cooperating with him she bolted. She grabbed her purse and plunged through the knot of bystanders, who did nothing to stop her. Barrett laughed as he watched her dart between the tables toward the door.
“You sure about that bond?” he said. “I don’t think she likes you much.” Then he sauntered after her as if he had all the time in the world.
Roan ground his teeth. Why couldn’t that woman do the sensible thing and trust him enough to get her out of this mess? Now he’d have to fight Barrett. Not that he minded putting the asshole on the ground – he’d wanted to do that ever since he’d met him. If he hadn’t needed the Shield, Roan would have taken Barrett’s head weeks ago. Even an Amaki had trouble recovering after losing his head.
He took the stairs two at a time and raced down the corridor to his suite. He could have saved time by walking the Between, but he didn’t want to waste his energy. Walking the Between too often could drain even a powerful Amaki to the point of illness. Besides, the others mustn’t know how strong he really was. He wanted them to think he was a minor power, unskilled in magic. He retrieved his sword, sheathed it, and dashed down the stairs. They were going to fight, and he meant to win.
Laine tore out of the hotel and across the parking lot to her car. If only she hadn’t worn high heels today. It made running a lot more difficult, especially on wet pavement. She wasn’t going to make it. The men were right behind her, talking as they followed her out of the building. She rummaged frantically in her purse for her key. Oh, God. Oh, God, where is it?
She found it and clicked the button. Jumped in the car, locked the door, stuck the key in the ignition. She turned it, but nothing happened. Start. Come on, start. She turned the key again. Nothing.
Her peripheral vision told her that Barrett was just a few feet away from her car. In her mind, she could hear him laughing. She pounded her hand on the dashboard in frustration. Turning the key again, she still got nothing. The engine didn’t even turn over.
“You need some help, there?” Barrett said.
She turned and looked at him standing next to her sedan. Her heart pounded so rapidly, her breath came so fast that she felt her head might explode. Every nerve seemed to be on high alert. He made a pass with his hand, just above the door lock. The lock clicked. Then he opened the door.
He grabbed her arm and dragged her out of the car. She screamed. Her back arched and her captive arm wrenched in its socket. She banged her legs on the steering wheel. One of her shoes fell off inside the car, and her purse overturned and vomited its contents all over the wet asphalt.
She flailed wildly, her arms windmilling as he carried her across the pavement. Her feet jabbed at him, yet somehow they never connected with his body. She threw her head back and tried to slam the back of her skull into his face. That didn’t work either.
He stuck his hand up her shirt and down her bra, then roughly grabbed her breast, pinching and twisting her nipple. Laine screamed again. He was still laughing at her as his hand found her other breast.
“Come on, you can’t leave yet,” he said. “The party’s just started and you’re the guest of honor. And with tits like these, I think we’re gonna have a really good time.”
“Barrett, I told you she’s mine.” It was McAllister’s voice.
Barrett’s hand stilled on her breast. He swung around until he faced the other man. McAllister wore a large sword on his right hip. It had a plain cross-shaped hilt with a round pommel and a blade made from some dark metal that didn’t look like steel. It hung from a heavy leather belt at his waist.
Every time that she thought this night couldn’t get any weirder, something even more bizarre happened. Who carried swords in the twenty-first century? Maybe these guys thought they were immortal warriors or something. She smothered a hysterical snicker.
McAllister had removed his jacket. Now all he wore on top was a snug black t-shirt that outlined the hard muscle of his torso. More muscle flexed and tensed in his forearms as he grasped the hilt of his sword. A part of her mind registered his beauty even while she struggled with her panic.
“Colum, move your skinny ass and get my long sword,” Barrett said.
A red-headed young man dashed into the hotel. McAllister regarded both her and Barrett with a detached expression, as if an impending swordfight were no more exciting than cutting up a tomato for a dinner salad. She could feel virtually nothing from him. He seemed to be blank inside. If he doesn’t care, then why is he doing this?
“I thought you were smart, McAllister, but it’s not smart to pick a fight with the leader,” Barrett said.
McAllister shrugged. “Things were starting to get boring around here.”
“Yeah? Maybe you should ride out with me and the boys more often, then.”
“Maybe I will.” McAllister’s lips curled a little at the corners. “First I want my woman, though.”
Why, why, why was he defending her? Who cares why, Laine? Just be glad somebody is helping you.
He couldn’t desire her. Could he? Men only made passes at her when she wore clothes that showed off her enormous chest, which was why she favored boxy jackets and heavy sweaters. She liked looking matronly. Until now it had kept her from being molested.
The red-headed man reappeared carrying another huge sword, unsheathed, which he offered to Barrett. He held it laid flat over both his outstretched hands, and Barrett took it up by the hilt.
“Hold her for me,” he said, and shoved her at Colum.
The red-head grabbed her by the upper arms, just above her elbows, in a grip so tight that it hurt. She tried to twist away from him.
“Be still, and I won’t hurt you,” Colum told her.
McAllister drew his sword, grasping the long hilt with both hands. People from the tavern gathered around on the edges of the parking lot to watch, talking and laughing as they waited for the entertainment to begin. No-one seemed to mind the cold, not even the women in their skimpy outfits. Barrett lifted his head to his opponent.
“You trying for my job?” he said.
“Nope. No way I’d want to lead this outfit,” McAllister told him.
“You just want your woman,” Barrett said.
“Yeah, I do.”
“You picked a hell of a time to get horny, McAllister.”
“I’m always horny. Now, are we gonna do this or are we gonna stand around talking about it?” McAllister said.
Barrett lifted his sword over his head as if he meant to bring it down and cleave McAllister into two pieces. McAllister held his forward, in a lower stance, his knees slightly bent and one leg back. For a moment, neither man seemed to move.
Barrett brought his blade slashing down. McAllister deftly avoided the stroke by stepping to the side. He followed up with a quick thrust to Barrett’s midsection. Barrett stepped back and it missed.
McAllister lunged forward and sliced Barrett’s upper arm. Blood welled from the cut. The blond hissed, his eyes narrowing as he glared at McAllister. First blood. Weren’t they supposed to stop at first blood?
But they didn’t quit. They continued to engage, the blows coming so quickly that she had trouble following the motions. There was something almost inhuman about the strength and power in their movements. And if they didn’t stop at first blood, when would they? After someone died?
She had seen swordfights in movies, and one live at a Renaissance fair, but never a real one where the opponents truly meant to hurt each other. This looked completely different. For one thing, they didn’t hit each other’s blades very often. They never made any showy moves, like spinning into a strike or twirling their swords. They merely cut and thrust at one another, their faces tense, riveted on the task of killing.
“I’ve never seen McAllister fight before. He’s real good,” said a blonde woman standing next to Colum.
“He’s the best. Don’t tell Barrett I said that,” Colum replied.
The woman laughed. “I wonder where he learned to fight so well. One of the girls said she heard he came from the mountains. You think maybe he’s a palace guard or something?”
Palace guard? What on earth was that woman talking about? Maybe she meant the actors in some local RenFair or something.
Colum snorted. “No way. McAllister hates that traditional shit. I think he just loves the sword, that’s all. He practices all the time. I spar with him sometimes, but he always beats me.”
God, please let McAllister win. If he loses, I’m . . . she couldn’t finish the thought.
The two of them had fought their way across the parking lot, and the people on the other side had to move out of the way to avoid being overrun. McAllister had to win. She neither liked nor trusted him, but she knew without a doubt that he was safer than Barrett.
At that moment, McAllister feinted with a cut toward Barrett’s head. When Barrett attempted to parry the blow, McAllister struck low at his thigh and laid it open to the bone. Laine could see the raw red of muscle showing through the rent in his jeans. Barrett screamed. He dropped his sword and clutched at his leg. Blood seeped between his fingers and ran down his limb.
“Yield,” he gasped. “I yield.”
McAllister yanked his shirt off and wiped his bloody blade with it. He sheathed it, then held out a hand toward Laine. “Come here.”
Colum pushed her so that she stumbled across the asphalt toward McAllister. He caught her by the wrist and drew her into his body. In defense, she put up her hands. They made full contact with his bare chest. He was hot, covered with the sheen of sweat, and she could feel his heart beating hard inside of him.
McAllister used his other hand to hold her head still as he captured her mouth in a bruising kiss. The crowd whooped and laughed. Laine struggled, but it had no effect on him.
His tongue shoved its way into her mouth as she wriggled against him in protest. He let go of her wrist and wrapped his arm around her back, pressing her firmly against the length of him. He devoured her mouth, nipping and sucking at her, filling and surrounding her so that she felt and smelled and saw only him. The kiss completely overwhelmed her senses, taking her over until she whimpered in surrender.
He finally released her mouth to press kisses against her ear and the side of her face. “Don’t fight me,” he whispered, so softly that she could barely hear him. “If you run, I can’t help you.”
Help her? This was helping her? “Please, I just want to go home,” she said.
Several people in the audience laughed at that. “You can go home with me, baby!” someone yelled.
McAllister picked her up and slung her over his shoulder, which made her shriek in surprise. This earned another shout of laughter from the crowd. She hit his broad back with her fists and he didn’t even seem to notice.
He carried her across the parking lot and through the vestibule. Instead of turning left into the tavern, he went right, into a small lobby. Only one candle burned on a side table, dimly illuminating a collection of worn late-Victorian furniture.
He carted her through the room. They passed a front desk and started up the stairs. Harsh light from a fixture somewhere overhead cast ugly shadows on the stairwell. Dark wooden balusters and threadbare red carpet reeking of dust and mildew passed before her as he hauled her upward. He wasn’t even breathing hard.
His shoulder bit into her abdomen, and it was beginning to hurt. “What are you going to do to me? Can’t you put me down?”
“Don’t talk. I don’t like it when my women talk.”
Okay. Maybe he wasn’t any better than Barrett after all. Her mind began to conjure images from every slasher flick she’d ever seen, and her pulse zoomed out of control. She felt suddenly light-headed in spite of being upside down. Slow down, Laine. She closed her eyes. Breathe. In. Out. In. Out. Panic wouldn’t help her now. She had to stay calm and use her wits.
He took her down a dark corridor at the top of the staircase. She had the impression of heavy doors as they passed along the hall. When he reached a door near the end, he set her on her feet but kept one hand firmly around her wrist. The blood rushed from her head, making her feel suddenly faint. Laine sagged against him for a moment.
“Are you alright?” He put a thick arm around her waist.
“Just a little lightheaded.”
He kept her tucked against his body. His naked body. It’s okay, I’m a modern woman. Besides, I have more important things to think about than the texture of his skin, and how warm he is, and how good he smells . . . She tried to focus on what he was doing. Although she could hardly see anything in the darkness, she could guess by the sounds he made that he was unlocking the door.
McAllister drew her into the room. Flames appeared around the chamber and she jumped. They were contained by the shades of oil lamps. She blinked. Whoa. Maybe someone slipped something into my food. I’m hallucinating.
No, they couldn’t be real flames. They must be some kind of special light bulbs made to look like flames, and McAllister probably had a remote control that he used to turn on the lamps.
They looked absolutely real, though, flickering in that random way that candle flames do. The small pools of light they created revealed a generous sitting room with high, shadowy ceilings.
McAllister released her. “You’re not hallucinating.”
She turned her head to stare at him. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I said you’re not hallucinating. That is what you were thinking, isn’t it?” he replied.
She remembered that he had known her name without her giving it to him, and the hair on the nape of her neck began to rise for the second time that day. “Then I must be dreaming,” she said in a hopeful voice. “This has got to be one long, bizarre dream.”
“You’re not dreaming, Laine.”
It had to be a dream. That was the only explanation that made any sense. But she was willing to play along for now. She thought of Barrett bleeding onto the asphalt. Since he was only a dream character, it probably didn’t matter, but she was curious what McAllister would say about the injury.
“What will happen to Barrett, then? Shouldn’t someone take him to a hospital? His leg looked like a rump roast.” It was a dream, it had to be.
“Barrett will heal on his own. He’s got all the help he needs from his gang,” he said. “You should be glad he’s suffering. This way he can’t hurt you.”
Laine regarded him for a moment. On the way up to the suite she had wondered if McAllister would hurt her, if he might be as awful as Barrett. She didn’t know if she could trust him to tell her the truth, but she had to ask. “Will you?”
McAllister shook his head. In the low light, his gray eyes looked dark, like slate. She couldn’t read the expression in them. He seemed detached and cool, as if he either didn’t care much about anything or he didn’t want anyone to know his real intentions. And he still felt blank to her. He felt that way in the park, too. Maybe that’s why he seemed so strange.
“Of course I’m not going to hurt you,” he said in a low voice. “I brought you up here to get you away from the others. They make a hobby out of raping and abusing human women, especially Barrett.”
“And you? How do I know I can trust you? How do I know you’re not just a psycho with a knife fetish?”
“Don’t you mean a sword fetish?” he said, smiling.
Laine stared at him with an open mouth. She folded her arms across her chest, trying to stop herself from shivering. Any minute now, she might fall apart.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That was inappropriate. As for trusting me, I don’t blame you for being suspicious, but I swear to you on my honor that I won’t do anything to hurt you. You’re safe with me. And I apologize for that remark I made in the corridor. I said it for the benefit of any of the others who might have been listening.”
He walked over to a small sideboard and poured some light-golden liquid from a bottle into a wine glass. “Drink this, it’ll help you relax,” he said as he offered it to her.
She looked at it doubtfully. “What is it?”
“Mead. A kind of wine made with honey, water and yeast.” He poured one for himself, and escorted her to a settee upholstered in green velvet. Laine sat stiffly next to him. The settee felt stiff, as if it were stuffed with horsehair instead of upholstery foam.
Now that they were alone, she didn’t know what to say to him. She didn’t want to look at him either, because when she did she felt like a gawking teenager in the presence of a movie star. He was so . . . beautiful. That word had come to her earlier, in the park, and it still applied. He was completely out of her league.
Laine took a sip of the wine . . . er, mead. It was slightly sweet, like a dessert wine. It was likely to give her a headache in the morning, but right now she didn’t care. She lifted the glass to her lips again and took in her surroundings.
The room had a high ceiling with deep crown molding and elaborate light-green wallpaper covered in curling dark-green acanthus leaves. All the furniture seemed to be at least 100 years old. There was an old-fashioned radiator against one wall, and a large mirror with a carved gold frame. The windows behind the settee were tall and narrow, with long velvet draperies covering them. Everything in the room looked new, and it didn’t stink of mildew the way the rest of the hotel did, either. It was almost as if the room had never aged, as if they had stepped back in time.
“How did you know my name?” she said, turning to him.
“I heard it. You . . . thought it at me,” he said.
She “thought” it at him. Uh huh. He was a nut. She had her quirks, but at least she didn’t take her goofy intuitions seriously. “So you’re telling me you’re some kind of psychic?”
“You could say that.”
She couldn’t help watching his lips as he spoke. He might be a nut, but he had sexy lips. They had the most sensuous curves; even his brutal kiss in the parking lot had been pleasurable in a humiliating sort of way. Laine blushed as she realized that she was staring. “And your name is?” she asked him.
“Roan. Roan McAllister.”
“Why did you help me?” If he really does mean to help, that is.
He shrugged and gave her a half-smile. “I couldn’t let Barrett have you, even if you are a human. Maybe because you’re a human.” He shook his head. “Shit, I don’t know why I did it, except that I despise the sick things he does to women. I can’t stand by and allow him to torture another one.”
She frowned, her stomach rolling. “You mean he’s done this before? He . . . Christ, he tortures people?”
“He likes to cut them up a little at a time. It takes him days, sometimes weeks, to kill them. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. He hasn’t done it since I’ve been here, except for a woman he killed on the night I arrived.” Roan stared into his wine glass for a full minute before he took a sip. “I was too late to save that one.”
This wasn’t happening to her. This could not be happening to her. The whole day had been surreal since she had gotten out of her car at that little park. It was like she’d entered some kind of alternate universe or something. All the rules seemed to have been changed, and she was only now being notified.
Laine pondered what he’d said and realized that his phrasing was strange. She frowned. “You keep saying ‘human’, as if you aren’t one. What does that mean?”
He looked straight at her. “I’m not human. I’m Amaki.”
“Amaki?” Laine echoed.
Roan hesitated, watching her as if trying to decide how much to tell her. “The closest English word is fairy.”
Laine blinked. Another snicker tried to surface, but she fought it down. “Fairy,” she repeated with a carefully straight face. “You mean like the tiny women with the mini-dresses and butterfly wings?”
“Do I look like I have butterfly wings? That’s just a silly human fantasy.”
He seemed disgruntled. Maybe he meant that he was gay. Wouldn’t that be ironic, if the most desirable man she’d ever met was not only a nut but gay as well? But she’d never heard of gay men calling themselves “Amaki”, or whatever that strange word was that he’d used.
“And I’m not gay, either, although some Amaki are.” He stared at her.
“Then what are you talking about? There’s no such thing as fairies.” She looked at his face and suddenly wasn’t so sure. An awful lot of strange things had happened today . . . and somehow he had once again known what she was thinking.
“Modern humans,” he said in a derisive voice. “You’re even blinder than your ancestors were. Just because your scientists can’t explain us doesn’t mean that we’re not here.”
“Uh huh. And fairies are really just a motorcycle gang with magic powers.” She rolled her eyes.
“We’re not all like the Unseelie Court Gang.”
“The what gang?”
“Unseelie Court Gang. Wait, you probably don’t know what the Unseelie Court is, do you?” he said.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“You moderns don’t even know your own culture, much less mine. The Unseelie Court is the Scottish term for fairies who are mischievous or predatory toward humans. Barrett named his gang after them. The real Unseelie Court has mostly non-Amaki beings in it.” He said all this as if it should make everything crystal clear. Unfortunately, his arrogance didn’t make him any less attractive.
“I’m not Scottish, so why would I know about Scottish fairies?” Laine told him as she finished her glass of mead. She wanted more, but she wasn’t going to ask him for it. Right now, she didn’t want to ask him for anything.
“Your people see nothing they don’t wish to see,” he said.
“My people? Look, I’m not buying this ‘I’m a fairy crap’ from you. I’ve had a really bad night and I’d appreciate it if we could just step out of your little role-playing game for a few minutes.”
His lips twitched. “It’s the truth, Laine.”
“If I’m not telling the truth, then how did I heal your ankle?”
“It was the power of suggestion. I wasn’t as badly injured as I’d first thought.”
“The power of suggestion. I like that.” His lips curled up at the corners. “Okay, so how did I know your name?”
“A good guess.”
“Right, coincidence.” McAllister tapped a finger against his jaw as if considering her argument. “How about this?”
Her empty glass rose slowly from the table where she had put it and hovered in front of her face. Laine tried to keep her eyes from widening. “Um – it must be a trick of some kind. Wires or something.”
“So check. See if you can feel any wires.”
She moved her hand above the glass, then beneath it. Naturally, there were no wires. “I – uh – I can’t explain that.” The glass gently settled onto the table.
“Can you explain this?” He moved his hand in a careless gesture. Laine frowned.
“Look at yourself.”
She looked down. Her suit jacket had transformed into a black leather biker-chick jacket with multiple zippers. Laine gaped at him. “How the hell did you do that?”
“It’s magic.” He smiled at her. “Fairy magic. Transformation is one of my best things.”
“Change it back.”
With another gesture from Roan, her drab suit replaced the black leather. “Do you believe me now?” he said.
“I – uh – I don’t know what – “ Laine rubbed her face. “God, this can’t be happening. Tell me I’m dreaming, please.”
“Why do humans always want magic to be unreal?” He shook his head slowly.
Laine decided to give in for now. “You don’t like humans much, do you?”
“No, I don’t. You ruin everything you touch. Your stupidity has made my people sick, killed off more than half of them.” Roan took another sip of mead and set his glass on a small round table next to him. He ran his fingers through his hair and glanced at her. Sighed.
“I’m going to have to claim you,” he said.
Claim her? What did that mean? It had a distinctly sexual sound to it, and that made her cringe inside, especially since his attitude was distinctly unenthusiastic.
“By claim, you mean sex, don’t you?” she said faintly.
Oh, God. She tried to think of an appropriate response beyond ‘over my dead body.’ These lunatics were likely to take her literally if she said that. And to make this experience even more unforgettable, the man propositioning her looked as if he would rather screw a sheep than have sex with her.
“If I claim you, the others will leave you alone, even Barrett. It’s the only Amaki tradition they still respect.” Roan met her eyes. “You don’t have to do it. I can try to defend you, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to beat them off. There are too many of them.”
“So why can’t I just go home? I won’t tell anyone about you and I’ll never come into this neighborhood again, believe me,” she said.
“Laine, the food you ate at the bar was enchanted. You’re under a spell now that binds you to this neighborhood and the people in it. You’ll be stuck here for at least one moon cycle. I’m not sure how they’ve structured the spell, but I know it’ll take at least that long for it to work itself out.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” she said. “You’re asking me to believe in fairies and enchanted food and psychic powers and God knows what else. Pretty soon you’re going to start telling me about Bigfoot or the men in black.”
“I’m sorry you’re having to face up to reality,” he said acidly.
“Reality is that I’ll lose my apartment if I don’t pay rent in a couple of days. Your freakish friends are going to have me living on the street.”
“I’ll pay your damn rent for you.” He crossed his arms over his chest.
“I don’t get you. If you hate humans so much, then why are you doing this at all? Why not just let them have me? It’s obvious that you’re not interested in me, and I wouldn’t want to force you into something you find so repulsive.”
Years ago she had made a vow to herself that she would never let another male use her sexually for any reason. She had left that life behind her when she graduated from high school, and she never wanted to return to it. Especially not with someone who didn’t want to be with her in the first place.
The boys in school might have been too ashamed of her to acknowledge her in public, but at least she had been sure that they really did want her body. Every time she looked at Roan, every time she felt him shift on the settee or heard the timber of his voice as he spoke, she felt aroused by him. Yet he had no use for her. It was humiliating, and she wished he would put on a shirt so she didn’t have to look at that gorgeous body of his.
“I am interested in you,” he said.
“Do not lie to me. I know you don’t like me, and you’ve come right out and said that you dislike my whole race. I think you want to save me because you want to be a hero, not because you care about me personally.”
“I don’t know you personally. Just remember that if Barrett and his gang get hold of you, they’ll pass you around and cut you up. You don’t have to worry about that with me.”
“Can’t we just fake it? Tell everyone we’ve been together?” she said.
“They’ll know instantly whether we’ve really done it or not,” Roan said. “They can smell it, for one thing. I could try an illusion, but it wouldn’t hold and they’d find out sooner or later. Then we’d be in more trouble than we are now.”
“Oh, God.” She closed her eyes. “I promised myself I would never do this again.”
There was a brief, shocked silence. “You took a vow of celibacy?” He sounded so horrified that she had to hide an unexpected smile.
“Not exactly. I took a vow to abstain from meaningless sex.”
“This isn’t meaningless. It’s going to save your life. Look at it this way. At least I won’t torture you.”
“Gee, how could I resist a come-on like that?” Laine said.
Someone pounded on the door to Roan’s suite. “Hey, McAllister, you in there?” It sounded like Barrett. Laine and Roan exchanged a worried glance.
“Yeah, come in,” Roan called. He reached for Laine and pulled her onto his lap. “Play along with me here,” he told her. Then he pulled up her skirt and grabbed her bare thigh, making her jump, just as Art and Barrett opened his door.
Laine’s round little ass on his lap made Roan’s groin tighten almost painfully. He wished she was right and that he wasn’t interested in her. He didn’t like the way she looked or behaved, not at all, and yet since the first moment he saw her he had wanted to fuck her. It didn’t make any sense.
He usually only bedded women he liked. He did not like Laine. But for some reason her combative attitude made the idea of having her even more exciting. He’d never felt this way about a human before.
His jaw clenched when he saw the two Unseelies. Barrett had a bandage around the wound on his thigh, and blood had soaked through, creating a bright stain in the center of the cloth. He leaned on the doorjamb as Art came into the room. Both of them leered at Roan and Laine.
“You sure are taking your time with her, McAllister,” Art said.
“I’d have already had her twice,” Barrett added. They laughed.
“You have your way of taking a woman and I have mine,” Roan told them. He hadn’t done well with her tonight, though, telling her she ought to choose him because he wouldn’t torture her. What amazing powers of seduction he had. Being conflicted about her didn’t help, either.
“Are you going to claim her or just stay up all night talking?” Barrett said. “If I’d known this was a date, I’d have loaned you my car so you could take her to a nice restaurant. I hear the human women like that kind of shit.” He and Art burst out laughing at this witticism.
“Yeah, and we want to share that piece you got,” Art added. “That’s the way it’s done around here, share and share alike.”
Roan could feel the tension in Laine’s body as she went rigid in his arms. She wouldn’t look at Barrett and Art, but kept her gaze trained on his chest. They could probably sense her fear and anger, and were deriving pleasure from it. He felt a growl building up in him. “I don’t share my women.”
“Well, then, we’ll watch,” Art put in.
“No way in hell,” Roan said.
“See, that’s the problem with you – “ Barrett began.
“Wasn’t it you who said that when we claim a woman we get to do whatever we want with her? You’re trying to dictate to me how I’m supposed to treat my woman and I don’t like it. I’m starting to think there’s no honor in the Unseelie Court Gang.”
Barrett glared at him. “There’s honor alright, asshole.”
“Then prove it and leave us alone. I’m not going to perform for your entertainment, and neither is Laine. She’s mine. Don’t make me cut your leg off completely, man.”
“You think you’re better than the rest of us?” Art growled. He stalked into the sitting room with his hands held in fists.
“I think I don’t like to share. I won her in a fair fight, so I get to say how I use her.” He narrowed his eyes at Art. The bartender glared at him for a moment, clenching and releasing his fists. Then he dropped his gaze and crossed his arms over his chest. Art was talented with the sword, but he wasn’t as good as Roan. He wouldn’t want to take an argument so far that it ended in a duel.
Roan tightened his grip on Laine, trying to reassure her that he wouldn’t let them touch her. His right arm lay across her legs so that he could pet her in front of the boys, something he could tell she didn’t like but which was necessary. His left one supported her back. Under the baggy jacket her body felt surprisingly taut, with no extra flesh on her small waist.
Maybe he’d misjudged her figure. It was hard to tell what she really looked like without her granny suit, but whatever her looks, the feel of her had definitely aroused him. He wondered if she could feel the swelling in his cock, since it was pressed right against her thigh.
“Alright, you win, McAllister,” Barrett said reluctantly. “But I better see that you’ve claimed her by tomorrow morning, or she’s fair game for the rest of us. Come on, Art.”
Art gave Roan another glare before he turned around and left the suite. When they were gone, Roan reached mentally into the lock on the door and jammed it so that no-one could get in unless he opened it, even if they had a key. No more interruptions. If something went wrong with the building, he could always get Laine out using the Between.
Continuous tremors shook Laine’s body so hard that her teeth chattered. Barrett and Art had accomplished part of their goal, all right. They had scared her almost to death. She’s not quite as tough as she acts.
He took his hand out from under her skirt. “Laine, it’s alright. I jammed the lock on the door. They can’t get in again.”
“I h-hate this p-place.”
“I know. So do I.” He drew her head down to his shoulder. She sat there stiffly, still shivering, as he stroked her leg through her skirt in an effort to calm her before he claimed her. A spell could relax her, but that felt wrong to him, too much like drugging her to ensure her compliance. That wasn’t what he was after. He might not like her, but he would never force a woman.
“C-can I have another glass of m-mead?” she said.
She got off his lap and tugged on her skirt so that it covered her again. The cheap fabric was rumpled and askew, and her jacket didn’t hang correctly anymore. A lock of hair had finally escaped the confines of the knot and made a charming ringlet at the side of her face. He’d always favored curly hair.
He poured her a glass and handed it to her. She glanced at him, tilted it back and took a big swallow. “Roan, am I going to get out of here?”
Assuming she survived that long. She would have to remain a virtual prisoner in his suite for her own protection until the day came that the spell dissipated. “Yes, you are. When the spell is over, you can go home.”
Tossing back her mead, she drained her glass and set it on the sideboard. “I’m ready.”
She looked like she was steeling herself to face an execution, not anticipating an evening of sexual delight. Of course, the Unseelie Court Gang didn’t require that the prisoner enjoy being claimed. They would respect the claiming as long as it had actually taken place, whether Laine received pleasure or not.
Roan took her chin and tilted it upward. He bent his head. If he could, he would give her enough pleasure to make her swoon.
She drew in a sharp little breath when he brushed his lips over hers. His cock grew painfully hard at the thought of taking this defiant woman, of touching and licking her until she cried out his name. But Laine didn’t open for him. Her mouth remained tight, her body rigid as he teased her lips. He began to have an awful suspicion that she’d never done this before.
“Laine, are you a virgin?” he said softly.
She gave an abrupt laugh. “No.”
Roan brushed the backs of his fingers across her cheek as he pushed down on his own impatience. She probably suffered from the usual human hang-ups about sex. He considered delving into her mind to find out what the problem was but decided against it. It would be too invasive. “Then what’s wrong? I’m not going to hurt you.”
“It’s hard for me to be in the mood when I know there are a bunch of sadists waiting for me downstairs,”
He put his hands on the small of her back, holding her loosely, demanding nothing. “They won’t come in here again unless they’re invited.”
She kept her face down, staring at their feet. Roan waited. He rubbed her back lightly with his fingertips. Eventually she raised her own hands to his waist, her fingers chilly against his bare skin.
At least her trembling had stopped. He urged her closer, until her front brushed against his, and then put his arms around her, stroking her back slowly. It was too bad she was wearing that ugly jacket, because he could hardly wait to feel her body without it. She allowed her head to rest against him, her breath blowing softly against his pecs. They stood that way, in silence, for a long time.
Roan lifted a hand to her head, so that he could touch her hair. The knot felt as tight as it looked. Slowly he began to remove the pins, until her curls fell free around her shoulders.
He ran his fingers through them, and she gave a little sigh. “I love your hair.”
Her arms came all the way around him. She lifted her face.
“I’m going to kiss you now,” he said.
Laine’s stomach fluttered nervously. It had been eight years since she’d had anything more intimate than a make-out session, and a year since she’d had even a kiss. Until tonight. She wasn’t sure she remembered how to do it.
He brushed his mouth over hers, as he had earlier. His lips felt warm and soft. This was nothing like the brutal assault he’d launched in the parking lot. This kiss was gentle and beguiling. His lips felt good against hers, he tasted like mead, and his skin was smooth beneath her hands. All the sensations were pleasant, and yet she couldn’t relax.
At least the lights were low and he wouldn’t be able to get a good look at her figure or her pathetic underwear. It was even darker in the bedroom, which pleased her. If she couldn’t see much, then presumably he couldn’t either.
She fumbled with her jacket, then hung it on a chair by the bedroom window. Next, her blouse. Laine glanced furtively at Roan and discovered him staring at her as she disrobed. Her face burned. Maybe he’d call off the whole claiming business now that he could see more of her.
But he didn’t. He simply waited until she had removed the rest of her clothing, then took her hand and led her to the bed. She climbed awkwardly onto the tall mattress. Roan stripped off his shoes, his jeans, and followed her. He wore nothing under the jeans.
He stretched out next to her, slid his hand up her side and lightly caressed her left breast. He frowned. “Barrett hurt you.”
She looked down at herself and saw bruises on her pale skin. “I didn’t know.”
“Let me take care of it.” Roan bent his head and kissed the bruises one by one. They disappeared as he touched them.
His hands moved over her in practiced caresses designed to arouse her, and yet she felt strangely unmoved. It was as if she were not quite present in her body. Everything seemed to come to her through a thick, muffling curtain that separated her from herself.
His fingers stroked her between her legs. “You’re so wet,” he said.
She was? She hadn’t thought she was excited enough to be wet.
Roan lifted himself over her. She opened her legs to accommodate him, and when he entered her, she gasped.
He paused, frowning. “Did I hurt you?”
“No. I’m okay.” But she wasn’t, really. She had a man she hardly knew clasped between her thighs, joined with her, inside of her. She couldn’t look at him, so she closed her eyes.
He began to move. She was back in her twin bed in her parents’ house, with a boy on top of her, taking his pleasure while she waited for him to finish. He would expect her to push against him, so she did.
Heaviness filled with aching warmth bloomed in her core. She hadn’t ever felt that before. It was pleasurable. Her hips moved with more enthusiasm. A little moan left her, and her eyes popped open. Had he noticed?
His eyes were closed, his head tilted back. He was too far gone to take note of her response to him. Good. Then he groaned and shuddered, and she felt the warm wetness of his release fill her. Thank God, it was over.
He paused for a minute, still joined with her. His breath came fast and hard. She didn’t know where to look, now that the act was finished. Staring up at him as if they had feelings for each other didn’t seem right. She closed her eyes.
He lay down beside her. “That wasn’t quite what I’d intended, but I’ll make it up to you later. You’re mine now, Laine. No-one here can hurt you,” he said as he draped a heavy arm across her waist.
The first sex she’d had in eight years that didn’t involve a battery-operated appliance . . . and it hadn’t been as awful as she’d imagined. She hadn’t expected it to feel so good. But it was over now.
Laine began to sit up in the bed. The weight of his arm stopped her from being able to rise. She plucked at it and tried to wriggle her way free.
“What are you doing?” he said in a sleepy voice.
“I’m going to sleep on the sofa.”
“No, you’re not. You’ll sleep here.”
“I don’t want to intrude on your privacy. I’m perfectly fine on the sofa.”
She made another attempt to escape his arm, but he tightened it around her so that she could hardly move.
“I want you in my bed, so you’ll stay in my bed.”
Laine slapped his arm. “My God, are you always this bossy?”
“Not always.” He curled his body around her, trapping her in a prison of his arms and legs. His ebony hair slid into her face, veiling her from the room. He smelled of man and sex. Her core pulsed, wanting more of him although they had just finished. “You’re in my world, now, Laine, and you have to do as I say. Understand?”
No. “I find it hard to believe that you want me to sleep with you. I know you’re just doing this out of some weird sense of honor, not because you actually like me. So why don’t you just let me go?”
He was silent for a minute. Why can’t I keep my mouth shut? Now he’s going to say that I’m right, he doesn’t like me, and kick me out of his suite.
“I can’t let you go,” he said tightly. “You’ll sleep here. And if you keep arguing with me I’m going to tie you to the bed frame.”
She gave an irritated sigh. “Fine. I’ll sleep here.” Whatever. If he insists that I sleep in his bed, then it’s not my fault if I drive him crazy by being here. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was an unwanted intruder.
Laine studied the powerful forearms that pinned her to his body. He had the most incredible muscle definition. Her fingers almost twitched with the urge to stroke and pet him, something she had never done with any of her other . . . lovers. She restrained herself. Their relationship was more like a business arrangement than a love affair.
Her mind skimmed over the events of the evening and settled on the striking appearance of the gang members. Not an average-looking one in the bunch.
“I noticed something strange. Everybody downstairs is either really ugly or really beautiful.”
“It’s an Amaki trait. Just like we all have eyes of two different colors.”
So they were back to the fairy stuff. She still didn’t really believe, but she wasn’t in a mood to argue about it. Besides, there had to be some explanation for the strangeness of this place, and calling it fairy magic was good enough for now. Eventually, if she were here long enough, she would discover what it really was.
“I thought I noticed that too, but it seemed so weird that I guess I didn’t really believe it.”
“You haven’t seen weird yet, believe me.” There was a smile in his voice.
“Oh? What do you mean by that?”
Roan shifted his hold on her, causing a shockwave of pleasure and desire through her body. She hated the effect he had on her. “You’ll see tomorrow. The Amaki are the fairies most like humans, that’s all.”
He’s never going to drop that fairy crap. But at least he’s consistent.
Not long after, a terrible thought occurred to her. They hadn’t used a condom. Roan was one of the last people on earth with whom she would have chosen to have unprotected sex. For the love of God, how could she have been so stupid? Her brain must not be working correctly, because even as a teenager she had been obsessively careful about birth control.
“Roan?” she said softly.
“What if I get pregnant?” She held her breath, waiting for the answer.
“Not likely,” he said. “It was only the one time, and it’s not that easy for one of us to impregnate a human woman.”
Golly, why didn’t that make her feel any better? Laine took a deep breath and prayed for patience. “I would feel a lot better about this if we had used a condom.”
He sighed. She could almost hear him rolling his eyes. “I’ll go out and get a box of condoms tomorrow.”
So . . . did that mean he expected to have sex with her again? There was no other way to interpret his remark. Earlier she had assumed that it would be a one-time only thing. The thought of repeating tonight’s encounter was deeply unsettling.
Roan propped himself up on one elbow and watched Laine sleeping. What was he going to do with her? She was even lovelier now that the lines of tension and fear had all gone and her dark curls spilled loosely against the white pillow. Beautiful, yet highly annoying. He hadn’t made her scream; in fact, she seemed even more sexually tense than other human women.
The sweet and musky scent of sex rose from her body, making his cock tighten with another surge of lust. He’d expected his desire for her to dissipate once he’d taken her, but instead it felt as strong as before. In the past when he’d taken human women, he’d tired of them almost immediately. With Laine, he wanted to peel away her sexual fears until she was free enough to scream herself hoarse in his bed.
She was so prickly that he wished he was tired of her. It would have made the claiming more difficult, but at least he wouldn’t feel torn as he did now, watching her. He’d never lusted after a woman he didn’t at least like. Some men could enjoy fucking a beautiful woman even if they hated her, but he had never been able to do that. At least, not until now.
He wished he’d gone down on her. He might have gotten the screams he was hoping for then. They had time, though, time for him to find out exactly how to make her lose control. Maybe it would sweeten her personality.
He rolled onto his back. It was going to be a long moon if he couldn’t find something about Laine that he could like. Besides her body. He hoped that he would discover it in the time she was with him. Four weeks. He tried not to think about what that would mean for him and his treasured privacy. It wouldn’t be forever. Roan closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep.
Tam crouched down and pointed to the fresh elk tracks imprinted in the rain-wet ground of the Yellow Pine Mountains. Showers had fallen overnight, keeping the fine red dust of the region on the ground where it belonged, and making the tracks stand out clearly in the early morning light. He looked up at Roan, who smiled and nodded, pointing in the direction the elk had taken.
They followed the tracks up to the top of a ridge and looked down to see about fifteen elk in the little valley below them. Tam grinned at him. Then Roan saw it. The red flush on Tam’s face that signified the early stage of the plague.
“What’s wrong, brother?” Tam whispered, still grinning.
He didn’t want to ruin the beautiful morning by acknowledging the disease. Besides, he might be wrong about it. They had been running uphill, after all. “Nothing,” Roan said. “It’s nothing.”
Without warning he found himself in a long and narrow corridor, with walls and floor and ceiling all in the same dull gray. Light came from all directions, diffuse and misty. Tam was in here somewhere, and Roan had to find him. He walked and walked, but nothing in the corridor ever seemed to change.
An overwhelming sense of doom haunted him as he searched endlessly for his brother. There was a voice, whispering. “Nothing,” it said. “Nothing.” He knew then that he would be trapped in this place for eternity, alone and searching for someone who was forever lost.
Roan woke up in a cold sweat, his heart pounding, his throat dry. He stared blankly at the dark ceiling for several minutes before he fully returned to normal consciousness and remembered where he was.
If the Shield had been where it belonged, with Clan Tanais, then Tam might have already recovered. He’d tried to cure Tam himself, and had even gathered a team of healers to treat his brother, but with no success. Without the Clan’s Shield Tam was unreachable, floating alone in his coma-induced prison.
No-one knew how long he would last in that state, but Roan was sure that it wouldn’t be much longer. Some of the healers he had consulted didn’t believe that the Shield would save Tam. Roan had to believe.
It doesn’t make sense. Why would the gods take the whole family except for me? Why was he worthy of life? He didn’t feel especially worthy, had never done anything to deserve the honor of living when everyone whom he loved died around him.
Nothing is certain except change. Everything passes away. It was folly to take the actions of the gods, the universe, personally. He knew that, but when he thought about his losses he found it difficult to take comfort in philosophy.
Laine sighed in her sleep and he turned his head to look at her. He’d almost forgotten she was there. The helpless little human, taking up space in his suite, taking up his time and getting in the way when he needed his hands free more than ever.
She was a distraction and a disruption. Any time spent with Laine was time taken away from his search for the Shield, and he didn’t have time to spare.
Still, he couldn’t regret saving her from Barrett, and at any rate she was Roan’s responsibility now. He’d committed himself to protecting her and he would honor that commitment. What he would not do was allow her to draw him away from his real reason for being in Unseelie territory in the first place. Tam was family. Tam came first.
Laine awoke early in the morning. She knew it was morning because she could see thin gray light seeping around the edges of the heavy draperies. She lay on her side under the blankets and listened to the fitful pattering of raindrops on the window glass. The building creaked softly.
Seemed likely that she would lose her apartment. Even if the Unseelie Court Gang let her go, she would never find a job in time to stave off eviction. Her savings account had bled dry and she still had student loans to repay. She’d have to default on those too. She twirled a lock of hair around her forefinger as she watched the rain.
Strange that she couldn’t get excited or upset at the thought of eviction. It had seemed so awful, so earthshaking, yesterday afternoon but right now it just didn’t feel very important. She didn’t have many possessions and she had no pets to worry about. Most of the things she did have didn’t matter to her. They were only things.
But who would notice that she was missing? Who would care? She had no coworkers anymore, and no real friends. Starting over in a new state had turned out to be more difficult than she’d expected and she had yet to find her place in Portland’s social life.
No-one but her landlord would notice that she was gone. Was that any way to live, so cut off from other people that she could disappear and no-one would give a damn? If she got out of this – no, when she got out of this – she would make finding friends a top priority. She ignored the cynical inner voice that told her she wouldn’t be any more successful at that now than she had in the past.
A door opened, and Laine rolled over to see Roan coming from the bathroom, wearing nothing but his skin. Her cheeks burned. What did she do now? She’d never actually had a morning-after. Her partners had always left almost immediately once they had finished.
“You’re awake,” Roan said. “Good. We need to go downstairs so everyone knows I’ve claimed you.” He seemed utterly unconcerned that she could see his nakedness.
“Is that really necessary?” she said as she clutched the blankets to her chest.
“Yes, it is. Otherwise they’ll be all over you. They’ll be up here banging on my door and demanding to see you. It’ll be better to get it over with.”
He opened a large armoire opposite the bed and pulled out a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved black shirt. Muscles rippled under his skin as his thighs and then his forearms flexed. His black hair was wavy and tousled, with a few soft curls sprinkled across his chest and arrowing down his belly. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He looked even better in the morning than he had the night before.
She was going to be here for at least a month, living with him in his suite. Was that a gift or a curse? What if she grew attached to him? Being “claimed” was humiliation enough, without adding the pain of falling in love with a man who saw her as nothing but an irritation. You’re not going to fall in love with him. He’s a lunatic. A very sexy lunatic.
“Hurry up, Laine,” he said as he stepped into the jeans.
“What about a shower?”
“You can take one later. We want to make sure there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind what happened here last night.” He didn’t even look at her but kept his head bent as he buttoned up the shirt. He rolled up the sleeves and then glanced over at her with raised eyebrows, as if asking why she was still in bed.
“I don’t have a robe.” Laine didn’t want him to see her in broad daylight. Probably he wouldn’t like what he saw, and even if he did she wasn’t used to being ogled naked. Come to think of it, she wasn’t used to being ogled at all.
“I’ve already seen everything you’ve got,” he told her. “Get your clothes on or I’ll put them on you, and if I do it they might go on backwards or upside down.”
Laine shot Roan a glare as she got out of bed to fetch her garments. What a high-handed jerk he was, when he wasn’t in the act of screwing her. She yanked on her panties and skirt. He’d seemed so kind and gentle when he was seducing her; now he was acting like the overbearing biker she’d met in the park.
When she put on her bra, she turned away from him. He’d already seen her without it, yet there was something strangely intimate about putting it on in front of him. With relief she buttoned her blouse. At last she was decently dressed.
Her feet remained bare because her shoes had fallen off when Barrett dragged her from her car. Her jacket had creases in it, but she put it on anyway. She needed the warmth and coverage it provided.
“Let’s go,” Roan said.
She looked up at him. “Where are my purse and shoes?”
He shrugged. “I’ll go look for them after breakfast.”
They left the suite without exchanging any words. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Roan put his hand on the back of her neck as if to guide her. Laine stiffened. She frowned back at him, but he only gave her a bland look and kept his hand where it was.
“I need to use a bathroom,” she said.
“It’s in there. Hurry.” He pointed to a narrow hallway behind the stairs, where a door with numerous dings in its surface marked the halfway point. At the end of the hallway, another door with a window in it seemed to lead to the outside.
She opened the bathroom door without answering him and locked it behind herself. Black and white hexagonal tile covered the floor, with some chunks missing so that the subfloor showed. A small window with rotted molding let in some light, which was a good thing because the single bare lightbulb in the ceiling was broken.
The room stank of mildew. Stains and chips marred the tiny sink and the toilet as well, although the damage was hard to see at first under the thick layer of grime that coated them. There was no soap. She came out shaking her head.
“I think that’s the nastiest bathroom I’ve ever seen,” she said.
“It’s not your place to complain,” Roan told her. He set his hand on the back of her neck again and propelled her through the lobby and the vestibule into the tavern. When she tried to shake him off he gripped her more firmly. Her lips tightened at the surge of irritation she felt, and she clamped down on the furious curse that tried to escape her. This was not the time to get into a fight with him.
Laine almost stopped when they came to the door of the tavern. She could hear quiet conversation and the clink of tableware on dishes. After last night, she couldn’t face these people again. But Roan gave her a little push, and she walked reluctantly into the room.
He wanted her to believe that all the occupants of the room were fairies. It couldn’t be true. Okay, they were an unusual crowd, but fairies? Come on. Everyone here looked as human as she did.
She saw some familiar faces sitting at the tables, although it was far emptier now than it had been last night. Art and Barrett had a spot to one side. Out of the corner of her eye she saw them grinning hugely as they noticed her and Roan. She lifted her chin in an effort to make them think she wasn’t afraid or ashamed. Even though she was.
“Have a good night, McAllister?” Art called.
“You know I did,” Roan said. Laine glanced up at his face and fumed at the smug expression she saw. She knew they had to prove she’d been claimed, but she didn’t see why he had to be so obnoxious about it. He was treating her like a possession, not a person. She had always wanted to belong to someone, but not like this.
Roan conducted her to a table near Art and Barrett’s. The Unseelie leader showed no sign of having been injured the night before. Laine studied his legs. The left one, where he’d been hurt, was stretched out into the walkway, and the snug denim of his jeans hugged his thigh too closely for a bandage to fit underneath.
Had the wound been much less severe than she thought? Or did Barrett have some kind of magical healing powers? Fairies. It couldn’t be true. She didn’t want it to be true.
A waitress with platinum blond hair and dark eyebrows came to take their order. She’d been in the parking lot, standing next to Colum. The woman glanced at her with a blank expression and then turned a sugary smile on Roan.
“The usual?” she purred.
“Yeah, thanks,” Roan said. “Bring enough for both of us and a pot of coffee, too, will you?”
“Whatever you want, baby.” The waitress sauntered off to fill Barrett’s and Art’s coffee cups.
Roan dragged Laine’s chair toward him with Laine still sitting in it. She gave a startled gasp, and then another when he leaned over, captured her mouth and gave her a full-penetration kiss.
“Roan, I don’t think – “ He shut her up by planting another one on her. Laine pulled back sharply. “You’re not listening to me. I don’t like it when – “
He put his fingers over her lips. Laine glanced toward Barrett and Art and saw them grinning like wolves. Her face burned.
“Didn’t I tell you last night? I don’t like it when my women talk.” Roan’s eyes told her that he was completely serious.
“I’m not your woman, then.” As soon as the words left her mouth she knew it was the wrong thing to say. Roan’s eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched as he made a visible attempt to reign in his anger. It radiated from him nonetheless. She opened her mouth to apologize.
“Shut it, Laine, or I’ll turn you over my knee,” Roan snapped.
“Having trouble taming that one, eh?” Barrett said. “Let me know if you need any help.”
The urge to apologize vanished. “You may have claimed me but you have no right to talk to me that way,” she said.
She’d go and sit alone outside his suite before she’d put up with this. Laine stood up and turned to leave the tavern. The instant her bare feet hit the gritty floor, Roan grabbed her around the waist and hauled her onto his lap. He took her head between both of his hands and forced her mouth to his.
One of his arms snaked around her back to hold her still as he plundered her mouth. It was like the parking lot all over again. Laughter roared from the other people in the room as she squirmed in his grip.
Roan released her mouth. “Did you think I was joking when I said I would spank you? If you don’t behave I’ll do it right here in front of everyone.”
“Damn you,” she whispered.
In response he took his free hand and slipped it inside her top so that he could cup her breast. She wriggled, caught between shame and arousal. “You are my woman. When I want to touch you or kiss you or do anything else to you that I like, it’s my prerogative. You are here to please me. Got it?”
She nodded miserably, but he didn’t stop touching her. He kept her on his lap the whole time they were waiting for their food, his hand roaming between her breasts and her thighs all the while.
When the waitress brought their food, she giggled. Laine wanted to kill her. Roan set Laine down on her chair and pointed at her plate of bacon and eggs.
“I’m not hungry,” she said.
“Don’t make me force it down your throat,” Roan told her.
“Do you want me to throw up?” she whispered.
“You won’t throw up. Eat it. You need food. I know you’re hungry, I can feel it.”
Her stomach chose that moment to growl loudly. Roan’s lips twitched. He was trying not to smile. He’s laughing at me, too. Her lover of the night before had apparently disappeared, and a monster had taken his place. She blinked rapidly. She would not cry. They would never see her cry.
Laine bent her head and began to eat. As soon as she put the food in her mouth she realized that she was famished and devoured everything on her plate. She hated him, even if he was right about breakfast. He may have saved her from Barrett, but in his own way he was savaging her and she despised him for it.
At last they finished the awful meal. As they left their table, Roan took her by the elbow and marched her out of the tavern. She kept her head up, trying to look dignified. Overbearing, sadistic son-of-a-bitch. Who does he think he is? I’d like to see him put up with that kind of treatment.
“You didn’t have to do that to me,” she said in a furious whisper as they reached the bottom of the staircase.
“Haven’t you learned your lesson yet, Laine?” He slapped her on the rear, hard enough to sting. “Get upstairs.”
Roan watched Laine as she stomped up the stairs with her back straight and her hands in fists. The hellcat was back. He shook his head. He’d thought she would play along with him, follow his lead. What had she expected to happen when they went downstairs?
Her beautiful ass worked rhythmically under the skirt she wore, and tempted him to fondle her. She would probably bite off his hand if he did, though, and then he’d have to punish her for real. He unlocked his door, let her inside and locked it behind them before she turned on him.
“That was an awful thing for you to do,” she said. Her green eyes looked dark with rage. “There was no reason for you to humiliate me like that. No excuse.”
“Listen to me, Laine.” He pointed downstairs. “Your life depends on them believing that I’ve claimed you in a way that they can understand, and the only thing they understand is force. If they even suspect that I’m treating you gently, then they’ll think I’ve gone soft. Gods, they already think I’m soft.”
She snorted. “You almost hacked off Barrett’s leg last night. How could that be soft?”
“Because I don’t do that kind of thing for fun, that’s why. I don’t enjoy hurting people and they know it. To them, that’s soft.” He didn’t add that his own safety depended on the gang believing he was a thug like they were. If they knew the truth about him he wouldn’t survive another night in their territory.
An image of a mutilated woman flashed into his mind, a woman missing most of her toes and several fingers, along with an ear and her nose. Barrett had cut them off of her with a hunting knife. Some of the injuries had partially healed, but her nose was thickly scabbed. He’d done that one the previous afternoon.
The woman’s golden skin had showed a network of slash marks where Barrett had entertained himself by cutting her. Her dark eyes had looked up at Roan in fear and despair. He’d glanced around to get a sense of how many he would have to fight in order to save her. A choking gurgle had brought his head whipping back to her, in time to see the life fade from her body. Barrett had cut her throat.
Roan could not allow that to happen to Laine.
“You hurt my feelings,” she told him.
“I’m sorry. I had to show them what they wanted to see – “
“By practically raping me in a public place?” She almost yelled the words.
“Yes!” he yelled back. “Let me lay it out plain for you. You are now my sex slave. If at any time they think you’re not serving me, they’ll come after you. They will gang rape you and cut off bits of you until they’re tired of the game and they kill you. Is that what you want?”
Her face grew pale and still as she absorbed what he’d said. Her chin trembled and she pressed her lips together until they began to turn white.
“Laine, I swore to you that I wouldn’t hurt you and I will keep that promise, but you endanger both of us with your damned continual fighting. You cannot fight me anymore.”
“I’m your sex slave,” she said in a rough voice.
“Until we get you out of here, yes. That’s what we have to make them believe. When we’re with the others you’re going to have to tolerate my touching you and bossing you around. That’s just the way it is.”
Laine walked past him to the bedchamber, her face stony. She threw her jacket on the bed and removed her top to reveal the most gorgeous breasts he’d ever seen. Roan blinked, trying not to be distracted.
He didn’t want her so angry with him, but she had to accept the situation. When she reached around to her left side to unhook her skirt waistband, the action pushed her breasts together and gave her even more spectacular cleavage. He tried to ignore the sight. Hers was just another female body, and he’d seen a great many.
She pushed her skirt down, stepped out of it and turned toward the bathroom. Her ass swayed provocatively in her white bikini panties, and his cock swelled in response, pushing against the fabric of his jeans. He knew without dipping far into her psyche that she wasn’t trying to arouse him. The beauty of her movements was completely unconscious on her part, which made them even sexier to him.
I hope the gods are having a good laugh over this. Somebody should be getting enjoyment from this situation.
He tried to follow her into the bathroom. If he could just get her in bed again, he could bring her around. She turned and braced her arms in the doorway.
“May I please have your permission to take a shower, O great Master?” she said. Roan gritted his teeth at her insolent tone.
“You don’t have to call me that.”
“May I take a shower, Master?” she repeated, more neutrally this time.
If she was trying to make him feel guilty, it wasn’t going to work. “Yes, damn it. Of course you can take a shower.”
“Thank you, Master.” She shut the door in his face and locked it.
Roan stared at the door for several minutes while his cock throbbed in his jeans and his jaw ticked with irritation at Laine. He didn’t know if he was more angry or aroused by her and that unreasonable attitude. What the hell did she want from him? Champagne and roses? She ought to know better than that. They were both trapped in this situation and he couldn’t understand why she didn’t see that.
He was going to get blue balls if he had to stand out here with this super-erection and no way to relieve it but his hand. She needed to learn how to submit. It was for her own good and – damn – the thought of dominating her made his cock twitch almost painfully. To see proud Laine on her knees in front of him – to have her beg him to mount her –
Roan passed his hand over the doorknob and it unlocked with a click. The bathroom was full of steam and the sound of the shower running full blast. A smile hovered at the corners of his mouth. He would have her calling him Master in a deeply sincere voice before the morning had ended.
Her body made a lovely silhouette behind the white linen shower curtain. She had her head tilted back to rinse shampoo out of her hair. Roan watched her as she moved behind the curtain, alternately soaping and rinsing parts of herself. Gods, how he wanted to replace her hands with his mouth.
He leaned nonchalantly against the doorjamb. Laine opened the shower curtain, saw him and gasped. “How did you get in here? I locked the door.”
“Same way Barrett unlocked your car door last night,” he said smugly.
She grabbed a towel from the towel stand and held it in front of her. “What do you want?” she snapped.
“For you to get out of the tub.” He smiled, although he could feel his irritation rising back to the surface.
“If you’re going to call me Master you need to know what it really means. Now dry off and get out.” He used the tone of voice he usually reserved for dogs who didn’t listen to his first command.
“No. Not until you’re gone,” Laine said, shaking her head.
Roan walked slowly to her. He wrenched the towel out of her hands. Then he picked her up and hoisted her, kicking, out of the claw-foot tub.
“Damn it, Roan, you have no right – “ she spluttered.
“Actually, Laine, I do.” He used the towel briskly over her hair and body. “You are going to learn who is in charge here. You can’t win against me. I’m stronger, faster, and I have magical powers. You might as well give in now and save yourself a lot of trouble.”
“I despise you,” she snarled.
That stung him, but he pretended indifference. “You can despise me if you like, just as long as you obey me.”
Roan dropped the towel on the floor, tucked Laine under one arm and carried her into the bedroom. He tossed her on the unmade bed, where she curled up into a ball with her knees drawn up to her chest and her back toward him. The fine hairs on her arms stood up and he noticed goosebumps forming on her skin. He stretched out next to her, pulling the blankets over both of them.
A pang of concern struck him when she didn’t respond, but he brushed it off immediately. She was just sulking. He put his hand on her thigh and stroked her. It was a fine, muscular leg, and he followed the curves of it downward to the exquisite bones of her ankle. This was the ankle she had sprained and he had healed for her.
His hand traveled back up her leg, up her thigh to her lower belly. He wanted to kiss her there, but first he wanted to hear her call him Master like she meant it. He opened his mouth to tell her so. A soft choking sound came from her throat. Roan froze.
Her shoulders trembled and a barely audible sob escaped her. She was crying. Roan briefly closed his eyes. Damn it. He hadn’t meant to make her cry. She took everything so seriously.
Perhaps her tears were simply an attempt to manipulate him. She was probably used to intimidating people with her sharp tongue, used to getting her way. Another muffled sob came from her. No. He could feel her distress, and he had to admit that it was genuine. Damn. Guilt pricked at him.
“Come on, Laine. Don’t cry,” he said softly.
“Come on, baby, I didn’t mean to hurt you – “
“D-don’t call me that!” She burst into open sobbing. “J-just g-go away. Get away f-from m-me.”
Roan hesitated with his hand on her waist, but she turned her face into the mattress and refused to look at him. Her thoughts hammered at him now, so hard that he knew what was in her mind without any effort on his part. From the swirl of emotions coming off of her, he sensed that she hated crying in front of others and that she had held it in as long as she could. And she really did want him to go away.
“Alright,” he said reluctantly. “I’ll be in the front room if you need me.”
Laine couldn’t stop crying. Roan’s feet made only the softest noise as he left the room. He shut the door gently. Then the only sound was her weeping.
Good. He was gone. Still, the tears came in a torrent. She had to get hold of herself, stop this babyish crying. It wouldn’t help anything. Laine bit her lip, took deep breaths, clenched her fists, but nothing stopped the tears. Finally she surrendered to them.
Much later, when the crying jag had run its course, she rolled onto her back and stared up at the plaster ceiling. In the center of the room was an elaborate ceiling medallion with flowers and vines, but no fixture hanging from it. She gazed at the medallion for uncounted minutes, studying its curves and whorls without a single coherent thought. Finally she noted that it was beautiful. It seemed as if it belonged in a much grander hotel.
She got out of bed and dressed herself. Her hair was a frizzy mess from the rough way that Roan had toweled it. Didn’t he know that curly hair needed gentle treatment? “Fairy” men were apparently just as clueless as human ones when it came to personal grooming – or maybe Roan just didn’t care.
Yeah. That was probably the truth. Baby, I didn’t mean to hurt you. Jeez, you’d think he could come up with a better line than that. How could he think that his behavior wouldn’t hurt her? It seemed calculated to hurt.
Laine wandered over to the chair next to the bedroom window, parted the curtains, and sat down. The rain had stopped, and although the pavement was still damp there was a bit of blue sky peeking through the thinning clouds. She put her fingers on the wavy glass of the window. Obviously no-one had ever updated the glazing.
Below her window, people walked by the hotel in ones and twos. A handful of biker-types stood on the opposite corner, shoving each other and laughing loudly. An extremely short fellow in a green coat and a pointy red cap walked past them. His outfit reminded her of a garden gnome costume. Honestly, these people needed to get a life. They were taking this role-playing stuff way too far.
Laine squinted at him. Did he have pointed ears? She could have sworn she saw pointed ears on that man. He probably did it with a prosthetic ear-tip, like they used for movies. Or maybe he’d found a plastic surgeon who was willing to make him over as an elf, the way some crazy woman she’d once seen on TV had altered her face to resemble a leopard. Surgeons like that ought to lose their licenses.
The biker group crossed the street, coming toward the hotel. Behind them walked a tall and slender woman in a long green gown that looked like something one might find at a Renaissance fair. The wind picked up, billowing her skirt and exposing her feet. Goat feet.
These weren’t the huge cloven hooves people wore over their shoes when they wanted to dress up as satyrs for Halloween. They were dainty little hooves with delicate furred ankles above them, ankles shaped like those of a four-legged animal. Not human.
Laine’s mouth opened in astonishment. She had seen it. She knew she’d seen it. Goat feet on a human-looking woman. There was no way you could do that with plastic surgery. Was there? No way. Even if you could find a surgeon to give you the tiny hooves, no human could stand for long on feet like that. It would be too painful.
Unless . . . maybe the goat woman had lost her legs below the knee and was wearing prosthetic legs. But how could she balance on such tiny feet if she were a normal human being? Occam’s razor. The simplest explanation is the most likely one. But was it simpler to assume the goat woman was a human with very unlikely prosthetics or that she was a real fairy?
Maybe the guy with the pointy ears was natural, too, then. Her heart banged frantically in her chest, her face flushed, her stomach churned queasily as she clutched the back of the settee. If fairies were real . . . .
Roan didn’t have cloven hooves, so what were these other people? There should be a field guide to this neighborhood, available in local bookstores.
Laine rubbed her temples. Then she snickered. She had always prided herself on being super-rational, had always scoffed at people who read their horoscopes and believed in crystal power. When she felt as if she were picking up feelings and thoughts from other people, she either ignored it or distracted herself until the feeling went away.
The idea of magic made her queasy. She hadn’t believed in it before she came to this place, and she didn’t believe in it now. There had to be some other explanation for what she was seeing.
For awhile she continued watching out the window, but she didn’t catch a glimpse of any more goat feet. She did see another red-cap guy with pointed ears, and it wasn’t the same person. The first fellow had worn a green jacket that looked as if he’d borrowed it from a leprechaun, and this one had on a black peacoat. That made her smile. She expected to see leprechaun coats on “fairies,” but not ordinary peacoats.
The smile dimmed as her mind wandered back to the things Roan had said to her. He wanted her to know what it meant for him to be her master and then, a few minutes later, he apologized and said he hadn’t meant to hurt her. Well, she didn’t believe it. She could tell that he had been taking pleasure in the way he’d been able to overpower her, and she knew that he enjoyed the idea of dominating her.
That might be acceptable among the Unseelies, but she didn’t belong here. He would eventually try it again, and the next time he might not stop. He would hold her down and do whatever he wanted to her body, and she would have no way to protect herself.
Her heart raced again as a wavelike sensation crashed through her body. Her throat tightened so hard that for a moment she couldn’t swallow. Roan could do anything he wanted to her and no-one would stop him or even complain. The only thing those freaks downstairs would complain about is that they weren’t allowed to participate. She had to escape.
But he was in the front room, preventing her from leaving. Climbing out the window didn’t seem like a very good idea, since the bricks would be slippery from the rain. Besides, the weirdoes on the street might report her if they saw her trying to escape. For the time being, she was stuck.
He can’t keep watch over me indefinitely. Sooner or later, he’ll let down his guard and then I’ll run and I won’t look back.
The bedroom door opened. Laine turned to look at Roan as he approached her. “What do you want?” Her voice sounded so calm that it surprised her.
He watched her with sober eyes. She couldn’t read his expression, couldn’t tell if he was angry or sad or indifferent. “It’s time for lunch,” he said quietly.
“I’m not hungry.”
Roan sighed. “You have to eat.”
“That’s what you said at breakfast.”
“Because you were hungry.”
She turned back to the window. “I’ve lost my appetite.” If she ignored him long enough, would he go away? He stood so close to her that she could feel the warmth of his body. Laine shifted on the chair. She tapped her toe against the wooden floor. Then she began to count the windows on the building across the street. When would he go away?
“Sulking isn’t going to help,” he said.
“If you can really read minds, then you ought to know I’m not hungry.”
Sixteen windows. Nine of them with boards nailed across the glass.
“Alright, you don’t have to eat, but you do have to come downstairs with me.”
“Because I’m not leaving you up here by yourself.” His hand rested, warm and heavy, on her shoulder. “Come on. It’ll be alright. I promise.”
He had the power to force her to accompany him. Laine pressed her lips together. Cooperating with him would probably be wise, even if she hated it. She stood and followed him out of the chamber.
In the days that followed, she learned to avoid him while occupying the same room with him. The feat wasn’t especially difficult to master – she had managed it for years with her own family. Most of the time she simply pretended she was alone.
If Roan sat on the sofa, Laine took the armchair farthest from him. When they slept together, she clung to the edge of the mattress to avoid touching him. At meals, she ate silently, absorbed in her inner world where no-one could intrude and hurt her.
The trouble was that she couldn’t truly shut him out of her awareness. Every day he spent time in the sitting room exercising, doing yoga-like stretches and movements, or sitting on the floor in meditation. Was that supposed to convince her that he could really do magic? He’d have to do better than that.
If only she could find someplace where she could truly be alone. The sound of his voice and his movements in the suite, the scent of him, the heat of his body when they shared the bed all conspired to remind her continually of his presence. And her desire for him.
Roan never hurt her or spoke rudely to her. He gave no sign that he wanted her or that her behavior bothered him, speaking to her only when necessary. The Unseelies didn’t expect her to converse with him, or anyone else, and her silence in the tavern went unremarked.
There was nothing for her to do in Roan’s suite. He didn’t even approach her for sex. To pass the time, she spent long hours staring out his windows at the weirdoes in the street below, making up stories about their lives. That little man in the red cap was actually a spy who’d undergone plastic surgery so he could infiltrate the Unseelies’ strange world. The woman with goat feet had been abandoned as a child because of her unusual deformity. And so on.
Five days later, she sat in her usual place on the settee. She still wore the navy suit in which she’d arrived, topped with a blanket to fight the chill coming off the window. Her eyelids drooped. She had seen every sight there was to see from this window at least ten times over and if something new didn’t happen soon she was going to die from boredom.
She blinked and yawned. I can’t sleep all the time. What would Roan do if she tried to leave the suite? Would he even notice? He seemed to have preternaturally acute hearing, so he’d probably know as soon as she opened the door.
As if he had sensed her thinking about him, Roan emerged from the bedroom. Their gazes met and held for the first time since the argument. She couldn’t read his expression. He looked sad, but that didn’t make any sense. Why would he be sad?
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
Roan glanced at the floor, then met her eyes once more. “It’s time I claimed you again.”
“Did one of them say something?”
“No.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I can hear them thinking it, though.”
Uh huh. Sure you can. He needed to drop the fairy bullshit. She wasn’t buying it. And why did he insist on this claiming thing when he obviously didn’t want to have anything to do with her? “I can see that you’re not interested. Can’t we skip it?”
Roan’s hand paused. He blinked. “Laine, if you saw any less, you’d be legally blind.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
He shook his head. “Never mind.” He came to her and held out his hands. She lifted hers, slowly. When their palms touched, she shivered inwardly at the contact. Roan pulled her to her feet. “We can’t skip it,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Laine frowned and tried to withdraw her hands, but he wouldn’t let her. “Like I said, you’re not interested, so why are you doing this?”
“I am interested.” His thumbs stroked lazily over the skin of her hands. “You have no idea how difficult it’s been for me to stop myself from touching you.”
“Then . . . why didn’t you?”
He gave her a crooked smile. “You despise me, remember?”
Those words sounded so harsh. She didn’t remember them sounding so awful when she’d said them. Her face heated. “I – um – I was really upset when I said that. I didn’t mean it.”
His gray eyes searched her face. “Are you certain?”
“You’re holding me prisoner, Roan. That tends to make me a bit cranky.”
“The Unseelies are holding you prisoner.”
“And you’re my brave protector.”
His lips curled in a seductive smile as his gaze traveled downward to her mouth. “Yes. I am.” He bent and brushed his lips across hers.
I shouldn’t let him. But his lips were so warm and soft, their pressure so sensuous, that she kissed him back. He tasted even better than she’d remembered.
When he cradled her head in his palms, she wrapped her arms around him and gave herself over to the kiss. If he was telling the truth, if he really did want her, then she might as well enjoy it, because God knew she’d never get a chance at a man like him again.
What was she thinking? She didn’t want to be with him . . . did she? He really was going to drive her crazy before the month ended. Laine tensed and leaned slightly away from him, but then he licked at her lips and without thinking about it she opened for him, let him slip his tongue inside her. Slick and wet, sliding against the surfaces of her mouth, penetrating her. The warm tingling she’d experienced before with him began in the center of her and spread outward as her breath quickened.
After a long kiss, he withdrew to lightly brush her mouth again. Laine nipped at his lower lip. He gave a soft groan and crushed her to him, devouring her mouth as he tugged at her jacket. He really does want me. His arousal excited her so much that she pressed her pelvis and thighs to his groin with a surge of her hips.
His big hands closed over her ass, squeezing her as she worked her arms out of her jacket sleeves. When she wriggled free of it, he dropped it to the floor and pulled her knit top over her head. There wasn’t time to be ashamed of her utilitarian white bra because he swiftly unhooked it and tossed it to the side. Then he looked at her breasts and she lifted her hands to cover them. She hated the ungainly size of them and she hated being seen.
“Don’t,” he said softly. He took her by the wrists, pulled down her hands. “You’re beautiful.”
He cupped her, his hands so warm against her skin. His thumb rubbed ever so gently across her nipple. She gasped at the shock of sensation that spiked through her. She hadn’t felt this way the last time they’d been together.
As he continued to play with her, she arched her back so that her breasts lifted toward him. He squeezed one in his palm, rolling it, then bent his head and took her nipple in his mouth. Laine clutched his head to her with a moan, burying her fingers in his silky hair.
So many boys had crudely grabbed her there and pinched her almost as roughly as Barrett had. None of them had ever touched her the way that Roan was now. He drew her across the room and sank into a chair next to the sideboard. With his head right at breast height, he continued to play with her and suckle her and tease an amazing array of noises out of her.
She looked down at his face, at his mouth closed around her left nipple, his black lashes fanned out against his cheek, his left hand cupping her right breast. The sight made her moan again.
When he’d nearly driven her to an orgasm, he picked her up and carried her into an adjoining room. He laid her down on the enormous bed and unhooked the waistband of her skirt. She lifted her hips so he could remove the garment. He unzipped his jeans. They were really going to do this a second time.
The images of her sexual past rushed back to her. A boy who wouldn’t so much as look her in the eye when they were at school climbing on top of her in her bed, pushing her legs apart so that he could fit between them. She tried to lock the memory away as Roan stretched his long body next to her.
He put his mouth over hers. Laine wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him fervently. She wouldn’t think about her past right now. She would stay in the moment.
His hand slid down over her belly and stroked her thighs. At first she kept them clamped together, as his fingers caressed her, and then gradually she allowed her legs to open. Roan hooked his finger under the waistband of her panties and pulled them down. Then he lowered his head toward the juncture of her thighs. Whoa. He’s going to go down on me.
Laine flinched away from him. “Please, don’t do that. I can’t – “
“Why not? I want to do it for you,” he said.
“No, I can’t. It’s too kinky for me.”
She sensed his surprise even though she couldn’t see the expression on his face. Roan paused with his hand resting against her legs.
“Alright.” He pressed his lips to her thigh and then returned to kissing her mouth as he slowly rubbed her mound with the heel of his hand. Relief washed over her as she realized that he wasn’t going to push her on the matter, and she gave herself over to the pleasure of his touch.
Laine wanted to put her hands on him, too. She stroked him over his back, feeling the hard muscle under smooth skin. He had the body of a fully-developed athletic man, not that of a boy. This was Roan, not some high school kid, and she was an adult now.
He entered her with one long finger. She forgot all her concerns and embarrassment in the shattering sensation that burst in her as he crooked that finger.
His mouth still covered hers, and she whimpered and moaned frantically against his lips, her nails digging into the flesh of his back. He growled. Laine’s thighs fell open as she rocked her hips against his hand. Mindlessly. Overtaken by the pleasure of it.
One orgasm bled into the next. Then he lifted himself over her and set the tip of his cock at her entrance. He pushed into her slowly, gently, and there was none of the awkwardness of trying to fit together that she remembered from encounters with other men.
He was so big that she gasped at the feeling of him. Somehow he felt even bigger than he had the first time, and for a brief moment, she feared he would hurt her. He began to move.
“Oh, God,” she moaned. It felt so damn good. The delicious friction of his cock as he thrust in and out fed the ache inside her sheath. Rhythmic bursts of ecstasy. It was so wonderful – oh, God – so good – she needed more. She grabbed his waist and shoved her hips against his, crying out over and over as he rode her.
Pleasure spiraled up in her, tighter and tighter, until it seemed to explode throughout her whole body. She moaned and cried in mindless bliss. Roan cried out, too, tilting his head back as his face contorted in what looked like agony and the warm rush of his orgasm filled her. Even then, he was beautiful.
He propped himself on his elbows, breathing hard, eyes still closed. Laine lifted a hand to trace the line of his cheekbone and brush the hair from his face. He lowered himself and kissed her with open mouth. She wrapped her arms around his neck, holding him to her. A moan rose in her throat.
What had just happened to her? She hadn’t meant to let him affect her so deeply. She’d expected to feel about Roan the same way she’d felt about the high school boys who used to visit her. She had never moaned and whimpered for them.
She gazed up at Roan as he withdrew from her. He lay beside her, his hand stroking the curve where her waist flared into her hips. He smiled.
“You liked it,” he said smugly.
“It was nice.”
Roan raised one black eyebrow. “Nice?”
“Good. It was really good.”
“Hmmm.” He trailed a finger down into the valley between her breasts. “We’ll have to work on that.”
No, we won’t. There was no reason to be any more intimate than necessary. She wasn’t staying here willingly; he was a reluctant hero at best. Why make more of it than the situation required?
“It’s alright for you to let go, to feel pleasure,” Roan said. “There’s no shame in it.”
Laine closed her eyes. “Please don’t psychoanalyze me.”
“I want you to enjoy your time with me.”
There was no answer. She heard him sigh, felt his breath on her forehead. She opened her eyes to see him frowning at her. Great, here comes the sarcastic remark. But he brushed a gentle finger across her bottom lip instead.
“Don’t you expect to receive pleasure when you’re with a man, Laine?”
Hadn’t she just asked him not to psychoanalyze? She attempted a shrug. “Not especially.”
“I’d like to change that.”
He never did what she expected. She didn’t know how to respond to him, so she stared at him. He seemed softer toward her, warmer. Affectionate even. It made her want to squirm. Finally, he settled her head on his shoulder and pulled the covers over both of them, and she was relieved that she didn’t have to gaze deeply into his eyes anymore.
She awoke to bright gray light coming through the window. Must be around noon. Roan still had his arms around her. She tilted her head back to look at his face. His eyes were open, watching her. He kissed her on the nose.
“I have some things to take care of today, so I’ll be gone for a few hours. Stay in the suite. I’ll have Colum send some food up later.”
He was leaving her alone for the first time since she’d come under his protection. How strange. She cleared her throat. “Okay. Don’t – um – don’t be gone too long.”
“I won’t. Don’t worry; nobody can get in here unless I invite them.”
Roan got out of bed and pulled on his socks. The fantastical grace of his movements struck her all over again. He could stand on one foot and pull his jeans all the way up without the slightest wobble or awkward attempt to balance himself. The only thing she could compare it to was a ballet dancer or acrobat, which seemed like strange occupations to combine with motorcycle gang membership.
He did it all unconsciously, too, not as if he were trying to impress her. Grace seemed to come naturally to him. She remembered the way he had impressed her as panther-like on the day she had first met him.
What if he’d been telling her the truth about his race? What if fairies . . . Oh, for pity’s sake. Fairies are not real. This place is just starting to get to you, that’s all.
She smiled at him as he left her lying under the covers, but inside she was trembling. Roan was starting to get to her. He made her feel things that she didn’t want to feel. Especially not for someone like him. He was a gang member, for God’s sake.
The outer door of the suite shut quietly. Okay, so he was unusual for a gang member . . . that didn’t change the fact that he was probably involved in all kinds of illegal activities. Like holding a woman against her will, for starters. He might be protecting her from Barrett, but why didn’t he go to the police? Why did he claim that she couldn’t leave the territory?
Magic, that’s why. Please. She hadn’t seen anything magical since that first night, and she still wasn’t convinced that his levitation and mind reading weren’t tricks of some kind.
Why hadn’t she thought of going to the police? Somebody around here must have a phone, yet she hadn’t given it a single thought in the seven days she’d been in the territory. You haven’t been alone until now. It’s hard to think straight when you’re constantly surrounded by people who are spinning weird stories, trying to convince you they’re something more than human.
She was thinking straight now. This was her chance to escape, and she couldn’t let it slip past her. If she stuck around, Roan would worm his way even deeper into her feelings, into her psyche, and she didn’t want that. She couldn’t have it.
Today she would find her way to a place with normal people, call the police, get her life back. Or maybe she wouldn’t call the police. She didn’t want Roan to be arrested; she just wanted to get away from him.
Laine got out of bed and yanked on her clothes. They were rumpled and tired, but she didn’t care. They were good enough for an escape. Unfortunately, she didn’t have her shoes or purse. They hadn’t made it out of the parking lot alive.
She went to the door of the suite and pressed her ear against it. The hall outside seemed to be utterly quiet. She put her hand on the knob and turned it very slowly. Roan must have oiled it, because there wasn’t so much as a squeak from the antique piece. Laine peeked out the door at the hallway. Empty.
Why hadn’t he set a guard on her door? Did he really trust her to stay inside? Maybe he thought that without the use of her car she would be rendered so helpless that she wouldn’t even try to escape. How little he knew her.
She closed her eyes and tried to picture everything she’d seen on the first floor of the building. That door at the end of the downstairs hallway must lead to the back side of the hotel, away from the parking lot and the people who hung out in it. She might still be seen, but it was worth a try.
And if they caught her? She didn’t want to think about what Barrett might do to her if he or his friends discovered her running away. He would certainly think she had forfeited Roan’s protection by trying to escape him, and that would make her fair game. She felt trapped, torn between two equally terrible choices.
If she stayed here she would be drawn deeper into Roan’s bizarre world, deeper into her unwanted feelings for him. God help her, she might become attached to him. And she had no guarantee that he really could protect her from Barrett anyway. What would happen to her if Barrett challenged him a second time and won? She couldn’t stay here.
The hall was still empty when she peered out again. She closed the door gently behind herself and padded down the corridor in bare feet, praying silently that no-one would see her. When she got to the stairs, she paused. They squeaked awfully every time she used them.
With careful steps, she moved down the stairs, wincing with every creak of the wood. Still, no-one appeared. She heard a few voices in the tavern, and stopped a moment to listen. The desultory conversation sounded like a couple of waitresses chatting while they cleaned the tables. Maybe Barrett had left the hotel for the day.
Laine scurried down the remaining steps and into the back corridor. She could see daylight streaming through the window in the door at the end of the hall. Freedom waited for her just outside that door.
The bright light made her squint as she emerged onto the sidewalk. She eased the door shut behind her and took a quick glance around. One of those little men with the red caps stood a few yards away by the parking lot, watching her with amused eyes. It wasn’t a friendly sort of amusement. Her stomach began to flutter nervously.
Laine turned her back on him and walked in the other direction. She could go around the block and come back to the main street she had used to find the hotel. Her shoes and purse would have to be a sacrifice to her escape, because Roan still hadn’t returned them to her. The car, too. There was no way she was going to try to get to her car. She had left it in full view of any Unseelies in the tavern or the parking lot.
The damp pavement chilled her bare feet, and sharp pebbles cut into her soles. She tried to ignore the discomfort and walked as fast as she could manage. By the time she had returned to the main street, they were numb.
Glancing back at the hotel, she saw it in the daylight for the first time. It was blocky, yet graceful at the same time, with a mansard roof and a row of dormers in what must be the attic. What style was that? Italianate maybe. She didn’t know much about Victorian architecture.
She took a left at the corner. Many of the buildings looked vaguely familiar, although of course she hadn’t seen much in the rain that night. Still, this was the way she had come, she was sure of it.
As she stood on the corner, wondering, three teenage girls ran by wearing nothing at all. Weren’t they cold? The air behind them shimmered with transparent colors that fanned out like ethereal wings. The girls went by her, their colors brushing over her left side, and where they touched her, she tingled pleasurably.
Then one of the girls levitated. Laine’s mouth dropped open as the others floated into the air with their companion. Their laughter drifted back to her as they rose over the street and up to a balcony on one of the buildings.
She hadn’t wanted to believe that fairies were real. She still didn’t want to believe it, but she couldn’t ignore the evidence. Sweat broke out over her whole body. She had managed to dismiss Roan’s tricks her first night, mostly by trying to forget them. Floating girls with wings she could not ignore or forget.
The sense of being outside of her own body came over her again. All at once, her head seemed only tenuously connected to the rest of her, as if it were tethered by a thread that could easily break. Anxiety. It was just anxiety. Nothing to worry about.
She took a deep breath and walked on. A couple of gaunt women with ragged clothes approached. They moved with an eerie kind of grace, a smoothness that made it seem as if they were floating. As they neared her they smiled, cold eyes fixed on her. All their teeth were sharply pointed.
They turned their heads to study her as they passed, toothy smiles still in place. She sensed the same predatory intent in them that she had gotten from the Unseelies the night before. I always thought those notions I got were just my imagination. Do I have to take them seriously now?
Laine ignored them, although the hair on the back of her neck was standing up again. If she pretended confidence, they would leave her alone. She continued to tell herself that, repeating it like a chant.
When she had gone several blocks, she stopped to get her bearings. How did she know for sure that this was the right way? After all, it had been too dark to see much of anything that night and she didn’t remember where she had turned.
She noticed a large building, an old bank, that might be the place where she had seen the candle burning in an upstairs window. But hadn’t she turned a corner onto the hotel street right after the candle place? So this couldn’t be it. She rubbed her forehead. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea, after all.
Laine turned the corner at the bank, just in case she had remembered it wrong. Steps could be retraced, and this was the first corner she’d taken, so it shouldn’t be too confusing. The street on which she found herself looked much the same as the other one, however, and she had no better idea now if she were going the right way than she had before.
After walking up another block, she faced the fact that she saw nothing that she recognized. Clearly her plan to escape was not working. She had merely repeated her experience of the first night, when she had driven around the neighborhood in circles without finding a way out. It must be some kind of magic keeping her here.
Seven days ago – hell, even yesterday—she would have laughed at the idea of magic in the real world, and now she was considering it as an explanation for why she was lost. Laine pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead. She could not reconcile her present circumstances with the world in which she’d been raised.
She admitted to herself that her lingering doubts about the reality of the fairies had caused her to underestimate them. If she’d accepted their existence, she would never have been so cocky about leaving the hotel by herself . . . but how could she have known? The idea had been ridiculous until she had found herself confronted with those bizarre floating women.
Okay, time to turn around. Maybe she could get back to the hotel without being discovered. She turned and stopped short. Nothing looked the same. The street she had walked up had been wide and bordered with a mix of old wooden houses and larger commercial buildings, not cramped and dark like this one. Abandoned warehouses now loomed over her, their windows either broken out or boarded over with planks.
She looked over her shoulder to find that view changed as well. Now she had no idea where she was. I have really screwed up.
Laine swallowed hard. Her heart raced and her hands trembled, slick with sweat. Her mouth went dry. This was different, even worse somehow than the women with the shark smiles.
Well, she couldn’t just stand here and wait for someone to rescue her. She squared her shoulders and started off down the street. Show confidence. Make everyone think that she knew what she was doing. And she was confident that she would find her way back. Someone would give her directions, wouldn’t they? Yeah, right, Laine. Like they did the night you got here?
Maybe it was just her imagination, but she felt as if she were being watched. No, not her imagination. If the fairies were real, then she probably ought to start listening to her inner voice.
A tapping sound, followed by something being dragged, came from nearby.
She turned her head to either side. A bare sapling growing like a weed in the gap of a brick wall scraped against the rough surface of the building with a raspy sound. Just the wind. No sign of anyone, not in the windows or on the street. To all appearances, she was alone. Yet the feeling persisted.
Broken glass in brown, green, and blue littered the sidewalk. The musty, rotting-wood smell of the derelict buildings filled her nose even though she was outside. She kept her eyes forward so that she didn’t have to see her reflection in broken window panes, or the dark, empty spaces behind them. Everything would be alright. Everything would be fine.
Something moved in the building next to her, on her right. A soft thud came from the inside, then a scraping sound. Laine’s heart gave a little jump and she began to walk faster. She went up on her toes, picking her way between clumps of broken glass.
There it was again. Movement in the shadows of the building’s interior. The watcher was inside that warehouse. She tried to look at it out of the corner of her eye, without turning her head. Someone was pacing her. Someone human-like, but larger.
Surely whoever – or whatever – watched her from those dark rooms was only curious. Hungry. Not curious. Hungry. Immediately after this thought, Laine wished she had a gun. She had only the sketchiest knowledge of shooting, and she didn’t know if bullets would kill any of these creatures, but she wanted one anyway.
A misshapen gargoyle of a face appeared in one of the windows. It leered at her and then disappeared into the shadows. Shit. Oh, shit. That creature wasn’t simply curious. It wanted her for something. She left the sidewalk and moved toward the middle of the street, but it was too late. A lumbering figure charged out of an alcove and swiped at her.
Laine screamed and dodged. The creature’s hand snaked out with astonishing speed and grabbed her by the collar of her jacket. It began to drag her backward, toward the warehouse.
She struggled with her jacket buttons. If she could just get them open, she could wiggle out of the garment and get away. Her shaky fingers slipped off the smooth metal. Laine swore as she wrestled with the buttons.
If that thing got her inside the building, she would be doomed. She twisted in its grasp. It turned its ugly head to peer at her with bulging eyes. It seemed to be a male. One enormous hand came around to clutch her shoulder with grimy fingers. Then he picked her up and slung her over his shoulder.
He stank as noxiously as if he had never taken a bath. Laine gagged on the awful stench. He wore a ragged t-shirt, its color lost under layers of filth, and an equally dirty pair of jeans with the bottom third of the legs torn off. He chuckled in a coarse, deep voice as he started toward the warehouse with her.
“Watcha got there?” said a second, higher voice.
“Young female. Human,” her captor replied. He walked through a door that Laine hadn’t seen because it was hidden in the alcove. The gloom inside the building made it hard for her to see how big the room was, but the echoing sound of the creature’s footsteps told her that it must be enormous. It reeked of excrement and rotting food.
“Mmmm. I not eat human in a long time,” the second voice said, sounding almost feminine. The creature poked her in the buttocks and pinched her thigh. “Got a little fat, that make it taste good.”
Laine kicked out as hard as she could in the direction of the voice.
“Ow! It kicked me!” the higher voice complained.
“Bad human!” The one holding her smacked her on the butt so hard that it brought tears to her eyes.
“I pull off its head. Then no kick,” the female said.
A great hand with dirty, broken fingernails covered in chipped orange polish extended toward her head. She went wild, kicking and scratching like an angry cougar at the one that held her. Her elbow slammed into the creature’s face and it dropped her. She scuttled away across a floor littered with moldy food and empty beer bottles.
A weapon. She need a weapon, but what to use? Her hand fell on one of the bottles. With a flick of her wrist, she smashed it against the floor. She brandished the broken end at her attackers.
The two creatures looked as if they had leaped right from a book of dark fairy tales, the kind that had given her nightmares as a child. They both had wide, lipless mouths filled with sharp teeth. A battered and shapeless felt cap covered the male’s head. The female wore a pink sequined sheath dress, the side seams torn out to allow her to fit into it. A dark smear marred the front of the dress, and bits of fast food wrappers stuck out of her long, greasy brown hair.
Both of them grinned at her. They knew she didn’t have anywhere to go or any chance of escape. Roan, help! she thought, but of course no answer came. The female began to sing in a high, tuneless voice as they walked toward her.
Roan paused outside of Barrett’s door. He hadn’t been able to work on his search for the past seven days because of Laine, and he couldn’t ignore it anymore. No-one knew how long Tam would hold on. His time might run out any day.
The Big Man had ridden off with his boys and wouldn’t be back until late in the afternoon. This was Roan’s chance to find out if Barrett was holding the Shield in his rooms. He still didn’t want to be seen lurking outside his quarters, so he had to make this quick.
With his hand on the door, Roan reached through it with his mind. And something stopped him. Normally a wooden door such as this one would pose no real barrier to him.
He explored the blockage. It felt smooth, slippery, as if it were made out of highly polished metal. It had depth, thickness, strength. Roan had to admit that he couldn’t have created a better shield himself.
It was Amaki-made, that was certain. But who had done it? Barrett didn’t have this kind of skill or power, and the Unseelies had no sorcerers among them. He must have hired someone to come in and shield his quarters. Knowing Barrett, the outsider hadn’t left Unseelie territory alive.
Roan pushed all along the shield, from top to bottom and side to side, feeling for a weak spot. There wasn’t a single one. He gave the shield a brutal mental shove. Nothing happened. He formed his thoughts into a laser-like point, trying to drill or melt through the barrier. Still nothing.
Footsteps sounded in the stairwell. Crap. Roan retreated to the far end of the corridor to an unused room. When they left he would go back to work on Barrett’s rooms.
Only, they didn’t leave. He could hear the voices of at least three people in the corridor, raised in drunken laughter. Goddess, they were drunk already? Yeah, and apparently throwing a party in the hallway. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the peeling wallpaper.
Roan had searched the moldy old heap from top to bottom and found absolutely nothing. Galen had been deranged, yet Roan believed him when he said he gave the Shield to Barrett. The warding on Barrett’s rooms seemed to confirm that he was hiding something there, something he didn’t want to reveal to the others, but Roan didn’t know how he could remove the spell without tipping off Barrett.
Would it be better to give up the search and spend some time with his brother instead? He probably couldn’t do anything for Tam that the Red Dragon Clan wasn’t already doing . . . except, of course, to be his brother. Maybe his presence would bring some comfort to Tam, even in his comatose state.
What was the point of getting the Shield now, anyway? Once he acquired the thing, he’d have to leave the territory immediately to avoid being caught. If he went home now, however, he would have to leave Laine behind. As much as he might like to do that, he couldn’t. He had promised to protect her until the spell dissipated, and he must keep his word. He was in a dilemma that had no honorable resolution. Tam came first, but Laine would die if Roan left her.
Thinking of her reminded him that he had planned to go to her apartment and fetch some of her belongings for her. It was time to take better care of his prisoner. Maybe if she had some of her own things she wouldn’t feel so defensive and angry all the time. Or maybe it wouldn’t make any difference at all in her behavior – but at least he’d know that he’d done what he could for her.
Roan pulled her wallet from the inside pocket of his leather jacket. He’d stashed it there a few days before, after retrieving her things from the parking lot. He didn’t want her to know he had them. After all, she couldn’t use them until the spell ended.
He withdrew her license. In her photo she had the stunned deer-in-the-headlights expression that he’d seen on other driver’s license pictures. He discovered that she was twenty-eight and she supposedly weighted 125 pounds, which seemed about 10 pounds too heavy by his estimation. She must have lost weight since she’d gotten it.
He didn’t want to Walk the Between for something as trivial as a trip to her apartment, so he borrowed her car. He stopped in a drug store just outside of Unseelie territory and bought a couple boxes of condoms. Then, using the address on her license, he drove to her apartment, which turned out to be in a large, featureless tan building that needed a new coat of paint. It squatted on one side of the parking lot, unadorned with any kind of landscaping, a cheap and dreary place by anyone’s standards.
At the manager’s office, a man with a large beer-belly and a tight t-shirt opened the door, a giant soda in his hand. Behind him sat a desk piled with a sloppy mess of papers and the remains of a fast-food breakfast. The fellow looked Roan up and down rudely.
“What can I do for you?” he said.
“I’d like to pay the rent for number 209,” Roan told him.
“209, huh? That’s Laine Hamilton’s apartment. She’s two weeks behind, she tell you that?” The manager slurped at his soda. “You’re just in time, too. I was about to haul her stuff to the dump so I could get somebody new in there.”
“She told me. I’m going to pay through June.” Roan produced a checkbook from his back pocket. He didn’t have a real checking account, but nevertheless the check would clear. In centuries past, the Amaki had produced bogus money from items like fallen leaves and pebbles. Now they had magical checkbooks.
“That’s a lot of money,” the manager said. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Roan. “If you’re moving in with her, I need to know. She can’t have a roommate unless she notifies me.”
“I’ve got my own place,” Roan replied. “I’m just doing a favor for a friend.”
“A friend, huh? I didn’t know Laine had any friends. Nobody ever comes over to her place.”
Why am I not surprised?
The brass numbers on Laine’s door were tarnished. The nine hung upside down, dangling beneath the other two numbers like a drunken six. Inside, she had a beat-up blue sofa that looked as if she’d found it on the side of the road, flanked by plastic crates in lieu of side tables. Across from the sofa, another plastic crate supported a small TV.
An enormous poster in a black plastic poster frame dominated the wall behind the sofa. The picture was a close-up photo of a red rose, the satiny texture of the petals revealed in luscious detail. It was the only attractive piece in the room. She had no pictures of family or friends, no sign of any pets, and no other furniture in the living room.
The bedroom contained a double bed covered with a faded blue comforter, a small bookshelf crammed with books, and a dresser with chipped green paint. He opened the closet door. Chinos, polo shirts and inexpensive boxy suits in dull colors dominated her wardrobe, as if she were trying to appear completely asexual. He flipped through the items looking fruitlessly for something more appealing.
In the back he found a large black suitcase. He selected two pairs of pants and three boring shirts, folded them and put them into the case. On top of that he added a gray fleece jacket in case she was cold.
In the dresser he found her socks and underwear, all in white. White bras of the super-supportive armored kind, white panties, white knit socks. He opened another drawer.
Aha, something interesting. She had two mini-skirts, one in black stretch velvet and the other in dark blue denim, tucked into the back under some t-shirts. Next to them, in tight little rolls, were a couple of knit tops with deep necklines and some embroidered detail. Yeah, he wanted to see her in these.
I thought you didn’t want to see her at all. He told his inner voice to shut up. He didn’t like Laine, but he could still enjoy looking at her.
He packed all of his latest discoveries. They looked like the sort of thing Amaki women might wear. Some underwear, a pair of running shoes, and a pair of tall black boots completed his selections.
Laine tried to cover up her beauty, yet she still couldn’t resist buying some pretty things. She probably hadn’t even put them on since she had gotten them home. She’s ashamed of her body. Wonder why? A lot of women would kill to have a body like hers.
Some even had plastic surgery, paying someone to cut them in order to have breasts like Laine’s. Yet she didn’t appreciate herself at all, in fact tried to keep other people from knowing how she really looked.
His gaze rested on the bookshelves. On impulse, he threw some books into the case. All her reading material seemed to be either romance or historical fiction. He smiled as he imagined her reading these steamy novels, many of which had half-naked men on the covers.
One of them had a bookmark sticking out of its pages. He turned to that spot, and read. He licked her creaming core, his big hands keeping her hips still as she writhed and moaned. Roan almost dropped the book. Laine thought oral sex was too kinky and yet she put a bookmark right at this passage.
The page was dog-eared, too. He let himself open psychically to the energies attached to the book, and felt Laine all over it. She had returned to this page many times. Hmm. Maybe he would show her the section and ask her what it meant. Maybe. Or he might just act it out with her and ask her about it later.
With the suitcase packed, Roan headed into the front rooms. In her dining nook, sliding glass doors opened on a balcony overlooking the ugly parking lot. Laine had filled it with pots of winter-flowering bulbs. Crocus in white and blue, paperwhites, early narcissus in yellow and orange. She must love flowers.
He walked over to have a closer look. As he passed her kitchen, some papers on her counter caught his eye. The beige laminate was otherwise spotless and bare, so the paper stood out clearly. Roan glanced down at it.
It was a job evaluation. Reading it would be an invasion of her privacy. He shouldn’t. On the other hand, he could use some insight into her personality. No, it would be wrong. He needed to respect her, let her keep whatever boundaries she needed in order to feel safe.
In spite of his internal lecturing, his eyes traveled over the paper. The form had the name and address of a Portland hospital at the top. Laine’s position was given as office manager. Her supervisor had rated her highly in every area, and yet her final score was an “unacceptable”. Huh? That didn’t make sense, even for humans.
He picked it up. Holding the paper, he began to receive images of the day of the evaluation. He saw Laine arguing with her supervisor about the review, and then the supervisor telling her she was fired. A jolt of anger came through the paper and into him, as powerfully as if it had come directly from Laine herself. He set it back on the counter.
So, she’d been fired, maybe unfairly. She must have run out of money and been unable to pay her rent. Roan didn’t pay much attention to current human events, but even he had heard that the economy had slid downhill and the job market was terrible. With a dismissal on her record, she probably couldn’t find a job. No wonder she was so tense.
On the other hand, she might find it easier to get hired if she wasn’t so damned irritating. The guilt he felt for that thought surprised him. Why should he feel guilty? She was irritating. Maybe she can’t help it. Maybe there’s something going on with her that you can’t see.
He shouldn’t have been so hard on her. Anyone would be emotionally volatile if they were under the kind of stress she’d had in her life lately. In fact, she had actually coped rather well considering what a shock she’d had at finding herself in Unseelie territory.
Her little apartment seemed permeated with loneliness, though. She seemed to live in self-imposed isolation, without friends or family. Maybe she didn’t have a family.
He could find any information he wanted by psychically reading her belongings, but he resisted the urge. Rifling through her things and reading the job eval was enough of an intrusion. Besides, there was the option of simply asking her. He reluctantly contemplated the possibility. How did one ask a woman why she was so very difficult?
The mental call came through so clearly that he almost perceived it as a physical sound, as if Laine had whispered in his ear. He stiffened, directing his thoughts to her. Where was she? Had Barrett somehow gotten through Roan’s wards?
She wasn’t in his suite anymore. Roan followed the trail of her energy as it meandered all over Unseelie territory. She seemed to have left his rooms on her own, and had gotten confused by the spells laid on the neighborhood to protect it from outsiders.
He found her on the ground floor of an old warehouse a few blocks from the hotel, facing a couple of predators with nothing but a broken bottle for a weapon. Holy Goddess. Trows. Everything around him seemed to grow still and faded as he comprehended her danger. The trows would gleefully rip her arms and legs off before eating her for dinner.
By the gods. The little idiot had a talent for attracting trouble, and he was going to have to walk the Between in order to get there in time to save her.
Roan abandoned the suitcase. He stepped into the Between. The chilly fog of the intermediary world wreathed his ankles and obscured the ground from his view. In this place he had access to any spot on the planet, whether in the mundane or the spirit world.
He emerged in his suite and located the sword propped against the wall near the door. As soon as he grasped it, he stepped back into the Between. From the fog-world, he opened a portal to the trows’ lair, but he didn’t walk through it.
Still in the Between, Roan paused momentarily to study the situation. Laine crouched on the floor, holding two trows at bay with her improvised weapon. The trows stalked toward her, grinning. They knew she posed no threat to them; her broken bottle was merely an inconvenience.
Roan positioned himself behind the male trow and prepared to strike. While attacking from behind might be thought cowardly in courtly duels, he couldn’t afford to give the trow any advantage. Trows were vicious fighters, much faster and smarter than they first seemed.
Stepping from the Between, Roan reached around the stinking creature’s belly and sliced deep into his flesh. The trow roared. He turned, swinging out a heavy arm. Roan ducked under the arm and rammed his sword upward, through the trow’s abdomen and into its heart.
He yanked out his blade. He turned to engage the female. She had Laine by the hair, trying to lift her up by her scalp. The trow howled in an ear-splitting voice. She bled from the ankles and Laine’s bottle dripped blood. Laine slashed at the female trow’s hand, drawing another scream from her.
The trow dropped the human and faced Roan. Her wide mouth gaped, her lips drawn back from her pointed teeth in a grimace of pain and rage. Her panting breath gusted toward him and he cringed at the stench. She rushed him, swiping at him with fingers curled into claws. Roan hacked at her right arm, just below the elbow, and sliced it from her body.
She staggered. Blood spurted from the stump of her arm. As she wailed and grabbed at her injured limb, he drove the point of his sword through the trow’s throat. With a gurgling noise, she fell to her knees. Roan twisted the sword for maximum damage before he withdrew it from the wound.
Her bulging eyes stared up at him as she fought for breath. The blood at her throat frothed. She choked and shuddered. Then went still.
He looked away from the trow, at Laine, who was staring at the fallen creature with wide eyes. She still clutched the broken beer bottle. She looked up at him and blinked.
“How did you know? How did you find me?” she said in a strained voice.
“I heard you call for help and I searched for your energy signature.” He took a couple of steps toward her.
“But how did you get here so fast?”
“It’s called the Between. I’ll show you in a minute. First, I want to know if you’re hurt.” And if she was, it would serve her right. None of the Unseelies would have let her out of the hotel, so she must have tried to escape. By the gods, she was going to drive him completely mad before the moon ended.
She looked down at the bottle in her hand as if she had never seen it before. After a moment of staring, she tossed it to the side. “I think I’m okay,” she said.
“You tried to run, didn’t you?” Roan asked, irritation plain in his voice.
At least she had the grace to look ashamed of herself. She hung her head. “Yes.”
He wasn’t the least mollified by her tone. “For the love of the gods, Laine, what were you thinking? I told you to stay in the suite! Do I need to tie you up when I leave? Maybe I should get a pair of shackles for you, just to make sure you stay put!” By now he was roaring almost as loud as the trow had.
“How the hell was I supposed to know those things were out here?” she said as she pointed to the female trow. “You never told me to look out for the disgusting stinky cannibalistic whatever-those-are.”
“They’re called trows.”
“Okay, trolls, whatever. You might have warned me.” She gave him a furious glare.
“It’s trows, not trolls, and I shouldn’t have to warn you, damn it. I told you to stay in the suite and you should have followed orders,” Roan growled.
“I am not a dog, Roan. You can’t just say ‘sit’, and expect me to obey without question. Is that how your people treat women, like mindless animals? Because, let me tell you, I’m not accustomed to it.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and glowered at her. “Of course not.”
“Well, then don’t tell me to follow orders without an explanation.” She lifted a shaky hand to brush a curl from her eyes.
“I’m still furious with you,” he told her.
“I’m not too happy with you, either.”
Roan stood there in the reeking gloom of the warehouse trying to get his anger under control. Was she incapable of following directions? Maybe that was why she had really been fired. He’d like to strangle her. Or tie her down, as he’d threatened. At least then he would know where she was.
Her face looked pinched and ashen, even in the dark. She hugged herself and avoided meeting his eyes. Suddenly all he wanted was to drag her into his arms and hold onto her. Damn it. She was the most confusing woman in the world.
He started to run his fingers through his hair, then remembered that he had blood on his hand. Laine was right; he probably should have given her more information. Maybe then she would have made a more intelligent decision and stayed in his suite where it was safe.
He sighed and held a hand out to her. “Come on, let’s go home.”
Laine hesitated, then glanced around at the two corpses on the floor and shuddered. “Are we just going to leave them here? Shouldn’t we clean up?” she said.
“The other trows will take care of it. They’ll probably eat them for dinner.”
She gagged and clapped a hand to her mouth. “They really are cannibals.”
“Put your arms around me,” Roan said. “I’m going to take you through the Between, so don’t let go of me.”
Laine took a slow step toward him, then another. She hesitated. Then she extended her arms and set her hands on his waist. She still wouldn’t look at him.
Roan lifted her right wrist and repositioned her arm around him. He pulled her up against his body. She felt so small, so vulnerable there, that he bent his head toward hers and tightened his hold on her. He was going to keep her safe from now on, whether she liked it or not.
She turned her head and rested her cheek against his chest. “What is this Between thing? Is it dangerous?”
“It’s a dimension that exists between our world and the spirit world. Amaki use it to get from one place to another quickly, and it’s not dangerous as long as you stay with me. We can’t use it too often, though, because it takes a lot of energy.” He tightened his hold on her just to make sure she didn’t do something foolish during the journey.
Laine clung to Roan. She didn’t want to depend on him, but it seemed that she had no choice. Right now, she didn’t care if her clinging made her seem weak. She was beyond embarrassment. She just wanted to get out of this nasty place, get somewhere safe.
Roan took a step to the side, as if they were slow dancing, and the world seemed to shift around her. Laine shut her eyes, fighting the nausea that swamped her at the violent spinning sensation. It seemed as if they were falling, even though she could still feel the floor under her feet and they had only moved one step.
A second step brought another dizzy twirl, a lurch that she thought would surely make her give up her breakfast. “Oh, God, I’m going to throw up,” she whispered.
“It’s all over,” Roan said. His hand stroked her hair. “We’re back in the suite. You can open your eyes now.”
“I’m really going to throw up, Roan.”
Lifting her chin, he pressed his lips to her forehead and the pain in her stomach eased a bit, then vanished. She opened her eyes to find them standing in the center of Roan’s sitting room. Cold gray light came through the tall windows. The stench of the trows had mostly gone, except some of it seemed to have rubbed off on her clothes. She looked down at her front and grimaced at the smears on her jacket.
“I think this one’s a goner.” She retreated from him and began to unbutton it.
“That reminds me that I have something I need to get for you,” he told her.
“What is it?”
“I packed some things from your apartment. I was about to leave when I heard your call.”
She bit her lip. “How long will you be gone?”
“Maybe an hour. I need to pick up your car and bring it back here, so it depends on traffic.”
She began to shake again, all over, and she couldn’t stop even when she clutched her arms around herself. It must be a delayed reaction to the terror. “O-okay,” she stuttered, trying to be a good sport. “I’ll b-be f-fine.”
Roan pushed the jacket off of her and then drew her back into his embrace, rubbing his hand slowly up and down her back. “I won’t go until you’re ready.”
His body felt solid and strong against hers, and she wrapped her arms tightly around his waist, pressing her cheek to his chest. Her resentment toward him didn’t stop her from feeling safe in his arms or being grateful that he had listened to her distress call. If Roan hadn’t come to her rescue, she would be trow food by now.
The heat of him, the sound of his heartbeat against her ear, the stroking of his hand gradually calmed her until she stopped shaking. Laine held onto him anyway. Right now he felt like the only safe thing in her world. His high-handed attitude drove her crazy, but he had protected her, fought twice for her.
“I’m still angry with you, but I have to admit that you were really brave,” he said. “I could hardly believe it when I saw you trying to battle them with nothing but a broken bottle.”
“It was all I had,” Laine replied.
“You fought well. I’m impressed.”
For some reason, his praise started a warm glow somewhere inside her chest. She told herself that it shouldn’t mean so much to her that he thought her brave. Developing a silly crush on him was something she ought to avoid at all costs, for the protection of her own heart. They wouldn’t be together long, and she didn’t want to mourn the loss of him when they parted.
“I have something for you,” he said after awhile. He reached into his jeans pocket and withdrew a slip of paper, which he gave to her.
“What is this?” she said as she unfolded it.
“It’s your rent receipt.”
She studied the receipt, frowning, hardly able to believe what she saw. “But this says that you paid my rent through June.”
“Yeah. I wanted to make sure you had some leeway in case it takes longer than I think it will to get you back home,” he explained.
Her eyes began to sting. He doesn’t even like me, he treats me like crap, and then he does something like this. She didn’t know how to respond. Laine glanced up at him. “I – but I can’t pay you back. I don’t have any money.”
Roan smiled. “I know you don’t, that’s why I paid for you. It’s alright; you don’t have to pay me back. It’s fairy money, anyhow.”
“What does that mean? Is it going to disappear in the morning or something?” she said, recalling some of the fairy tales she’d heard as a child.
“No, it’ll be there, but I didn’t have to earn it. Money doesn’t mean a whole lot to the Amaki because we can generate it whenever we want, and it’s identical to the real thing.”
“Wow. You could wreak havoc on the world financial markets that way.”
“I guess we could if we wanted to,” he said with a laugh. The smile disappeared from his face when he looked down toward the floor.
“What’s wrong?” Laine asked.
Roan sank to his knees in front of her. “Your feet are bleeding.”
“There was broken glass all over the sidewalk and inside the warehouse,” she explained. “I didn’t even feel it when it happened.”
“You were probably too distracted by the fight to notice.” He brushed along the soles of first one foot and then the other. “No fragments stuck in your skin, that’s good,” he said, and made another pass over each foot. “That should take care of it.”
“Thank you, Roan.” She gave him a wobbly smile as he got to his feet. “That’s three times that you’ve healed me.”
“It’s the family business,” he said. Then he pressed his lips together as if he’d given her too much information. He bent his head and kissed her on the mouth. “Laine, I’m going to go now. You’re completely safe here. No-one can get into my suite without my permission.”
“Okay.” She would be fine. Roan’s suite was probably the most secure place in the neighborhood.
“I’ll be right back,” Roan told her.
He disappeared in front of her eyes, just winked out like a candle flame extinguished. Bizarre. They must have done the same thing when they left the trow’s den. She wanted to ask him about the Between, how it worked and what it was. If she’d kept her eyes open during the trip she would have caught at least a glimpse of it. Maybe he could bring her there again and show her.
Laine glanced around the room. So, he was gone. She was alone in the suite. She couldn’t suppress a shiver at the realization that she was on her own in fairy territory for a whole hour.
Don’t be silly. Nothing can get in here.
She felt cold and dirty. Grime covered her legs and feet, and her hands as well. In her skirmish with the trows, her skirt had suffered almost as much as her jacket. I need a hot shower.
Laine went into the bathroom. She removed her clothes and dropped them on the floor. Then she turned on the hot water. She’d have to wash her hair again, even if that made it frizzier, because it was probably as dirty as her clothing. And the thought of the filth in that warehouse being smeared in her hair made her want to hurl.
The hot water warmed her skin. She stood under the heavy spray for several minutes, just letting the warmth seep into her body. Then she tilted her head back under the stream with a sigh. God, that felt good.
Roan had two dark-green glass bottles in the shower, with labels in a language so foreign that she didn’t even recognize the script. When she’d first arrived, she couldn’t tell which one was shampoo and which one conditioner.
All of his bath stuff was scented with sandalwood, which she loved. It smelled faintly exotic, but not flowery. Almost spicy. She worked the shampoo through her hair, rinsed, then loaded it with conditioner. Her curls might be frizzy, but at least they’d smell good.
When she emerged, his rooms felt uncomfortably chilly. Laine shivered in the damp towel she had wrapped around her torso. It couldn’t have been this cold before she went in the bathroom. Could it? No, she would have noticed.
Her wet head felt almost icy, and the floor was so cold that it hurt to walk on it. She couldn’t be sure in the dim light, but she thought she could see her breath. Weird. Until now, his rooms had been cozy.
She opened the doors of Roan’s big armoire. Among the jeans, she found two pairs of sweatpants, one black and one navy. So he doesn’t always wear denim and leather. She put on the blue ones. They were way too long on her, but that was okay.
She added a black tee that came halfway down her thighs. Then she spied a long-sleeved dark blue shirt that buttoned down the front. The fabric felt like fine wool. Classic Pacific-Northwest. Maybe he wore it when he wanted to blend in with non-biker humans. She put it on and rolled up the sleeves.
The clothes muted the cold, but she could still feel it on her scalp and feet. She was about to climb into bed and pull the covers over her legs, when she heard a small noise in the front room. Just a little scuffing sound, like feet moving across the floor.
“Roan?” she called.
No answer. Her heart began to thump. No, it couldn’t be an intruder. Roan had the suite warded – he’d promised her she was safe here, and she believed him. Why would he lie? To prove to herself that there was no-one in the suite with her, she poked her head into the sitting room. And almost fell over.
There was a young woman standing next to the sideboard. How did she get in here? She wore a plain dark-colored dress with a high neck-line and a skirt that came to her ankles. Under the dress she had on a pair of button-up boots, the kind some people called granny boots, and over it she had an enveloping white apron. A stiff white cap perched on the top of her head.
She wiped at her eyes, as if she was crying. And there was something odd about her looks. Something besides the early-twentieth-century outfit. She seemed faded, as if some of the color had leached out of her. Almost as if Laine were seeing her in black and white.
Holy crap, she’s a ghost. As soon as the thought passed through Laine’s mind, the young woman turned her head and looked right at her. The ghost’s eyes widened. Then she faded, became transparent, turned to mist and disappeared.
Laine stared at the spot where she’d been. Her first ghost. Did she really see me, or was she looking at something else? The ghost had seemed surprised, almost startled, when she looked toward Laine.
Well, that probably explained the chill in the rooms. Weren’t ghosts supposed to cause the air temperature to drop? Laine shivered again. She went into the bedroom, climbed into bed, and pulled the blankets up to her chest. Maybe the spirit wouldn’t come back.
Half an hour later, when Roan returned, Laine was still huddled under the bed covers. She could hear him talking with a woman in the front room. Presumably not the ghost. The delicious scent of something meaty and savory drifted into the bedroom. The door shut and Roan came in, setting her big black suitcase on the floor at the foot of the bed.
He looked at Laine. She stared back at him. “It’s colder than Hades in here.” His eyes narrowed. “Are you alright? Did someone try to get in?”
“I’m fine.” She ignored the wobble in her voice.
Roan came to her, sat next to her. The warmth of his body came right through the blanket. It felt so good. Throwing herself into his arms would feel even better. But she wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing that she needed him. After her fight with the trows, she’d displayed all her weaknesses; she wouldn’t lean on him again.
He laid a hand over hers. “What’s wrong, baby?”
She gave him a brittle smile and tried to remove her hand. He wouldn’t let it go. “Can’t you read my mind?”
“I’m trying to give you your privacy. Tell me what’s going on.”
Laine tried to laugh. “I saw – I, um, thought I saw a ghost.”
“I’m not surprised.”
She blinked. “I was. I’ve never seen a ghost before.”
“Really? I’d think that with your abilities, you would have lots of experience in that area.”
Now he was teasing her, and she wasn’t in the mood for it. Laine frowned. “You’re not funny.”
“You didn’t know that you have psychic abilities?”
“No. I don’t.”
“Sure you do, Laine. That’s probably why you ended up in the territory. Most humans could never find their way in here, even if they wanted to.”
“But . . . . “ She rubbed her temples. “Alright, maybe I do. I just never wanted to believe in it. That ghost scared the hell out of me.”
“Was it a young woman dressed in a maid’s uniform?”
Laine nodded. He stroked slow circles over her hand with his thumb. “That’s Molly. She’s harmless. We think she committed suicide about one hundred years ago when the hotel guest who seduced her left her alone and pregnant.”
She winced. “That’s awful. The poor girl.”
“I tried to get her to move into the spirit world, but she’s not ready. And I suspect that all the Amaki activity around here gives her extra energy to stick around.”
“I thought nothing could get in here.”
Roan put an arm around her shoulders. She didn’t stop him. “It never occurred to me to keep Molly out. She’s no danger to us, and she doesn’t show up very often. Not above once a week.”
Laine turned to stare at him. “Once a week? I’m going to be seeing an apparition once a week?”
He smiled. “After the trows, I’d think that a ghost would be no big deal.”
“It gives me the creeps. I don’t like the idea of hanging around with dead people. God, I hate this magic stuff. I don’t know how you can stand living this way.”
His expression turned cool. “You’d rather be ignorant of what is really going on around you?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. I just don’t want to see ghosts.”
“Molly’s the least of your worries. Trust me, she won’t hurt you. She’s a gentle soul.” He pointed to her suitcase. “I brought you some of your things. If I didn’t get everything you need, I’ll go back for more.”
“Thank you. That’s very kind of you.” She gave him a smile.
“You need your stuff,” he said with a shrug.
Roan seemed to be such a tangle of contradictions, kind one minute and brusque the next. Would she ever understand him? She trusted him not to hurt her physically, but emotionally – well, that was another matter.
He reached over and caught the collar of her borrowed shirt between his fingertips. “I see you found something of mine to wear.”
There was something odd in his tone of voice. She looked at him sideways. “I was freezing and my clothes were dirty. Do you mind?”
His fingertips stroked the side of her neck. “Not at all. Let’s go into the front room and have dinner. I’ll start a fire.”
The food turned out to be an old-fashioned meal of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, carrots with real butter, salad, and apple pie for dessert. It was the kind of food she usually avoided because it was so fattening. She took a cautious nibble of the meatloaf and almost moaned with pleasure.
That was the best meatloaf she’d ever tasted. Just like the beer in the tavern. And the eggs and bacon. Everything they cooked seemed to taste more delicious than anything she’d had from a human kitchen. Laine ate every bite. Just don’t lick your plate. That would be embarrassing.
There came a knock at the door. She looked over at Roan, as her dinner seemed to curdle in her stomach. After everything that had gone wrong that day, the last thing she wanted was a visit from one of the Unseelies.
“It’s not one of them,” Roan said. “It’s a friend.” He rose and went to the door. She folded her arms across her chest and scooted as far back into the chair as she could get. Roan opened the door.
“Thorn,” he said. His voice sounded warmer than she’d ever heard it.
“Evening, Roan. Can I come in?”
The man who entered the suite was even taller than Roan and pale where Roan was dark. He had the golden, curly hair of a Renaissance angel and the sculpted cheekbones and kissable lips she had seen on so many other beautiful Amaki.
The two men embraced, clapping each other on the back. Then they kissed each other on each cheek. How very European. His woolen tunic looked European too, in a medieval sense. It came down halfway to his knees, with snug pants under that and calf-high boots that would have fit right in at a Ren Faire.
The visitor turned toward Laine. He stared at her with eyes as deep and green as a forest lake. She wanted to squirm. Instead, she lifted her chin and stared back at him, unsmiling.
“You took a human lover, Roan?” he said in a strongly accented voice.
“She’s under my protection while she’s in Unseelie Territory.”
“Is she. I’m surprised that you would care to protect a human.”
“Then you don’t know me as well as you thought you did,” Roan replied. “Laine, this barbarian is my friend Thorn, of the Red Dragon Clan. Thorn, this is Laine Hamilton.”
“I’m pleased to meet you,” Laine said. She didn’t sound pleased, and she didn’t care if Thorn noticed.
The blond made a sketchy bow in her direction. “I’m glad to make your acquaintance, Miss Hamilton. I apologize for my rudeness. But I am taken aback, Roan. You always said you would never take a human woman no matter how desperate you were. Grim will be furious.”
Roan gave his friend a wry glance. “I have my reasons, and they’re none of Grim’s affair.”
“I’m a charity case,” Laine said. “Roan only keeps me with him so the Unseelies don’t cut me into little pieces.”
Roan’s lips thinned. He shouldn’t look so annoyed. She was only telling the truth, and he probably would have told Thorn the same thing if the two men had been alone.
“Really,” Thorn said. “Well, just as long as it’s not permanent.”
What an ass. He oozed superiority complex. “Trust me, it’s anything but permanent. You won’t have to worry about me tagging along and spoiling all your Amaki fun.”
“Laine – “
“It’s okay, Roan. I think it’s important to be honest about these issues. Don’t you?” She got to her feet. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go in the other room and read for awhile.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Thorn said. “We’ll speak in Amaki for privacy.”
“Wow. How thoughtful of you,” Laine replied.
“We’ll speak in English so Laine can understand,” Roan said.
Thorn responded in a burst of Amaki. Roan frowned, made a slashing gesture, his voice rising as they argued. Great. Now she was coming between him and his close friend. She tried to interrupt them, but they continued to bicker as if they hadn’t heard her.
Laine stood. “Roan. Roan! Stop arguing and listen to me.” They turned their heads toward her. “Look, I really don’t care what you’re talking about, so you can use whatever language you want. I’m going to get a book and bring it out here. Talk in Amaki if you need to, just don’t fight because of me.”
Roan blinked. “I think you deserve some basic respect, Laine.”
“Well. Thank you.” Her face heated at the unexpected kindness, and she ducked her head to hide the color from the men. “I – um – I’ll be right back.”
When she returned with her book, Thorn had taken a seat on the sofa and Roan in the armchair next to him. They spoke in Amaki. Roan glanced up at her and smiled as she entered the room, then went back to his conversation. She hoped he hadn’t noticed her blush.
Then she curled up on the settee with one of the books he’d brought her, and ignored them for the rest of the evening. They didn’t seem to mind. The two of them continued yammering in Amaki until Roan got up and disappeared into the bedroom.
Thorn stared at her out of his forest eyes and said nothing, so Laine pulled a throw over her lap and prepared to ignore him. She pictured his face if she decided to pass the time by practicing her singing. He’d probably choke at her impertinence.
Maybe she should warble a few bars just to see if she could provoke him. He seemed like the type of person who might actually use the word impertinence in a sentence. Her lips twitched.
“You find me amusing, Miss Hamilton?” he said.
“Not at all,” she replied gravely.
“I can see that you and Roan have become close very quickly.”
She folded her hands. “I suppose we have.”
“He won’t be here in Unseelie territory forever.”
“I hope not.”
Thorn clasped his hands behind his back, causing the fabric of his tunic to stretch tightly across his well-developed chest. “He has other responsibilities to our people.”
What was he getting at? “Roan has explained some of that to me.”
“Are you aware that his brother Tam is the chief of Clan Tanais?”
“At the moment, Tam is . . . out of the country, and Roan’s ability to lead the clan is crucial to its survival.”
“And I’m sure that Roan is doing a good job. He’s deeply concerned about his people.”
“Our people have always been irresistible to yours. Many humans find themselves drawn into the Amaki world because of an overwhelming sexual attraction to an Amaki man or woman.”
And did all Amaki carry on conversations so oblique that no mere human could follow? If only Roan would hurry up and rescue her from this jerk. She gave him a stiff smile. “Many of the Amaki are extremely beautiful.”
“We look like humans, but we are not. Our needs, our priorities are different from yours.”
“Thorn, I’m not very good at taking hints. If you’re trying to tell me something, you should come out and say it.”
He raised one caramel-colored eyebrow in a gesture that reminded her of Roan. “Very well. I shall be blunt.” He took a step toward her. “You, Miss Hamilton, are not an appropriate partner for Roan Tanais.”
Laine’s mouth opened. “What?”
He frowned. “If you think to attach yourself to him permanently, you ought to know that our people will never accept you as his wife. You are a human. Roan needs an Amaki wife to give him full-blooded Amaki children.”
She tried to bring her scattered thoughts into focus. “Have you forgotten that he’s in the next room? He can hear everything you say.”
“I’m preventing our conversation from being overheard.”
One corner of his mouth turned up. “I am a sorcerer, Miss Hamilton.”
“Is that a synonym for asshole?”
A flush colored his pale golden skin and his lips tightened. “I’m trying to protect Roan and you. If I’ve offended you, I apologize.”
“Of course you’ve offended me. Maybe you’re trying to protect Roan, but I don’t think you give a damn about me. Not that I blame you. I mean, you don’t even know me.”
“I don’t need to know you personally to know that as a human you should not be joined with Roan. You must let him go. Any connection with you will cause trouble for him in the clan.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I think you’re confused. I don’t have any hold over Roan. Yeah, we’re sharing a suite, but he’s – – we’re not – – I have no claim on him. And I would never try to trap him.”
Thorn regarded her silently, still frowning as if he didn’t believe her. His face relaxed infinitesimally. Then he gave her a short bow. “I am relieved to hear it.”
“I’m sure you are.”
Roan emerged from the bedroom with his hair tied back in a ponytail. He looked from her to Thorn and back again, his brows knit. “What’s going on between you two?”
Laine’s face burned. The last thing she wanted to do was explain to Roan that he shouldn’t marry her. “We were just talking.”
“I was explaining some Amaki customs to your hostage,” Thorn added. Knowing him, he’d chosen the word hostage deliberately to remind Roan of her unsuitability.
“Hmm,” Roan said. He looked at his friend as if he could guess exactly what Thorn had been telling her. The blond Amaki lifted his chin. Roan came to her and bent down as if to kiss her on the mouth, but she turned her head so that he only caught her cheek.
“Don’t let him bother you,” he murmured. “He despises humans because they hurt him very deeply once. It isn’t personal.”
Thorn’s face turned a deeper pink. Then his face took on an abstracted expression as he pressed his fingers to his forehead. He closed his eyes. Laine glanced at Roan, who shrugged. He didn’t know what was going on either. Thorn’s eyes opened.
“Grim wants me back at the compound. I have to return now. Will you come with me, Roan?”
“No.” Roan shook his head. “I can’t leave without the Shield and Laine.”
Thorn pressed his lips together. “Very well. Good-bye, then.” And he disappeared.
“Do you think he really got a call, or was he just embarrassed?” Laine said.
“He did. I could feel it too.” Roan gazed down at her with an unpleasant glint in his eye. “And now that he’s gone, it’s time for you to learn what it means that I am your master,” he said.
Laine sighed in a way that suggested she didn’t mean to submit easily. “I get it, Roan, I really do. This place is dangerous and I have to cooperate with you.” She tried to return to her book, but Roan laid his hand on top of the pages.
She had a lesson to learn, and he intended to see that she learned it tonight. He picked up her book, closed it, and set it on the table. “You don’t get it, Laine. But you will.”
“Hey, I was reading that!”
“And now you’re not. Get up.”
She stared at him with an open mouth. After a moment, her eyes narrowed. “You may be protecting me, but you don’t own me.”
“As far as the Unseelies are concerned, I do own you. Now get up. We need to get this straightened out between us.”
She crossed her arms under her breasts. Did she have any idea what that did to him? The bulk of his woolen shirt couldn’t hide her lusciousness. He forced his gaze back to her face and found her glaring at him.
“There’s nothing to straighten out,” she said. “You need to quit bullying me. I thought we already established this. I don’t take orders from you.”
Here comes the hellcat again. “You’d better if you want to live.”
“Come on, Roan. Does Barrett really expect me to turn into a docile little sex toy overnight?”
Roan’s lips twitched at the thought of Laine turning docile. He suppressed the smile as he leaned forward, just a little, so that he loomed over her. “Not necessarily. But if you act up, he’ll expect me to do something about it.”
“If I act up? You’re treating me like I’m some brat you have to baby-sit.”
“Quit acting like a brat and I won’t treat you like one.”
She made an indignant sound. Roan did smile then. Slowly. He bent over her and braced his hands on the arms of her chair. Her heartbeat and breath came fast, and the scent of her arousal teased his nose. Did she think he didn’t know that she wanted him?
“Laine, if you can’t obey me then I’m going to spank you so hard you won’t be able to sit down for a week.”
She gave him a frosty look. “Shouldn’t we pick a safe word before we get into the kinky stuff?”
He leaned down even more, until his lips brushed her ear. “There are no safe words here, baby. Do you think Barrett gives his playthings a safe word so they can let him know if it hurts too much when he chops off a finger?”
“You’re not Barrett,” she said in a strained whisper.
“We have to convince them that I’m just as mean as they are.” He took her earlobe between his teeth and gave it a gentle tug. She smelled so damn good. He wanted nothing more than to undress her right here and take her on the chair. His cock throbbed in his jeans. “All I want you to do is acknowledge me as your Master while you’re here. If you won’t – “
She was shaking her head. “I can’t – “
“If you can’t, then I’ll have to restrain you. I can’t have you defy me in public and get away with it, Laine. They already think I’m strange and I can’t afford to raise more suspicions. This isn’t about you and me; it’s about the two of us versus the Unseelies.”
Roan shut his mouth before he blurted out his true reason for being in Unseelie territory. Part of him wanted to explain it to her, to help her understand the risks he took in protecting her. He simply didn’t trust her not to betray him.
She clenched her jaw and glowered at him. He didn’t really want to spank her, but he couldn’t let her continue this way. She was endangering both of them. For at least one full minute, they stared at each other until Roan shook his head.
“I can put a magical compulsion on you and force you to obey,” he said.
“Then why don’t you?”
He nuzzled the side of her neck. “Because I would rather have you comply of your own free will.”
“I told you I would cooperate,” she snapped.
“You’re going to have to do better than that,” he said. “For your own protection you will call me Master and obey me instantly. Now let me hear you say it.”
“That was the wrong answer. What do you say to me?” His voice had lost the amusement, was all hard edges now.
“Screw you, Roan.”
He scooped her up and dashed into the bedroom with Amaki speed, startling a gasp from her. She threw her arms around his neck as if she feared that he would drop her. And he did. He tossed her onto the bed, face down, and planted his hand on the middle of her back. Then, for good measure, he laid down over her to keep her from escaping.
“What are you doing?” she cried, wriggling frantically in an effort to escape.
The action almost made him come in his jeans. “Damn, that feels good,” he said. “Keep doing it.” She stopped instantly. Roan laughed. “I’ll let you go now if you call me Master.”
“Don’t make me do that. I promise I’ll co-operate with you.”
Roan fought the urge to grind his crotch against her ass. She felt so good underneath him, even better than she had last night. He wanted to take her in every way, every position, possible. His erection throbbed fiercely against the denim of his pants. The little minx would get herself killed if she didn’t accept his authority. He didn’t believe for one minute that she had truly decided to cooperate with him. She was just trying to get him off her case by saying that. As soon as he let down his guard or took her into the tavern, she would show her rebellion and he’d have to discipline her even more harshly than the last time.
She had her face turned to the side, but she wouldn’t look at him. He kissed her cheek, her ear, the corner of her mouth. Her neck. Her breath quickened in response. She was aroused by this, even though it frightened and infuriated her.
He could easily break her spirit and force her to comply with his every demand, but that was a kind of savagery he couldn’t condone in himself. Laine would survive it physically. Her mind, however, would be scarred by such rough handling. Somehow he must convince her to submit.
He moved to the side, rolled her onto her back. She watched him with troubled eyes. I am not going to let her make me feel guilty. He drew her head toward his and teased her soft lips with a kiss. After a moment, she opened for him and Roan took full advantage, thrusting his tongue into her mouth in a ruthless invasion. As he plundered her she whimpered, eagerly flicking her tongue against his, panting when he withdrew.
He tamped down on his own hard breathing. “I admire your spirit, Laine. But if you defy me in public, I’ll have to punish you in public in order to maintain my status in the group. Is that what you want? Do you want me to tie you up like an animal and beat you in front of the others?”
“No,” she whispered, as tears began to flow down her cheek. The sight made his throat tighten, and tempted him to drop his demands. No guilt, remember? He couldn’t ease up on her. He could not afford to show uncertainty.
“What do you call me, Laine?”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “Master,” she said, her voice barely audible.
“Good girl.” Roan kissed her lips. “You and I know this is just an act, but the others must never guess. Understand?”
“Please don’t hurt me,” she whispered.
He paused and pulled back, frowning. “I swear to you that I will never hurt you.”
“You threatened to hit me.”
Tears had turned her long, dark lashes spiky and wet. Her lips trembled and she blinked, rapidly. She looked young, vulnerable. Afraid. Roan dropped his head and closed his eyes. She’s playing you. Those are crocodile tears.
He raised his head. “I’m sorry, Laine. I lost my temper. I don’t think you understand how important this issue is.”
“Then tell me.” She wiped at her eyes.
“I can’t tell you anything more than I already have. Don’t push me on this. I want to keep you safe, but not at the expense of my own life.” There are too many others counting on me.
“I promise that I’ll pretend to be your slave.” Her voice wavered. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
What he wanted was to get her out of his life so he could think clearly again. She was having a dangerous effect on him, making him confused and conflicted. He couldn’t work on retrieving the Shield when all he could think of was Laine.
There was something else he wanted, something that had driven him since the moment he’d met her. He wanted to be inside her again, to feel her moving under him, listen to her little moans as he fucked her.
Her lips looked softer, pinker than they had the night before. Roan bent his head and brushed her mouth with his. Her lips moved, pressed against him. At least he knew that her sexual response was real. She couldn’t fake that, not with him.
You could find out anything you want to know, if you just read her. She wouldn’t even be aware that you were doing it. But that would be like raping her. And she probably would be aware, if he went as deep as he suspected he would need to get the information he wanted.
Laine wrapped her arms around his neck. She kissed him as if she were starving for it. He lost himself in the sweet, slick cave of her mouth, the taste of her, the softness of her curves against his chest. When he kissed her, touched her, he could forget that she hated him. Forget he resented her.
He skimmed his left hand over her rib cage, then down and under the hem of the shirt she wore. Under it, she had one of his tee-shirts. And under that, nothing. His hand slid over her tight belly and upward to palm her breast. She’d left off her bra.
The soft flesh filled his hand and overflowed. He traced lightly over the roundness of her. She gasped when he brushed his fingers over her erect nipples, so he did it again. And again. Laine quivered, moaning softly.
It wasn’t enough for him. He wanted all of her pressed against him, skin to skin. Roan withdrew his hand to unbutton the shirt she had on.
When they had both stripped, they came into each other’s arms and kissed again. Laine’s hands stroked him all over his back and shoulders, his neck, then down to his ass. She caressed, then hesitated, caressed and hesitated, as if she feared he would make her stop. If only she knew. If she stopped, it would probably kill him.
He took her nipple into his mouth and suckled her. His cock was so hard it was starting to hurt, and the way she arched her back and moaned beneath him only made it stiffer. Her fingers tangled in his hair. “I like the way you touch me, baby,” he murmured against her breast.
He longed to plunge himself inside of her, but he knew it still wouldn’t be enough for him. He wanted more of a taste. He sucked gently at the flesh of her neck, then harder and even harder, until she cried out.
She sighed as he kissed and petted his way down her torso. Yet she tried to pull away from him when he arrived at her thighs.
She must suspect that he intended to go down on her. He raised his head. “Laine, you don’t say no to me. I promised you that I wouldn’t hurt you.”
“But I can’t. I just can’t. Roan, please . . .”
“I read your book, Laine. I know you think about this.”
“What book? What are you talking about?”
Roan parted the petals of her sex and she squirmed under his inspection. “You left a bookmark at a sex scene in one of your novels.” He lowered his head between her thighs and gave her a delicate touch with the tip of his tongue. She gasped and shuddered. Roan chuckled. He licked her again in teasing little flicks that made her jump each time he made contact. Then he bent her knee, opening her even wider.
By the gods. She was even beautiful here. He hadn’t been able to get a good look at her the other times they’d been together, but he was getting one now.
Laine squirmed under his hands. “Please – “
He returned to licking her. At the slide of his tongue over her flesh, she bucked wildly. The scent and taste of her surrounded him, filled his consciousness, made him growl with ravenous lust.
He retrieved the condom he’d put in his jeans pocket earlier. She really had nothing to worry about, but he was willing to wear it if it made her feel better. He tore open the packet and put it on as she watched.
He used his forefinger to probe the opening of her sheath, and she cried out so loudly he thought the entire hotel population must have heard. Roan smiled. He worked his finger in her. And pressed his mouth to hers. He hoped she could taste herself on him.
“Damn, Laine, I want to fuck you so hard,” he said, then took her mouth again.
She whimpered against his lips. And spread her legs wide.
Roan mounted her. He spread her with his hands and fit his cock into her entrance, filling her with one thrust. They both yelled.
She felt even better now than she had the first time. He hadn’t thought that was possible. Slowly he pumped his hips into her hot, tight wetness. She threw back her head, eyes wide, and cried out in rhythm to his movements.
“Oh, please, yes, oh, yes,” she moaned.
Her core clenched hard around his cock, squeezing him, milking him, and she sobbed and dug her fingers into the bedding as he rode her. He heard his voice growling something in Amaki, telling her how beautiful she was and how good it felt to be inside her. Until his orgasm crashed over him and he gave a shout and filled her with wave after wave of his climax.
Roan held himself over her, breathing hard. Thank the gods she couldn’t speak Amaki. He’d talked all kinds of crap there at the end. I’ve got to learn to control my mouth. The last thing he needed was for her to think she had some kind of hold over him.
He withdrew, rolling onto his back. After a moment, he put his arm around Laine’s shoulders and drew her into his side. It wouldn’t hurt either of them to act like lovers for a little while longer. Besides, he didn’t want to let her go yet.
She laid her cheek on his chest. Then her arm came around him and she sighed. Roan glanced down. “Now what’s wrong?” Shit, he hadn’t meant for it to come out quite like that.
“It’s nothing.” She glanced up at him with a pasted-on smile.
“It doesn’t look like nothing.”
“Well, it is. Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Before Laine, he’d thought of himself as reasonably competent with women. He had women friends, was easy to talk to . . . of course, those were all Amaki women. Maybe there was something about the human mind that he didn’t understand, something that made it harder for him to relate to Laine.
Roan gave a deep sigh of his own. Three weeks. He had three more weeks with her, three more weeks to survive. Three more weeks to make things right between them.
Where did that come from? She would go home at the end of their time together, back to the human world, where she’d forget all about him. And he would leave Unseelie territory forever. His life would go back to normal. He didn’t need to make things right between them because there wasn’t anything between them in the first place. What he needed was to keep a certain annoying little human from getting under his skin and driving him crazy.
When Roan awoke, the room was utterly dark and silent. Something was wrong. It was too quiet.
He sat up in bed, listening. A whisper of noise came from some die-hard revelers downstairs in the tavern. Soft tapping in the walls from the building settling. Yet something was missing. He reached for Laine and found her gone and her side of the bed cold.
Maybe she was in the bathroom. He waited for a few minutes, but still heard nothing from inside the suite, so he got up and checked. She wasn’t there. His heart began to pound as sweat bloomed all over his body. If she had run off again, if she had made another escape attempt, he was going to . . . wait, there was a sound. It came from the sitting room.
He found her curled up on the settee, covered by the gray fleece jacket he’d brought from her apartment. Even with her knees drawn up to her chest, it barely covered her calves. Her feet and ankles stuck out from under the hem, and her left hand clutched the collar to her so that she wouldn’t drop it on the floor. She looked like she might fall off the sofa at any moment.
Her eyes were shut tight as she dozed. He crouched next to her, noting the streaks on her face. Roan reached out and brushed her cheek with his fingertips, feeling the wetness of her tears on his skin.
This time the tears had to be real. She didn’t even know he was watching her, so she couldn’t be trying to manipulate him. Good work, jackass. You made her cry again. He smoothed a wayward curl from her forehead.
His people traditionally took captives when they were at war, and even when at peace they took hostages. Roan himself had been a hostage for a few years, sent to live with an enemy clan as a guarantee of his own family’s peaceful behavior. The idea of becoming a hostage or prisoner was just part of life for the Amaki, or it had been until their numbers were devastated by the plague.
Laine, however, was a human being in a prosperous country where the exchange of hostages was an alien notion. She had so much pride that she couldn’t easily bend the knee. And she carried a huge chip on her shoulder. Poor kid.
She stirred, murmuring in her sleep. Her eyes fluttered open and she frowned as if she didn’t know where she was. Roan stroked her cheek again.
“What are you doing out here? You must be freezing,” he said.
“I couldn’t sleep.” As she sat up, she drew the fleece tightly around her shoulders.
He offered her a hand. “Come back to bed.”
She seemed reluctant to touch him. After a pause, she took his hand and followed him into the bedchamber. They climbed in together. When they were both under the covers, he put his arms around her.
“Laine, it’ll be okay. You’ll be fine as long as you stay here and don’t go wandering around,” he said as he rubbed her back.
“I know.” Her voice sounded muffled against his chest.
“The slave thing is just something we have to do for appearances. You know I don’t think any less of you for it, don’t you?”
“You could hardly think less of me,” she whispered.
Roan flinched. She had seen right through him, not that he’d gone to much trouble to hide his annoyance from her.
“I’m sorry I’ve been impatient with you. The spell should dissipate in another three weeks, and then you can go home. Your life will go back to normal.” She sniffed. Roan tried to see her face, but she hid from him. “What is it?” he said.
Laine only shook her head, refusing to answer.
“You don’t want to go home?” he guessed. Home to an empty apartment, no friends, no job. He didn’t blame her.
“It’s nothing, just stress. I’ll be fine.”
“You can tell me, Laine.”
“No, I can’t.” Her voice broke and she sobbed. Under his hands, her shoulders shook.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He wasn’t sure why he was apologizing, he only knew that this time it was for real, and not because it seemed like the right thing to say.
She put her hands on his chest and pushed.
“Stay with me.” He folded her more tightly against his body. Laine wriggled against him, still crying as she struggled to free herself. Suddenly she stopped fighting him and collapsed against him as ragged sobs tore through her.
His eyes stung. If only he knew exactly what she was thinking, feeling, then he might know how to help her feel better. She probably wouldn’t take kindly to the intrusion, though.
Roan settled for holding her and letting her cry. Her sobs sounded as if they might tear her apart. He stroked her hair, slowly, as he might stroke the flank of a wounded horse. Crooned to her in Amaki.
She wasn’t mean, she was hurting. Something about her psychic abilities . . . they made her vulnerable . . . she needed his help, not his condemnation. He kissed the top of her head. If she learned to control the way she received information, maybe she would be less defensive.
The sobbing faded. She lay quietly against him, her cheek pressed to his wet chest, her arms around his torso. Roan used his free hand to grab a handkerchief from his bedside table. She mopped up her face and blew her nose.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a wavering voice.
“I didn’t believe you. Did you know that? I thought you were a little delusional, talking about fairies and magic.”
Roan petted her hair. “Is that why you tried to run away?”
“I thought I could just walk out of the neighborhood. Stupid, huh?”
He tried to imagine events from her point of view. “You didn’t believe in magic before today. Did you?”
“Even after I demonstrated?”
“I guess I didn’t want to believe. I convinced myself it was my imagination, illusion, I don’t know.” She snuffled into the handkerchief.
“What changed your mind?”
“I – uh – there were these girls, naked girls, and they had see-through wings, and then they floated up into the air. I don’t know why that convinced me, but it did. And then the trows – and you appearing from out of nowhere – “
He continued to stroke and play with her hair. “So until today you thought I was some crazy bastard holding you prisoner for sex?”
“I’m not laughing, baby. You must have been terrified.”
“It was like a flashback from high school, only worse.”
Roan frowned. Surely she hadn’t been kidnapped before. Or raped. Gods. Maybe she saw him as a rapist. His stomach twisted at the thought. “What kind of flashback, Laine?”
She lifted her head and glanced at him. “I did some bad things when I was younger, and I never wanted to repeat them.”
“What kind of bad things?”
She looked down at his chest, where she was playing nervously with his hair. “I – uh – I sort of slept around. It was stupid, insecure kid stuff and I very much regretted it later.”
“How does sleeping around compare to what we have here?”
“You know. Sex without love. Sex traded for something else, like protection. I did that as a teenager, and when I realized what I was doing and what it made me, I swore I’d never do it again.”
“It sounds like you think you committed a crime or something. It was just sex, Laine.”
“But it was – oh, never mind. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I can’t understand if you won’t tell me,” Roan said. “What happened? Did someone hurt you?”
He found himself wanting to damage the imagined assailant. But Laine only shook her head. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”
Apparently he wasn’t the only one with trust issues. He cradled her against his body. Humans took a different view of sex than the Amaki did. They had many rules that made no sense to him. So what if a person traded sex for something else?
“I know you think I’m a bitch.” Her voice came out flat, weary. Roan blinked at the change of subject. “Everyone thinks that about me. Maybe they’re right. You probably won’t believe me, but I don’t do it on purpose.”
“I don’t think you’re a bitch, Laine. Maybe at first I did, but now I know you better.”
“So you don’t think I’m an ungrateful, nasty-tempered hellcat anymore?”
His hand stilled. “Did you take those words right from my thoughts?”
“Yeah,” she said in a small voice.
She was more psychic than he’d realized. “I had no idea you could pick up something that specific.”
“I don’t know how I do it.” Her voice was muffled against his chest. “Sometimes I just kind of hear a person, but in my head, not with my ears. Does that make any sense?”
“It makes perfect sense.”
“I can’t keep doing this, Roan. I don’t want to be a whore, even for you. I have to get out of here.” Laine tilted her head back to look into his face. “Couldn’t we break the spell somehow?”
If only it could be that simple. They could both walk away from this with minimal harm done to either side. “I wish we could. The only way I know of is to transfer the spell to me, and that process is dangerous. It’s hard on the captive and could make you sick. Besides, you’d still be bound to me for a month instead of to the Unseelies. You wouldn’t be able to go home, unless I followed you there. And I can’t do that.”
She was silent for a minute. “Can’t?” she finally said. “Or won’t?”
“I can’t. I have obligations. Responsibilities.”
She frowned at him. “You have responsibilities in a motorcycle gang?”
“I wish I could discuss it with you. All you need to know is that I have a good reason for being here, and I can’t dodge my commitments.”
Laine closed her eyes and sighed. She looked defeated. “I guess I can survive another three weeks.”
“You’re not a whore, Laine.”
Her lips trembled.
Roan cupped her face in his hand. “Listen to me. You’re a strong woman. You’re doing what you have to do – that doesn’t make you a whore. And I’m glad that I met you. I’m glad to be here to help you.”
Laine quirked her brow skeptically. “Yeah. Thanks. Look, it’s nice of you to try to comfort me, but I’ll be fine.” She scrubbed at her face and turned away from him. “I’m just a little overwhelmed right now. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” He decided not to push her. Instead, he snugged up behind her and wrapped an arm around her. Her body tensed. She was so proud; she’d probably shove him away and tell him to leave her alone. But she didn’t. She put her slender arm over his heavy one, cuddling it as if it were a teddy bear.
Roan squeezed her lightly. Then he did something he would ordinarily never do. He sent into her mind a suggestion to sleep.
In a few seconds, she drifted off. He lay there in the dark with her, as an unexpected sense of tenderness crept over him. It was true that he’d wanted to get rid of her, had only kept her around because he had an obligation to her. Now . . . now, he wanted to protect her, keep her safe. From trows, from Barrett, and from his own inadvertent cruelty.
She fit perfectly against his body. It had been many years since he’d spent the night with a woman, slept with a woman. He hadn’t had the time or the inclination to develop an intimate sexual relationship because of his clan and family responsibilities.
This desire to protect, even to cherish, felt unfamiliar to him, and it didn’t make sense. They didn’t belong together and never would. She hated magic, which meant, by extension, that she hated his people. Because magic was inseparable from their deepest souls.
As soon as he recovered the Shield he would leave, and she couldn’t follow him. She wouldn’t want to live with a man who saw and felt and spoke magic on a daily basis. If they stayed together, they would only tear each other to pieces.
This claiming business was going to cause him serious trouble. He couldn’t stay away from her and keep her safe, yet sharing a bed and sex with her was emotionally confusing for both of them.
He would be wise to separate their sleeping arrangements. He didn’t mind sleeping on the floor too much, and he had some extra blankets to make a pad. If necessary he could conjure another mattress. Maybe tomorrow night he would take care of that. Except he knew he wouldn’t.
The next day, Laine awoke from an afternoon nap and heard music. It sounded foreign. She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to remember if she had seen a radio or cd player in the suite. Maybe Roan had stowed it in the armoire? But so far she hadn’t seen any electrical outlets.
She had never heard anything quite like this melody. What kind of music was it? Something ethnic. She couldn’t place the country of origin. The sound came from the sitting room, so Laine got out of bed and went to the bedroom door. It was ajar. She opened it a little farther, and stopped.
The music came from Roan. He sat in an armchair, facing her with his head down so that he didn’t see her. The instrument he played looked like a lute. His long, graceful fingers moved over the strings with a quickness and agility that could only be described as superhuman. Surely no human being could play that intricately. It almost sounded like a duet.
As she watched and listened, he began to sing. He lifted his head, his eyes closed, a lovely and haunting melody coming from his throat. The tune seemed to have elements of Spanish, Middle Eastern and Northern European traditional music, an odd blend that shouldn’t have worked but did anyway.
She never would have guessed that he was so talented at something other than wringing orgasms out of her and killing things with his sword. For him to be a musician, like her . . . well, she couldn’t really call herself a musician. She just liked to sing in the car and the shower, but she did love music. And so did he, apparently.
Roan finished the song and looked up, frowning. When he saw her, Laine jumped back and shut the door, her face flaming. He wasn’t supposed to see her. She didn’t want to be seen watching him like some groupie, didn’t want him to know how she was starting to feel about him.
Get hold of yourself, Laine. He doesn’t care how you feel about him.
She went into the bathroom to brush her teeth. It would give her something to do, and maybe if she took her time Roan would go downstairs for dinner without her.
The way he’d come for her in the night, the way he’d held and comforted her, had brought up feelings for him that she didn’t want. Falling in love was not on her agenda. And Roan didn’t even like her.
What if she was pregnant by him? He wouldn’t want to be tied to her, she was certain of that. No, it had only been once. The chances were so low they weren’t worth fretting about. Her flow should have shown up by now, though.
Roan had been kind to her, tolerated her, but she knew better than to think that he would ever want more from her than sex. By the time the Unseelies’ spell dissipated, he would be thrilled to see her go. Four weeks was a long time to share a hotel suite, especially with a roommate who was more burden than friend.
Her situation was embarrassing enough without the added humiliation of falling in love with a man who had no use for her. It wasn’t love, anyway. It was just a crush.
She heard the bathroom door open, and turned to see Roan looking at her. “I’ll be done in a minute,” she said, her words incoherent because of the foam filling her mouth.
“I don’t mind if you listen to me, you know. I like to have an audience now and then.”
Laine faced the sink again, her cheeks burning. This was not a conversation she wanted to have. “Okay,” she said. She spit toothpaste into the sink. After rinsing her mouth, she added, “you’re amazingly good.”
Oh, God, I sound exactly like a groupie.
Roan smiled at her, and for the first time she saw genuine warmth in his eyes. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“I did. I’m in awe of you, actually.” And I should shut up before I make an even bigger ass of myself. She tried to cover her embarrassment by fussing with her hair. It was obnoxiously fuzzy this morning. If only she had some leave-in conditioner, or maybe some frizz tamer. What if she rubbed a little of Roan’s conditioner into it and left it? That might work . . . .
He regarded her solemnly for a moment. “I hope you’re ready for a performance tonight. When we go to dinner, I want everyone to see that you’ve submitted to me.”
She’d been able to avoid the others so far by having breakfast and lunch in the suite. She bit her lip. Knowing this moment would come and actually having to live through it were two very different things. She pictured the way the Unseelies would look at her, their smirks and sly comments, and her heart sank. Another hellish meal, a repeat of her first in the territory.
Laine straightened her back. She would survive it. Her submission was fake, just a role she was playing, not a reflection on her worth as a person.
“I need you to obey me no matter what I tell you to do.”
“I’ll tell you where to sit, what to eat, and I’ll have my hands all over you,” he said.
She imagined the scenario and decided she could handle it. Being pawed by Roan in public was nothing compared to fighting off a couple of hungry trows. “So, just like that first day, then.”
“Yeah, exactly. Try to look submissive. If I correct you, do whatever I say without arguing.”
Laine nodded. “Alright.”
“Alright?” he said, grinning. “We’re making progress. Now, go get dressed.”
“Your word is my command, O Great Master.” she said.
“Smart ass.” He gave her a playful swat on the rear. “Don’t be sarcastic downstairs, or I’ll have to discipline you.”
She put on her tightest pair of jeans, one of the low-cut knit tops he liked, and her tall black boots. He smiled at her as he opened the door and put his hand on her neck where it met her upper back. “Let’s put last night’s training to good use, beautiful,” he said. “Walk.”
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