“No!” Aylin snarled, her fangs flashing, her blue eyes flaming. “I… need… to do this.”
Blood streamed down her face from a gash in her temple, and he was pretty sure her left arm was broken, but she managed to close her fingers around the sharp end of a time-bleached bone. With a roar, she twisted her body and stabbed the bone beneath the creature’s fingernail as its hand closed on her ankle.
An eerie shriek shattered the air. The hand released Aylin, but another burst through the rock, and then a massive snout punched upward. Almost in slow motion, a skeletal creature with the head of a vampire bat began to pull itself onto the bridge.
The creature lunged, catching Aylin’s foot in its gaping maw. Blood poured down the thing’s chin as Aylin screamed in agony. Another raw scream joined hers, and he realized it was coming from him.
Hunter had felt helplessness before… as a child witnessing his father’s harsh punishments leveled against enemies, clan members, and even Hunter’s mother. Later, as an adult, he’d learned that there were a lot of things out of his control, but he’d never accepted powerlessness well.
But this… this was worse than anything he’d ever experienced, and as he prepared to release the post and fail the test, he reluctantly accepted the fact that he wouldn’t be having children. He wouldn’t sacrifice Aylin’s life – or that of any child.
He was going to help her.
“Hold on!” he shouted. “I’m coming!”
“No!” Somehow Aylin summoned the strength and willpower to smash her good foot into the beast’s snout. It jerked back in surprise, yanking her with it. She used the momentum to plunge the sharp bone deep into the creature’s soulless eye.
The sound that emanated from the beast had surely been dredged from the deepest trenches in hell, and Hunter swore he felt the very air around him shudder. Aylin, her arm hanging at a wrong angle and both of her feet mangled so badly he didn’t know how she could walk, let alone run, managed to leap away from the beast and dash, tripping and stumbling, to the end of the bridge. The moment both feet crossed the threshold onto solid earth, she dropped. Hunter cried out in both relief and fear, released the stone, and rushed to her.
Terror made his voice crack as he hit the ground on his knees and pulled Aylin’s trembling body into his arms. “You did it. Holy shit, you kicked that thing’s ass.”
“I told you,” she moaned.
“Dammit, you could have died.” He brushed her hair away from her eyes, being extra careful where it was stuck to her skin with blood – some of it belonging to the creature but most of it hers.
“I was supposed to have died at birth,” she rasped. “Every day beyond that is a gift. If I die today, I still would have lived decades longer than I should have.”
His heart quivered. There was something very special about this female, and the more time Hunter spent with her, the more time he wanted to spend with her.
She was nothing like Rasha.
A sinister tingle spread across the back of Hunter’s neck like a rash, and a heartbeat later, Samnult materialized a few feet away.
“Congratulations,” he said, all cheery and shit. “Nearly a fifth of those who take this challenge fail.”
Hunter had to clench his teeth to keep from lashing out at the demon’s casual attitude. “Did they fail because they released the post or because the monster killed the female?”
“There’s not always a monster.” Sam shrugged. “Every trial is different. They’re all tailored to what the female fears most.”
“Really?” Through the pain glinting in her eyes, Aylin glared. “Because I’ve never been afraid of a giant hand popping out of the ground to grab me before. But hey, thanks, now I am.”
At Aylin’s flippant response, Hunter casually shifted to shield her from the demon, but to Hunter’s surprise, Sam merely laughed. “I was skeptical about Hunter’s choice of companion for this quest, but I see I might have been wrong.” He sobered, seemingly lost in thought. “Or not. Whatever. On to the next test.”
“She’s in no condition to continue.” Hunter gently probed her distorted arm, doing his best not to hurt her. She trembled, but she didn’t make a sound as he palpated the bulge midway down her humerus. She had what Nicole would call a closed fracture, but all it would take was one wrong move, and one end of the broken bone would puncture the skin. And her feet… holy hell, how had she walked on them? The right foot had to be crushed, and the left ankle was shredded along with the bloody boot. “She needs time to heal.”
“Time?” Sam shook his head. “There is no time. The humans are knocking at your door.”
Alarm, sharp and stabbing, shot through Hunter. “We’ve only been here for a couple of hours —”
“Not in the human realm. It’s been days.”
Hunter sucked air between his teeth. Days? Shit. “Send me to the next test. Let Aylin rest.”
“Does an injured elk rest when the wolf is nipping at its heels?”
How did the demon know Hunter liked to spout that particular bit of Cherokee wisdom now and then? He wouldn’t do that anymore. It was annoying as shit.
“Then give us a few minutes so she can feed.” He held Aylin tighter in an attempt to calm her shaking body. Her pain radiated from her in tangible waves, and he ached to give her the kind of relief that would only come from taking his blood. She wouldn’t heal fully without rest, but at this point, anything would be better than nothing.
“No.” Samnult snapped his fingers, and in a flash of light, Hunter was ripped away from Aylin and left standing a few feet away, as she threw back her head and screamed.
Agony ripped through Aylin as the bones in her arm, ankle, and foot shifted around, grinding together like someone was sharpening them against one another. Searing pain tore into her muscles and skin, and for a brief second, she wondered if she was being flayed alive.
Distantly, she heard Hunter’s voice calling her name, but she couldn’t see him… couldn’t see anything. The world was a black hole of misery, and she was free-falling.
She didn’t know how long the torment went on, but gradually, the pain faded away, and bright light and Hunter’s handsome face filled her field of vision. She wobbled as the earth beneath her solidified. Hunter reached out to steady her, but his hand on her biceps wasn’t needed. She found her footing quickly and, amazingly, without pain. In fact, she felt no pain from any of her injuries.
“You’re healed.” Hunter gazed at her in astonishment. “All of your injuries are gone.”
She looked down at herself, and sure enough, all evidence of her being attacked by a giant, clawed hand had vanished. Every cut, scrape, and broken bone had healed, and even her clothing had been repaired. Not a trace of blood remained.
“How are you feeling?” Hunter’s touch lingered, as if he wasn’t sure of what he was seeing and was afraid she’d keel over at any moment.
“I feel fine.” Actually, she felt great, almost as though she’d slept for twelve hours straight. “Where’s Samnult?”
“No idea. He must have taken off while you were going through that healing process.” Hunter looked out across the sandy landscape, which was yellower in color than the last place they’d been. A green oasis sprouted out of the sand, and in the very center was a lake of the bluest water Aylin had ever seen. “Now, if we can just figure out what he wants from us in this test, we’ll be set.”
Hunter started toward the water, but she’d taken only a dozen steps when she realized something was off. The ever-present dull ache in her right leg was gone. She stopped. Squeezed her leg from hip to knee. No tenderness, no knotted muscles under the skin of her thigh. Her fingers probed deep, and her heart stuttered.
Her femur… dear Great Spirit… the bone… it was straight.
Afraid her fingers were deceiving her, she extended her leg and stared at the new profile. Her heart pounded in anxious, spastic bursts as she held her eyes wide, convinced that if she blinked, the next thing she’d see would be the curve in her thigh bone and a twist at the knee.
“Hunter,” she gasped.
He swung around, his body coiled, his fists clenched, ready to strike at whatever had alarmed her. “What is it?”
“I…” She swallowed as tears flooded her eyes. “I’m healed.” She moved toward him, and for the first time in her life, she didn’t limp. For the first time, she walked without pain.
He stepped closer, as if concerned that she’d lost her mind. “Yes, I know.”
“No, I mean… I’m healed. My leg is straight. It doesn’t hurt. I’m not limping.”
He blinked. Glanced down at her leg. A huge, broad smile spread across his face, and Gods, he was beautiful when he did that. “That’s amazing.”
Emotion clogged her throat. For the first half of her life, she’d prayed to any god who would listen that she would be made whole. Eventually, she’d realized her prayers wouldn’t be answered, and she’d given up on even fantasizing about a life in which she was normal. In which she could escape the bonds of the savage Ravengelical clan life. Her wishes had morphed from wishing for a fully functional leg to simply surviving.
Now… now she could dream again.
Sheer, undiluted joy sang through her, and without thinking, she threw herself at Hunter, wrapping herself around him in a fierce embrace.
“I can’t believe it.” Her raspy voice barely broke above a whisper. “When I was a little girl, I used to fantasize about this, but I never thought it would happen.” And she’d certainly never thought she’d find herself in the arms of a powerful, handsome male afterward.
Hunter pulled back, and his black eyes took her in, growing more intense as they stood motionless. Her body became increasingly aware of the fact that they were plastered together, and as if someone had lit a match, tension ignited, the same kind as before, when they’d been in the cabin, and later, at the portal.
Oh, this wasn’t good.
Or maybe it was too good.
“Yeah?” His voice was low. Gruff. Sexy as hell.
His lips were so close to hers that she could feel their heat, and she realized she’d gone up on her toes to get closer. She was such a fool, but at this moment, she was the happiest she’d ever been, and she wanted to share that happiness with the male responsible.
“Thank you?” He cocked his head to the side, as if confused. “For what?”
“For bringing me here,” she said. “Even if I don’t make it back to our world, I’ll still have known what it was like to be whole for a little while.”
She’d also have known what it felt like to be with a male, to reach that ultimate peak of pleasure she’d been denied her entire life.
Hunter had given her that.
She didn’t think. Didn’t hesitate. For once, she let impulse reign. Stretching upward, she kissed him. If he was startled at all, he didn’t show it. He kissed her back, taking control with practiced ease. He was gentle with her, so not the male she’d seen putting down poachers with ease and grim satisfaction. She followed his lead, kissing him awkwardly but eagerly, opening up when he flicked the tip of his tongue between the seam of her lips.
His tongue delved inside her mouth, and heat licked between her legs. She inhaled sharply, unaccustomed to such a sudden, demanding sensation. But she wanted more. So much more.
And she couldn’t have any of it.
All her life, she’d known her duty to the clan was to mate with whatever male her father arranged for her, and Hunter wasn’t that male. Worse, Hunter belonged to Rasha.
This was wrong, and it didn’t matter that it felt right. Felt right all the way to her lonely soul.
Abruptly, she broke off the kiss and tore away from him. The sight of him standing there, his bare chest glinting in the sun and heaving from the intensity of the kiss they shared, only made her want to plaster herself against him again. She ached to strip down to nothing and let his skilled hands touch her all over. Even though he hadn’t taken her virginity, he’d taken her through her salisheye and awakened desires within her that she hadn’t even known she possessed.
“What’s wrong?” Concern hardened his expression, and his lips, glistening from their kiss, curved into a scowl.
“What’s wrong?” She threw up her arms in frustration. “You belong to my sister.”
He snorted. “I despise your sister.”
“But that doesn’t change anything. You’re still hers.”
Reaching behind him, he rubbed the back of his neck. “Then why did you kiss me?”
“I was excited. I got lost in the moment.” Boy, had she ever. But the kiss hadn’t been one-sided, and she narrowed her eyes at him. “Why did you kiss me back?”
“Honestly?” He dropped his hand to his side. “I don’t know.”
Ice filled her chest. That wasn’t exactly what a female wanted to hear. Then again, she couldn’t think of a single answer that would have put her at ease. But hearing that he was attracted to her would have been nice. Even if it had been a lie, she’d like to hear it. Just once.
“Don’t worry,” she said stiffly. “It won’t happen again.”
His nasty curse burned her ears, but if he had been planning to say something else, it was lost in Samnult’s sudden appearance.READ MORE >>