As he helped her ease into the hot, bubbling pool, she was grateful for the steam that swirled between them. She’d just experienced the most magical moment of her life… but if the devastation on Hunter’s face was any indication, he didn’t feel the same way.
Not even close.
There was nothing like strained silence to make a male throw himself into mundane tasks with a vengeance.
While Aylin relaxed in the hot spring with a packet of blood, he built a fire, sharpened the weapons on a rock splashed with water, and sucked down his own nourishment. All the while, his dick throbbed and his balls ached, and what he wouldn’t give to let Aylin “help” him with that issue.
But he’d already risked too much by giving in to his desire to touch her and taste her, to watch her come apart in his arms. He couldn’t afford to create more of a bond between them. He was already dangerously close to entertaining idiotic fantasies – like running away with her.
And spending the rest of their lives being hunted by ShadowSpawn.
Brilliant, Hunt. That’s just effing brilliant.
“Hunter?” Aylin’s drowsy voice drifted to him as he tossed a stick onto the fire.
He didn’t look her way. “Yeah?”
“Tell me about growing up. Your parents. How you became chief.”
She couldn’t have chosen more uncomfortable subjects if she’d tried. Had anyone else asked about those things, he’d have told them to f**k off. But this was Aylin, the female who had risked her life when her sister wouldn’t, and she deserved answers to anything she asked, even the ugly things.
Sinking to the ground, he propped his back against the wall of the cave and slung his arms over his knees as he stared into the fire.
“My mother was a war prize.” Closing his eyes for a moment, he wondered if they looked as glazed as they felt. “My father took her when he killed her mate – BlackRiver’s chief.”
Over the crackle of the fire and the soft gurgle of the water, he heard her sharp inhale. “How did she handle that?”
“She was a warrior, and her clan followed the Way of the Raven, so she accepted her fate.” He smirked. “But that doesn’t mean she was nice about it.” The fights he’d witnessed between his mother and father had been vicious and sometimes violent. Pretty much how he imagined his union with Rasha would be. “My father made it worse by refusing to let her bring her two sons into the clan.”
“My father would have done the same thing. He wouldn’t want the offspring of another leader in his clan.”
Exactly. As harsh as it was, those children could grow up and, with the mother’s help, overthrow the clan chief. “It was a little more complicated than that,” he said. “The boys weren’t hers. They were her sister’s. Her sister was mated to the clan chief before my mother was, and when her sister died during the second child’s birth, my mother mated with their father and took over their care.”
“What happened to the boys? Your cousins, I guess?”
The water swished, and he finally risked a glance in Aylin’s direction. She’d moved to the edge of the pool and propped her arms on the smooth stone border. Her damp hair framed her face, and in the smoky firelight, she could have been a water nymph rising up to seduce him to his death.
What a way to go.
He tore his gaze away before he did something stupid, like join her in the pool. “They were sent to the Native American tribe of their ancestors. This was before the tribes separated themselves completely from vampires.” Since born-vampire children appeared human and had human needs until their teens, many tribes accepted them… until their inner vampires made an appearance, and humans became food.
Another swishing sound. “How long was it before you were born?”
“I was born exactly nine months after my father killed her mate.”
“He didn’t waste any time, did he?”
“No.” And Hunter could only imagine how not well that had gone.
More swishing and splashing. What was she doing in there? “Did your mother…”
“Did she resent me?” He stared up at the ceiling, hating going back to that time in his life. The clan had been such a dark place, its members little more than cavemen. “I think so. But she never treated me badly. She was just… distant. At least, until her sons reached puberty, and the tribe they were with kicked them out. They came to MoonBound, begging for a place to live.”
“Did your father allow that?”
He closed his eyes. “He left the decision up to me.” It had been a cruel thing to do, and Hunter often wondered if his father had done it out of cruelty or if he’d been trying to teach Hunter about hard decisions. Maybe both. Probably both.
Aylin uttered something under her breath. “That’s terrible. How old were you?”
“I was ten.” An infant, by vampire standards. “I sent them away.” He risked a look at her, expecting horror or pity or some equally awful thing, but all he saw was curiosity and patience. Still, he got defensive, maybe because he still questioned his decision. “I had no choice. If I’d let them stay, my father would have eventually killed them.”
“What did your mother do?”
A lump formed in his throat. Dammit. He’d thought he was past what his mother had done to him, but nope. Apparently, trauma was the gift that kept on giving. “She never forgave me. Decades later, I started questioning the way my father ran the clan. Most of the members were loyal to him out of fear, but a few felt the way I did, that things needed to change. So my father told me to take a hike and start my own clan. The problem was that a lot of the members wanted to go with me. Obviously, my father was… less than pleased.”
“What did he do?”
“He tried to kill me. We fought. He died.” Sounded so simple and clean, didn’t it?
But Hunter could never forget how, as years of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse boiled over during the battle, he’d become the very monster he’d sworn to avoid. And when he’d delivered the death blow, as his father lay bleeding out on the forest floor, he’d felt… satisfaction. And maybe a little joy.
Even now, he couldn’t shake the guilty pleasure of the kill, and he wished like hell Samnult had included a bottle of vodka in the supply kit. Drowning the shame was a lot easier than remembering it.
“And your mother?” Aylin asked.
“Like I said, she never forgave me. She undermined my authority, tried to turn members against me. I had to banish her. She left during a snowstorm, and I never saw her again.”
He finally looked over at Aylin again, and wished he hadn’t. She was still facing him, her arms propping her out of the water from the shoulders up, but now her lower half floated, her feet kicking gently in the water. Her firm, rounded bottom breached the surface, drops of water beading on her smooth skin. What he wouldn’t give to lick those beads away.
He wouldn’t stop there, either. He could still taste her on his tongue, and he wanted more. So much more, and he couldn’t have any of it.
Aylin was going to turn into a prune if she didn’t get out of the water, but despite the fact that she was in a dangerous land and she’d nearly been killed several times already, this was the most relaxed she’d ever been. She knew it was wrong of her to be enjoying her time with Hunter, but this was the first time any male had taken an interest in her, and she didn’t want to waste a second of it.
“Enough about my parents,” Hunter said, as he turned back to the fire. “Tell me about your mom. I know she was human when your father claimed her and that she died during childbirth, but that’s all I’ve heard.”
Okay, so maybe this wasn’t as enjoyable as she’d thought. “My father’s clan raided a railroad camp in the 1860s. They killed the men, kidnapped the women.” She pulled herself out of the water and wrapped herself in a towel. “You can guess why.”
Hunter nodded, the dancing shadows on his face emphasizing the disgust in his expression.
“Well, my father became infatuated with my mother, and he spared her life, keeping her captive long after the other women were dead.” Aylin had heard the stories over and over, from her father and from clan members who were nostalgic about the “good old days,” when vampires roamed freely, and their heinous acts could be blamed on the native human tribes. “Eventually, he turned her into a vampire, but according to some, she never really came around. By all accounts, she was the only thing my father ever loved.”
Hunter looked up, and she swore his eyes darkened as he took her in. “Do you believe that?”
Even his voice had gone dark and husky, and warmth spread across her already warm skin. He’d said he wanted her, and now that he’d shown her the truth of that, she could see it, plain as day. Guilt and pleasure rolled through her, mixing so thoroughly that she couldn’t latch on to one. He belonged to Rasha, but… he didn’t want her.
He wants me!
More pleasure. More guilt.
“I believe my father loves Rasha,” Aylin said, as she slipped into the filthy dress she’d worn all day.
“What about you?”
“He blames me for my mother’s death.” She snorted. “You know how followers of the Raven think. Second twin has an evil soul. And then, when I was born with a birth defect, it was a double whammy.”
“Maybe,” Hunter said from behind her, “that’s proof that he loves you. Followers of the Raven destroy the second twin and any child born with a defect. The fact that he didn’t —”
“Means nothing. He loved my mother, and before she died, she begged him to spare me. That’s the only reason I’m alive.” She turned back to Hunter, whose gaze burned hot, locked on her like a predator in the night. It was enough to steal her breath. To make her go liquid inside. To almost make her forget she had a sister who was waiting for him.
“I think there’s more to it.” Hunter stood, the magnificent muscles in his chest and abs flexing under skin that glowed in the light of the fire. “He risked a clan rebellion by sparing your life.”
“Are you saying you wouldn’t risk a rebellion for the female you loved?”
“I’d risk everything for the female I loved.” Hunter moved toward her, mesmerizing her with the beauty of his form. He stopped a mere foot away, close enough for her to smell the smoke and sweat on his skin. Close enough to make her mouth water with the desire to taste him. “Everything. Which is why I can’t fall in love.”
“Can’t,” she whispered hoarsely, “or won’t?”
For a long moment, he said nothing, but she saw a battle raging in his eyes, and she wondered if he was thinking about Rasha. It made her gut hurt. Just as she thought he wasn’t going to answer at all, he turned away and started for the pool, his thick hair swishing across his broad back as he walked.
“Does it really matter?” he asked. “The clan is my priority. Period.”
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t be happy.”
Halting in his tracks, he shook his head. “How could you have grown up at ShadowSpawn and still be so naive?”
“How could I grow up in ShadowSpawn and not hope and dream for something better?” Fantasies and wishes were what had kept her sane. Without hopes and dreams of a better life, she’d have died of despair a long time ago.
“Are you still hoping for something better?”
She crossed her arms over her chest, digging in. No one could take her dreams away from her. “Yes.”
“Then I hope you get it, Aylin. I truly do. But I learned a long time ago that hoping for something is a waste of time. I hoped for children. I hoped to mate with someone I loved. Now I just hope to survive the day tomorrow. We’ll see how that goes.” He worked on his belt, and she turned away as he dropped his clothing to the ground. “Get some rest. Maybe your wishes will work out better than mine.”
She doubted it, since she wished Hunter could be hers.
Hunter woke to the sound of something dying. He sprang from the blanket he’d shared with Aylin and bolted to the cave entrance. Again, he was careful not to step outside, but he didn’t need to go out to know what was happening. He could see the carnage very clearly from where he stood.
The weird thing was that the desert setting was gone, replaced by a lush jungle that could have been taken from the Amazon rain forest.
“What is it?” At any other time, Aylin’s drowsy morning voice would have made him hard as a rock. Right now, it only highlighted how very vulnerable they were going to be once they left the safety of the cave.
“I don’t know. But something really f**king big tore apart something else that’s really f**king big.”
She joined him, inhaling sharply when she saw the remains of a furry animal that had, when it was alive, probably resembled a carnivorous wooly mammoth. Its head sat on the forest floor, its blood dripping off broad leaves, its eyes glazed over but seeming to stare right at them.
Hunter turned to Aylin, wanting to shield her from the ugliness, but she sidestepped him and faced the blood and gore head-on.
“You don’t need to protect me, Hunter. I’m tougher than I look.”
He swept his admiring gaze over her. “Yes, you are.” She was so much tougher than he would have guessed when they’d first met.
Oh, sure, before the journey to this hellhole of a realm, he’d known she was strong, but her quiet strength came from her heart. She’d transformed since arriving, and even though her healed leg probably accounted for some of it, there was more to it than that.READ MORE >>