Guardian's Challenge [Dark Destinies]
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by Bronwyn Green
Category: Erotica/Erotic Science Fiction/Fantasy
Description: No good deed goes unpunished... When Neeve returns to the kingdom of Maelgwn to help a friend, she finds herself face to face with the man she ran from nine months ago. Before she fled, she'd promised a year of service to the Guardians of the Temple, and now that she's back, Asher, the Chancellor of Maelgwn intends to claim the remainder of that time. For almost a year, Asher has been searching for his consort, Neeve, who vanished without a trace. He wants her back where she belongs. In his bed. And a year won't be nearly long enough. When the pair ends up on a diplomatic mission, with another guardian accompanying, Asher finds his plan to claim her sidetracked by duty and torn by the obligation to share her with the other man for the duration of their task. With hearts and the future at stake, Asher and Neeve must find the power to believe, trust and love one another, not just for the moment but forever. But that might be more than either is able to give.
eBook Publisher: Resplendence Publishing, LLC, 2011 May
eBookwise Release Date: October 2011
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [168 KB]
Reading time: 107-150 min.
Her breath drifted across his cheek as she whispered his name. Turning toward her, he drew her soft curves against his body. Her lips opened under his, and he groaned at her honeyed warmth. He'd forgotten how good she tasted. He pulled her closer, needing her more than air, only to feel the rough scrape of wool against his skin. His eyes opened, and he stared at the tangled blanket on the empty bed.
Cursing, Asher, Chancellor of Maelgwn, pushed himself from his mattress and stumbled to the window. The waves, crashing on the rocks below, were as restless as he was. By the gods, he couldn't remember when he'd last slept for more than a few hours at a time.
He rubbed his hand across his eyes. That wasn't true. He'd slept when she was here. Grabbing a half empty bottle of mead, he tried to wash away the phantom memories. It didn't work. Just as it hadn't every other time he'd tried it. She'd been gone for nine hellish months, and he still woke with the taste of her on his lips.
Draining the bottle, he sighed as the moon sank lower in the sky. The alcohol didn't do anything to dull the dreams or the almost tactile recollections. He needed only to close his eyes to feel her soft, golden flesh against his. If he gave into the lure of memory, the sensation of her long, silky hair would slide across his arms and chest--inky-black, cool against his skin.
He'd never responded so completely to another woman. Even now, his cock ached with the lack of release only she could give him. His hand drifted to his erection, and he gripped it, stroking upward but quickly abandoned the action. No matter how many times he came, he'd never find the release he sought until he was buried so deeply inside her neither one of them could move.
It wasn't that he didn't have available women--there were plenty. He just didn't have the one he wanted. The one he needed. Since she'd vanished--run away, he amended--he'd been living like a gods' forsaken eunuch.
An insistent knocking pulled him away from the window and his memories. Tugging on his braes, he crossed the room and opened the door. A disheveled temple consort stood with her fist raised, ready to knock again. Dropping her hand, she straightened her slumped shoulders. "The overlord requests your presence to assist the midwife. Lady Elizabeth is having trouble passing the child."
"What would I know about birthing babies?" But concern griped him. If any harm came to the overlord's mate, the man would be inconsolable. He wouldn't wish that hell on anyone.
The consort stared at him through sleep-deprived eyes. "The midwife insists that you help."
Stifling a sigh, he grabbed his shirt from the foot of his bed, tugged it over his head and followed the young woman down the hallway. When the overlord beckoned, it was Asher's duty to go.
A kernel of worry sprouted in his gut. If anything happened to Elizabeth, he didn't know how his friend would cope. It would probably be much the same as Asher coped without Neeve--living a half-life and sleeping very little. He thought again of his dream. The sensations had been so real. For the last week, he'd felt as if he'd find her around every corner of the keep.
He scrubbed his hands over his eyes willing himself to focus on the issue at hand. As Maelgwn's chancellor, he needed to help his overlord, Micah Bleddyn with whatever he required. Normally, it involved anticipating and preparing for the next Caderyn attack. But Micah was his closest friend--more like a brother. Whether it was driving the Caderyn invaders from their shores and making Maelgwn a safe, thriving country or helping to birth the overlord's heir, he'd assist his friend in whatever way he could.
Since Micah had inherited the position of overlord a year ago, Asher's life had been thrown into chaos. Of course, with the changes Micah's rule had wrought, so had everyone else's. The changes were for the best. And they were changes Asher imagined Neeve would approve of--if she knew of them.
It was hard to image she wasn't aware of them. The proclamations had been spread from border to border. Even if some people had a hard time adjusting to the idea of women being allowed to use magic without fear of punishment, they had at least heard the edict. Had she?
Neeve. The woman haunted his dreams and nearly every waking moment. Though she'd run from him, he'd foolishly allowed himself to believe she'd return upon hearing the news of the former chancellor's demise. Bitter amusement twisted his lips. Just because the despot she loathed was dead, it didn't mean she wanted to return. Perhaps, she'd known she'd be unlikely to get away a second time.
Asher sighed. He wouldn't have kept her here against her will--at least, he didn't think he would have. He just wanted the year of companionship she'd promised when she'd first arrived at the temple. Instead, he'd had her for a few weeks. A few days never would have been enough to satisfy his need for her. If events had followed their original course, the novelty of Neeve would have worn off with time, and he would have moved forward with his life. Now, he was trapped in obsessive worry and wondering.
He'd sought her for months, searching every village, every outlying homestead, everywhere he thought she might have gone. He'd even infiltrated as many Caderyn camps as he could find, fearing she'd been captured. He'd found no trace of her. It was as if she'd vanished into the mist.
He'd know if she were dead. He was sure of it. His magic was too powerful for it to be otherwise. So how did she manage to keep her location a secret? Not for the first time, he wondered if she had powers like the overlord's mate. If so, what else had she hidden from him while they'd been together?
Pushing aside the unwelcome thoughts, he followed the consort through the dimly lit stone corridors, stopping in front of the heavy door that led to Micah and Elizabeth's chamber. An anguished cry came from the room beyond. The hair on his nape stood on end, and his stomach twisted with nerves. The consort entered the room, leaving him standing alone in the hallway.
If you're here to help her get in here--if not, leave now! Micah's voice sounded in his head.
Swallowing hard, Asher pushed open the door to find his friend's features pinched with sweat beading his brow. His normally brown skin appeared grayish. Another cry sounded, and Micah turned away from him and crouched by his mate's side.
Asher moved into the room and momentarily froze in place. At the end of the bed, knelt the woman he'd been desperate to find. For the briefest of moments, she met his gaze, her beautiful brown eyes wide. Her sharp gasp hit him in the stomach like a fist. He wanted to cross the room and pull her into his arms. He wanted to breathe her in so deeply she'd fill the gnawing emptiness inside him.
Just as quickly, the moment was over. She turned from him to focus on the task at hand, murmuring encouragements to the laboring woman. Her sweetly husky voice wound around his senses. That same voice haunted his dreams, but instead of soothing whispers, his dreams were filled with memories of her impassioned cries.
Every muscle in his body urged him to spirit her away--to keep her to himself. As if she sensed his thoughts, her gaze darted toward him but slid away just as quickly at her friend's sound of pain. He glanced at Elizabeth. Sweat matted her deep red hair to her head, and her pale body strained with the effort of bringing another life into the world.
For a horrible moment, he imagined Neeve struggling like that. Terror settled like a rock in his gut, and he suspected he looked nearly as pallid as Micah did.
Alinore, Micah's grandmother, shuffled to the doorway and peered up at him. "Either leave, or make yourself useful."
Neeve whirled to face him, her expression frantic. "Can you do anything for her pain?"
He almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation. For months he'd imagined conversing with her--demanding answers for the hell she'd put him through. This was a topic of discussion he'd never considered. Elizabeth's whimper brought him back to the situation at hand, and he stepped inside the room.
"I don't know," he admitted.
Neeve's hopeful expression faded.
Determination gripped him. He moved to the far side of the bed and placed his hands on Elizabeth's heaving belly. This was a far cry from the last time he'd shared this bed with Elizabeth and Micah.
His friend smoothed his mate's hair from her face and whispered reassurances to her. Briefly, his gaze clashed with Asher's. "Help her," he begged.
Asher closed his eyes and tried to focus. He had no healing abilities, but perhaps he could manage something. Power raced along his limbs and centered in his hands. In careful increments, he released it into Elizabeth's body. Under his touch, her breathing slowed and the grimace of pain faded from her face.
"Don't stop," Neeve demanded from the foot of the bed.
He glanced at her in surprise. When he'd last seen her, she'd been so sweet and innocent--eager to please. Now, there was an edge to her he didn't recognize, but it intrigued him nonetheless. She'd grown harder, more sure of herself. She seemed older--not in a haggard, used up sense, but in a more worldly way as if she'd come into her power. And perhaps she had. What had she been doing? What had she been through since she'd been gone?
"We have to turn the babe," Neeve said, returning him to the present.
She motioned him closer. Alinore joined Neeve and together they pushed on the rigid lump under Elizabeth's skin. Her body shuddered under their hands, and he increased the flow of power. Finally, the babe twisted into position, and Neeve returned to her post at the end of the bed.
"Release her," Neeve ordered. "She needs to push."
He withdrew the energy from Elizabeth's body. After what seemed like hours, he watched in horrified awe as the child slipped, wet and howling, into Neeve's hands.
He'd never seen such a beatific smile on her face. The sight of it made his chest ache, and for a moment, he let himself imagine her holding their child. She met his gaze, and her expression faded. Turning from him, she tied and cut the cord, before wiping off the baby.
She'd dismissed him. Well, she'd tried to, but it didn't matter. Now that she was back, he wasn't letting her go again. Not until he'd had his fill of her.
Ignoring Asher's probing gaze, Neeve cleaned the blood and fluid from the crying child. No matter how often she witnessed this miracle, it amazed her each and every time.
Today, more than ever, she thought about the baby she could have borne Asher if she'd stayed.
Guilt clogged her throat. She'd been so stupid. So blinded by her misery over leaving Asher, she hadn't recognized the signs for what they were.
She'd thought she'd gotten over the pain, but his presence today brought back the sharp memories of loss--loss of the child and Asher. Blinking back tears, she wrapped Elizabeth's newborn daughter in a soft blanket and laid her in her mother's grateful arms. The joy in her friend's expression was contagious.
"She's beautiful," Elizabeth whispered, awe tingeing her voice. She met Neeve's gaze. "Thank you."
Micah stared at his daughter and reached to touch her tiny hand. The utter fear in his eyes was almost comical. A fierce warrior brought low by a crying infant. Much like her mother, this little one had no trouble speaking her mind. Neeve couldn't stop the grin that spread over her face. Without meaning to, she sought Asher with her gaze. It was a mistake. He watched her like a hawk circling its prey, making it nearly impossible to look away.
His deep green eyes glittered with frustration, and he dragged his fingers through his long, chestnut-colored hair. Her fingers itched to follow the same path. She'd loved playing with his hair after they'd--
It was best not to think of that. It wouldn't ever happen again.
Busying herself with the afterbirth and cleanup, she kept as far away from him as she could. It wasn't easy. He hovered nearby, clearly waiting for an opportunity to speak with her. She glanced at him beneath her lashes. Judging from his expression, he wanted more than a conversation. A flutter of anticipation fanned through her womb as her body clenched with remembered need. Even now, she had to convince herself not to rush into his arms, though that was the only place she wanted to be.
Unbidden, memories assailed her--his eyes burning with desire as they bored into hers. The play of his warm hands on her body. His firm lips coasting over every inch of her flesh. The nearly unbearable friction of their bodies as he pounded into her.
Desire pooled low in her abdomen, and she bit back a groan.
With a sigh, she reminded herself that she'd done the right thing by leaving. She was nothing more to him than a temporary slave. His consort. A convenient vessel for his seed. And if he had discovered her powers...
She knew that the overlord had changed the laws to protect women with magic, but she hadn't been willing to risk it. It wasn't that she didn't trust Micah--she did. But she didn't trust the other men of Maelgwn to follow the edict. Nor did she trust Asher's response. She doubted that he would have been angry that she'd had the abilities, but he would have been furious that she'd hidden them from him. He'd wanted her body and soul.
To be fair, she'd been content to give him everything he'd wanted. She'd been insatiable for him. But no longer. She was more than a woman with an available womb. Her life was her own. She would no longer be a slave to his passion...or hers. Now, if only she could convince her body of that.
Setting aside her wayward feelings, she looked at Elizabeth. Curled in her mate's embrace, she and her newborn child had fallen asleep under his protective gaze. A pang of sadness and envy closed Neeve's throat. Even if she'd stayed with Asher, they never would have had the love Micah and Elizabeth shared.
Her post as a temple consort had been merely to provide sons for the temple guardians to train in the magical arts. Men in Asher's position didn't mate for life. If she'd learned anything since her flight from Maelgwn, it was that she wanted more than he had to give her.
He'd been a kind and generous lover, but he'd always hidden his emotions behind the stone wall of his will. She knew his body, but she didn't know him. It wasn't enough.
She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. This rigidly coiled irritation was the biggest emotional response she'd ever seen from him. She squelched a smile of satisfaction. It was about time something spoiled his composed demeanor.
Turning from him, she gathered her belongings. It had been a long labor, and she wanted to rest before returning to Hafan. Glancing at Asher once more before she left, she saw him push off the wall he'd been leaning against. Determination lit his eyes and tightened his features as he stalked toward her. He was across the room before she could take two steps. The need she'd thought she'd quelled flared to life at the hunger in his gaze. Gripping her wrist, he pulled her out the door.
She gasped at the sensation. It was such simple contact, but his hand on her skin seared her. Perhaps, it was because she'd craved his touch for so long.
"Your duty to the overlord is finished. It's time to fulfill the rest of your obligations."
Neeve tried to tug free of Asher's grasp. He couldn't possibly mean what she thought. Refusing to let her leave, he pinned her against the corridor wall. His hands on either side of her shoulders caged her between his outstretched arms. Leaning forward, he closed the distance between them, his fierce gaze leaving her breathless.
"Where the hell have you been?" he growled.
She swallowed past the lump in her throat and tried to answer. "It doesn't matter."
Anger darkened his eyes, and she could almost feel the desire coursing through his body. "The hell it doesn't."
As difficult as it was to do, she fought the hunger rising within her. "Release me."
A cold smile curved his lips. "No."
"No?" Anger displaced some of her desire. "I am no longer your consort."
"You owe me a year."
Rage burned through her veins. "I owe you nothing!"
He shook his head, and his gaze dropped pointedly to her breasts then returned to her face. "Yes. You do."
She shoved at his solid chest, her effort fruitless. "Go to hell."
"Where do you think I've been?" Without warning, his lips descended, capturing hers with a near growl.
She released the breath she hadn't realized she'd held, and his tongue slipped past her shocked defenses. For a moment, she lost herself in sensation--the remnants of mead on his lips, the rough stubble of hair on his chin, the hard planes of his body against hers. Yes. This was where she wanted to be--in his arms.
His hand splayed through the hair at her nape, loosening the strip of leather that kept it from her face, and his lips trailed an urgent path along the column of her neck. Her fingers fisted in his tunic, and she pulled him closer. How had she lived so long without this? Without him? Just as quickly, she remembered how, and more importantly, why.
She tried to twist from his grasp. Tightening his fingers in her hair, he raised his lips from her skin.
"Let me go," she demanded.
He shook his head.
"I'm not the same person I was when I lived here." She needed him to see reason.
"It doesn't matter."
"It does to me." Anger tightened her muscles. She'd hurt him if she had to. Drawing her knee upward, she prepared to bring her foot down on his instep.
Sensing her intent, he shoved his leg between hers, bringing his thigh to rest against her mound. Her breath left her body on a gasp. More intense than ever, the aching empty sensation clawed through her body, and she fought the urge to beg him to take her here and now.
Hardly daring to lift her eyes, she met his gaze. His mouth curved in predatory satisfaction, and her stomach sank to the hewn stone floor. Her response hadn't gone unnoticed.
"You still want me," he murmured, his breath hot against her ear. He let his hand slip from her hair to trail over her shoulder and settle at her waist. His thumb brushed over her ribcage, under the swell of her breast. She tried to squirm from his hold, but the motion only served to heighten her awareness of their intimate position.
"No," she choked out. "No, I don't."
Raising an eyebrow in disbelief, he slid his hand upward and cupped her breast. Her nipple hardened under his palm, and a gratified smile curved his lips.
Neeve fought the shudder of need that coursed through her at his touch. It was heaven to have his hand on her again. She wanted to rip away the cloth that separated their skin, but she refused to give him the pleasure of knowing how he affected her. Pressing her lips together, she glared at him.
What might have been amusement flitted through his eyes before they turned flat again. His hand dropped to her hip, and he began to gather the fabric of her skirt, inching it upward. "If I touched you right now, you'd be wet for me."
It wasn't a question--the arrogant lout. The worst part was that he was right. As soon as he'd kissed her, desire had dampened her folds. She wanted nothing more than to have him inside her. "Touch me, and I'll hurt you."
His lips twitched, but he kept bunching the fabric, intent on baring her skin.
She struggled harder, not wanting another reminder of the bliss he could give her. She'd spent far too many nights lying awake with nothing but cold memories to comfort her, and she doubted she'd survive leaving him a second time.
His callused fingertips reached her thigh, and she fought the shudder that threatened at the contact. As he crept closer to her core, apprehension twisted her stomach. She couldn't let him touch her. Still trying to break free of his hold, she sank her teeth into his upper arm.
Asher's eyes narrowed, growing darker--more intense. He moved closer and brushed her ear with his lips. "You're going to regret that, cariad."
Releasing him, she met his gaze and swallowed thickly. "Probably."
The word ended on a gasp as his hand brushed across her damp curls. He held her gaze with his own. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't look away from the carnal promises in his eyes. The shudder she'd stifled earlier raced through her as he unerringly found her center, parting her folds with his finger.
"You're so wet," he breathed.
Her hands curled against the heated planes of his chest. She closed her eyes and melted against him as he stroked her needy flesh. He lowered his lips to hers, and she opened willingly beneath him, drawing his tongue into her mouth. He kissed her as if she were the sustenance he needed to survive. All the while, he continued to slide through her wetness, occasionally brushing his thumb across her swollen clitoris. She arched against his hand, powerless to stop the motion of her hips. She wanted him inside her so badly the emptiness hurt.
His mouth left hers to trace the line of her jaw, down the side of her neck. The sensation of his rough cheek against her skin drove her fingers into his hair, and she dragged his lips to her breast.
Tugging the loose fabric of her bodice aside, he bared her left breast. Her nipple puckered under his scrutiny. The tightening flesh throbbed as his breath coasted over her bare skin. Without warning, his mouth closed, hot and insistent, over her aching nipple.
Unable to stop the moan that escaped her lips, she tightened her hands in his hair and pulled him closer. He suckled harder, accommodating her wordless pleas. It was as if she'd never left him. Their bodies remembered each other and strained for more.
Using his free hand, he palmed circles over her other nipple. It pebbled through the fabric, hardening further as he plucked and twisted it. Need pulsed through her creating an invisible line of connection from her breasts to her womb, and she wanted more.
She should push him away. She should fight the drugging pull he had on her. She should, but she couldn't bring herself to do it.
Just when Asher had feared he'd never see Neeve again, she'd reappeared in his life. He sucked harder on her nipple, rage and fear warring with his need for her. Now that he had her back, he wouldn't ever let her forget she belonged to him.
He watched her battle for control of her responses. Her thoughts shone clearly on her beautiful face. Refusing to let her further question the heat between them, he slipped a finger inside her tight channel. Trembling, her breathing harsh, she tightened around his finger, and he fought his own tremors, aching to be inside her. He added a second finger, and she convulsed around him, closing her eyes and biting her lip to keep from crying out.
"You're wishing this was my cock filling you," he rasped, watching her face as he spoke.
Increasing the speed and depth of his thrusts, he slipped his arm around her waist to support her shaking legs. She clung to his chest, her lips parted as she gasped for breath.
She shoved harder, pushing against his hand, seeking the release she so desperately needed. The release they both needed. His cock ached to be inside her, to feel her snug channel gripping him.
"You're so tight," he whispered against her neck. "Have you been saving yourself for me?"
He watched her eyes. Had she missed him as much as he'd missed her? Had she dreamed of him? Had she realized no other man could give her everything she needed?
A sheen of sweat clung to her upper lip as she ground herself against him, refusing to respond to his question.
Though it nearly killed him, he withdrew his hand.
She whimpered at the loss.
"Answer me," he grated. "Have you fucked anyone else?"
"Please," she croaked, her throat raw.
He still wanted her. Her answer wouldn't change anything--anything other than the size of the hole in his heart.
Holding her gaze, he lifted his glistening fingers to his lips and drew her essence into his mouth. He fought the groan that welled in his chest. So much better than he remembered, but he still longed to taste her juices directly from her skin. To hear her scream as he brought her to the edge over and over.
Eyes bright with need, she watched him savor her cream. He traced her trembling lips with his damp finger as he drew her closer, his erection prodding her hip. Dropping his hand, he dragged his fingers over the sensitive crease where her thigh met her torso.
"Has any other man filled you?"
She swallowed hard and shook her head as he skimmed her mound with his knuckles.
"I didn't hear you." He lightly pinched her clitoris before withdrawing his hand again.
"No." The word was ripped from her throat.
Using fingers, thumb and mouth, he took possession of her body and quickly brought her back to the teetering peak of release. Her cunt rippled around his fingers as she caught his rhythm. He suckled her nipple, reveling in her desperate, sobbing gasps as he drew on her.
Her climax seemed to hover just beyond her reach. Her body strained toward it. Strained toward him. He released her breast and pulled back to watch her. It had been too damn long. He wanted to see her face when she came. Tears squeezed from the corners of her eyes, and her lips moved but issued no sound. It looked as if she mouthed, "Only you, only you," but he couldn't be sure.
He played his thumb across her throbbing clit, drawing her need higher.
"Come for me, Neeve," he commanded.
Looking into his eyes, she began to shudder uncontrollably, clutching at his arms. Her keening cry echoed through the empty corridor and his aching body. Only sheer will kept him from spilling in his braes. He wouldn't allow himself release until he was buried inside her supple body.
Gasping, she slumped against him. Slowly, he withdrew his hand and gathered her in his arms. "No. You don't want me at all," he murmured against her hair.
Neeve stiffened and tried again to pull away. He shouldn't have taunted her, but he couldn't seem to let the tender moment last. He was too raw--too close to admitting how much he needed her.
Blinking, she straightened her dress, hiding her beautiful breast from his view. He felt her withdrawal in every level of his being, and he refused to let it go any further.
"I have work to do," she muttered, refusing to look at him.
He lifted her chin and forced her gaze upward. "We're not finished."
She stared at him, incredulity coloring her features. "Oh, we're finished. We've been finished for months."