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by Jaide Fox
Description: Which one's the real beast? The abusive husband who tried to kill her? Or the gargoyle, Nightshade, who not only saved her life, but taught her something she had never known...passion? Nightshade is a Reissue. Originally published by NCP in the Anthology Phoenix Rising I.
eBook Publisher: New Concepts Publishing, 2006 2006
eBookwise Release Date: June 2012
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [88 KB]
Reading time: 56-78 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
The chill blast of air that cut through Bronwyn's thin nightrail penetrated her pain and fever induced stupor sufficiently to heighten her awareness of her surroundings. Both of her eyes were swollen nearly shut, however, and it took an effort to pry her eyelids up enough to see anything.
She wasn't certain when she'd succeeded. It was dark, too dark to see much. After a few moments, though, she realized light filtered from the sky above from a sliver of moon and a million stars and she saw just enough of her surroundings to realize that they were on the ramparts of the castle.
"She was melancholy over the loss of my son ... our son," William muttered, correcting himself. "I should have realized how despondent she was, especially after the mid-wife told her it was unlikely she would conceive again, but...."
Sudden fear added to the chill gripping Bronwyn from the constant battering of the frigid wind that whipped her thin nightrail around her, and confusion. The fear was instinctual. In the months since she had been dragged to Raventhorne Keep as Lord William Smythson's unwilling bride, he had taught her true terror.
His mutterings confused her, though.
Gathering her strength, she lifted her head, peering around them.
They were alone.
Who was he talking to, then?
What was he talking about?
He, more than anyone, should know she was not particularly despondent about losing his child. He could not help but know she loathed and feared him. Moreover, she had not simply 'lost' his child. He had beaten it from her when he had flown into one of his terrifying rages a week? Two weeks ago?
"I would have stopped her if I had had any inkling what she was about, locked her in her chambers."
He stopped, apparently thinking that over and, despite the pain and fever that so filled Bronwyn's mind that her ability to reason was severely hampered, it dawned on her why he had dragged her from her sickbed.
She was not dying fast enough to suit him. In fact, the healer had informed him only that morning that she was recovering.
He dropped her so abruptly she didn't have time to cry out before she slammed into the hard stone floor of the battlements. The sharp intake of breath she'd sucked in to scream was forced from her lungs with a harsh grunt at impact. The pain that had been her constant companion since the beating, swelled, overwhelming her mind for many moments. When it began to subside, she realized that William had left her. She could hear the crunch of his boots against the stone as he paced the perimeter of the battlements.
"Here, I think, would be best. The body will be found right away--nothing to break the fall. It should be high enough."
Grunting with the effort, Bronwyn managed to roll enough to search the ramparts for William. She saw that he was standing with his feet braced wide, his hands on his hips, staring down at the view below the front entrance of the castle.
Terror pushed her pain and fever wracked mind into cognition. He was going to throw her from the castle walls.
Weak as she was, adrenaline surged through her, lending her the strength to begin struggling to her feet. Blackness threatened to engulf her as she managed to get to her knees. She fought it, blinking her eyes to clear her vision as she searched for some avenue of escape.
Ignoring the pain and the threatening blackness, she began to crawl toward the stairs that William had used to reach the ramparts. She was so focused on her attempt she didn't notice when his fingers tangled in her hair until he snatched her head back so hard a bone in her neck cracked.
"Bitch!" he snarled, twisting his hand in her hair and dragging her off balance. The friction of stone against her bare legs as he began dragging her burned like fire.
Uttering a whimper, Bronwyn reached with both hands to grab his, trying to pry him loose. "No!" she cried out.
He uttered a snarled curse and stopped dragging her. The moment the pain eased on her scalp, Bronwyn ceased pulling at the hand in her hair and began raking it with her nails. He released her abruptly and slapped her, sending her slamming into the stone floor again.
Stunned, she couldn't even struggle as he grabbed her and hauled her roughly to her feet. "Claw me again and I will break your fingers," he growled. "No one will notice broken fingers when every bone in your body is broken from the fall, and I will not bear marks that have everyone wondering if I threw you over."
"Why?" Bronwyn gasped weakly as she felt him shift her weight and begin carrying her toward the crenellations again. In teeth gritted silence, she struggled for her life with every ounce of strength she could muster, hanging limply so that he bore all of her weight, prying at the arms that gripped her bruisingly.
He snorted. "Why not? I've no use for you anymore. I have your paltry landholdings and even more insignificant wealth. I've a fatter pigeon in mind ... but first I have to be a widower."
He was breathing heavily by the time he'd reached the parapet with her, but Bronwyn knew he still had more than enough strength to lift her over and pitch her to her death.
Defeat swelled over her as she realized she had nothing to barter with. Gathering the remnants of her strength as he shifted his hold on her to lift her, she began fighting him, uttering animal-like noises of fear, anger and distress, too caught up in trying to break his hold even to consider screaming.
He broke her hold each time she managed to secure one, lifting her inexorably toward the point of no return in spite of all she could. Almost as abruptly as her battle had begun, it ended. He ripped her clawing fingers loose from his tunic and she felt her stomach lurch as her body dropped.
Flailing her arms wildly, she clawed the air for purchase. Miraculously, her hand struck stonework, curled instinctively. Pain shot through her shoulder, elbow and wrist as her body dropped, almost snatching her grip loose. Dazed, terrified, she dimly realized she'd managed to catch a tenuous hold of one of the gargoyles that guarded Raventhorne Keep's entrance. Uttering little sounds of fear and effort, she swung briefly, trying to find purchase with her free hand, trying to ignore the burning in the hand and arm that had given her a few more moments of life. "Please," she gasped breathlessly, hopelessly, tearfully. "Help me. Please."
"Bitch!" William snarled above her, beside himself with rage that she'd managed to break her fall even temporarily. "You stupid whore!"
Her fingers slipped. She struggled harder, but it merely loosened the only hold she had. She sucked in a sharp breath of terror as she lost her grip. Bile rose in her throat as her stomach clenched. Air whistled past her ears, fluttered the fabric of her nightrail so that it snapped.
She slammed into something so hard it knocked the breath from her lungs. An internal darkness swarmed around her, threatening to completely consume her.
It hadn't hurt nearly as much as she had though it would, she thought dimly as sensation of falling stopped and she felt her body seem to float upward.
Not floating, precisely, she realized in confusion, and the tight bands around her weren't pain from broken ribs. Arms held her, shifted her into a firmer hold. She felt almost a rocking motion, lift, pause, lift--as if she was being hoisted upward.
A jolt went through her as those sensations ended. She let out a gasp and clung frantically as the sensation of falling rushed over her again. The cold and hardness of stone touched her skin. Hands peeled her hands loose.
She peered up as she felt the presence move away from her, but she could see nothing but a huge, shapeless form above her.
William uttered a strangled scream, drawing her gaze. She saw then that she was on the battlements once more, saw a look of sheer terror on William's face. As the shadowy figure moved away from her and stalked toward him, he seemed to come out of his state of frozen fear. Uttering a sound of horror, he tried to run.
Bronwyn blinked, trying to focus her vision, struggling against a wave of shock as she saw the man/beast seize William, lifting his frantically beating legs from the floor. Effortlessly, it seemed to her, the creature shook him like a dog tearing at its prey and then pitched him into the darkness beyond the crenellations.
William's scream stabbed through her frozen shock like a fiery spear, sending echoes of his terror through her until it became her own. Fighting the urge to give into the loss of consciousness, Bronwyn struggled to move, fought her weakness to try to flee.
The voice sounded impossibly deep--and angry, rumbling from a chest fathoms wide.
She felt his nearness a split second before two hands closed around her that dwarfed her. She couldn't voice her fear, couldn't find the strength to struggle as he lifted her with arms like young oaks, brought her against an enormous chest.
Warmth surrounded her as he settled her there. Comforted by his oddly gentle hold, Bronwyn leaned weakly against his hard chest. "S..saved me," she managed to whisper, surprise in voice.
There was a lengthy pause before he responded. "Aye, and damned myself," he growled, his voice sounding gravelly with disuse.
Chastened but reassured that he truly had rescued her, Bronwyn inched a hand along his hard, smooth chest to curl her fingers along the broad column of his neck as he began to stride briskly across the ramparts.
Again there was a significant pause, as if he was reluctant to speak at all. "Was despondent over the loss of his son and the certainty that he would lose his wife, as well, and leapt from the castle walls to his death."
There was amusement in his voice, satisfaction.
A shiver skated through her.
By the time he had reached the bottom of the stairs Bronwyn's teeth were chattering with reaction and cold. He pulled her more tightly against his body, sharing his warmth.
He had little to share. His body was nigh as chilled as her own, but the gesture comforted her, made her feel more certain of his protection.
Unerringly, he entered the castle and headed directly toward her chambers, as if he was as familiar with the castle as she was.
Her bed chamber was deserted. William had seen to that, sending her women away to 'attend his beloved wife' himself.
She clung to him as he lowered her to her bed, unwilling to let go of the comforting safety of his arms. He grasped her hands, peeling them gently but firmly from him. She closed her cold fingers around his hands when he would have released her, peering up at him through the swollen slits of her eyes.
A spark of fear went through her as she caught her first real glimpse of him, and even so the shadowy room concealed as much as it revealed. There was beauty in his face, but only the reflection of it from within for his kindness. The face above her was as harsh and craggy as hewn stone. She dismissed the fear. He'd saved her from William at great cost to himself from what he had said. "Do not leave me," she begged shakily.