Vengeance: The Niteclif Evolutions, Book 3, page 1
For my critique partner, Lori. Maddy’s world is richer, bolder and more vibrant because of your unerring insight.
In life there are things that catch you by surprise, things that, as you look back, you’re certain you should have seen coming. Sometimes these surprises are memory-makers in all the right ways, and other times they are so simply earth-shattering you don’t know if anything will ever be the same. After all, how can it be when the impact knocks you to your knees? How can one ever be the same when, despite your best efforts, the Fates demand more? They weave into the very fabric of life the joys, pains and sorrows of breathing, of being, and no one is immune to their Loom.
I’ve had a shock woven into my fabric that I should have seen coming. I am, after all, the last Niteclif. Prior to my arrival, the High Council suspected and the supernatural world speculated while I lived on in complete ignorance. And the men in my life…they’ve suffered for that ignorance. To fulfill the prophecy, I will be forced to kill one. To fulfill my destiny, I’ll lose the other.
And then there are the souls at stake. Hell has rained vengeance on the fallen that I’m not sure I’m able to stop. With each step I take toward the guilty, I’m one step closer to solving the mystery of destiny versus free will. But resolution will come at an incredibly high cost, one I’m not sure my own soul can afford. How high a price is too high?
So I’m caught in my own version of Purgatory, and it’s a miserable, violent, horrid place. For all that it won’t change anything, I will still say that I desperately wish I had some reassurance of my survival and the survival of the two men I hold so dear. Because wishing may be the most effective tool I’m left with at this point.
But if wishes were horses, poor men would ride…
There’s this moment between dreaming and waking when the conscious mind begins to stir. I heard my own breathing change and knew my days of physically recuperative sleep were coming to a close, and reality would beat down on me with a vengeance heretofore unknown in my life. My battered emotions lay in a tattered heap and I hoped, not for the first time, that my decision had been the right one.
I shifted slightly. The worst of the physical complaints, an in-and-out sword wound on my side that ran front to back, had been stitched, and those stitches pulled with the movement. I was temporarily grateful for the distraction. Anything that would keep my mind off of… No.
I stretched a bit more, forcing the stitches to bite into the newly knit skin. Better. Physical pain is better. The scars I’d have that would be visible—those I could deal with. The invisible scars… No.
My most recent Niteclif investigation had trod the fine line between the paranormal and mundane worlds, with a killer crossing from one to the other. Kelten, King of the Fae, had terrorized London and me, as he sought retribution for his son’s death—a death for which he held me responsible. Queen Gaitha had killed her husband, arriving seconds before Kelten would have beheaded me, running him through with a broadsword and very effectively shredding his heart at the same time I’d collapsed in front of him. The queen had stood over me, considering yet impassive. She’d ultimately left me to suffer and die, or suffer and live, as penance for murdering her son and driving her husband to madness. She claimed to hold no preference regarding the outcome. I believed her then…and now.
Slipping from the last dregs of sleep, I turned my head toward the window. Light peeked around the corners of the heavy silk drapes in the master bedroom at Hellion’s Lees Place home, giving the illusion of a fire raging outside. My eyes were gritty and my mouth dry as I rolled over to find Hellion sitting in a wingback chair next to the bed, sound asleep. His head was propped on the chair’s wing, and his hands rested on his muscled stomach, legs stretched out in front of him with bare feet crossed at the ankles. Completely oblivious to my observation, Hellion continued to snore softly, the whuffling sound as comforting to me as his bare feet were, inexplicably, sexy. Staring at him, I felt relief and remorse in unequal parts. I’d made my choice.
But for all that, I had dreamed of Bahlin. I’d seen his eyes and his smile, remembered the way we’d made love in his den. I’d dreamed of him standing over Hellion’s prone form in Ireland where he’d shot my magus weeks later when he’d tried to kidnap me. The dreams were so diametrically opposed that it was disorienting to wake and realize that they had been about the same man. My subconscious saw him differently, influencing my perception of his physical characteristics as “good” or “bad” in my mind’s eye.
I pinched the bridge of my nose tightly and held it for a slow count of ten before dropping my hand and opening my eyes again. My gaze refocused on Hellion’s chair and I found him watching me through slitted eyes. Nothing about him moved other than his chest, which rose and fell as he breathed.
“Do you have regrets?” he whispered.
“I can’t,” I said, my voice as smooth as hundred grit sandpaper. I cleared my throat, but it did no good. If you don’t regret it, why does it hurt so much? my subconscious whispered. I shook my head. “I can’t.”
He got up and walked into the bathroom, emerging a few moments later with a fresh glass of water. Slipping an arm under my shoulders, he helped me sit up and take several small, cool sips to wet my throat. I didn’t think anything had ever tasted so good. My stomach let out a vicious growl, but before he could reach for the bedside phone to call for a meal, I grabbed his hand and pulled it to my chest. Grasping his hand tightly between both of mine, I held it between my bare breasts, my breath coming shorter and faster, tears threatening to spill over the dam of my lower lashes.
“You called out his name in your sleep.” His voice was filled with compassion and made it harder for me to think clearly.
I couldn’t answer him but squeezed his hand even tighter, pressing it harder to my chest.
His other hand smoothed my wild hair gently and he whispered in Gaelic before switching to English. “If I could hold your heart together for you, anamchara, I would.”
A small sob broke free. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, the tears impossible to avoid any longer.
Hellion scooped me up and laid his cheek on my head, his breathing no longer slow and comforting. “Let it out, my love. Encourage a full break so that you might begin to heal and, eventually, let him go.”
A keening wail broke from my lips and I had no more control over it than I did the number of raindrops in the clouds. He rocked me, comforting me as I grieved one last time for the man I’d left behind. I wept so hard I thought I’d be physically ill, but Hellion soothed me, using his healing gifts to take the sickness away until the silent tears were all that were left. I hiccupped now and again, and he rubbed small circles on my back.
“Madeleine, I won’t see you hurt so, not for anything in the world. If you feel you’ve not chosen the right man for your heart, darling… I’ve said before that all I’ve wanted was your happiness, and this—” he gently swiped a thumb through my tears, “—this doesn’t feel happy.” He moved to set me aside, and I twisted with a grunt, the stitches in my side pulling hard enough to force the protest.
I wrapped myself around him, clinging tenaciously while wearing nothing more than the bandages he’s covered the worst of my wounds with. When he tried to unwrap my arms, I growled, “No.”
I lifted my face up at the same time I pulled his down, but he didn’t come willingly. He was stiff and noncompliant, and I ended up having to raise myself painfully to get to his lips, but I made it. He relaxed a little. He let me settle back down on his lap and dropped his lips to mine, bringing his hands up so that one held my
Hellion forced me to take in the moment, and I realized he was right. This was the first of a million shared kisses, a kiss that offered promises and took comforts. He was tender and gentle, moving slowly over my lips with his own, using his tongue and teeth to tease while his hands traced the vertebrae in my lower back and neck. Heat began to smolder between us, his erection building and pushing against his jeans. I shifted against him, and he groaned softly. This had always been easy between us. Nothing had changed.
A warm sensation spread between my breasts and seemed to caress my heart, soothing it like balm. I gasped and broke the kiss, leaning back to look up into his face.
His eyes were so solemn, without their usual pulsing when his emotions ran high.
“What was that?”
He laid one of his large hands flat between my shoulder blades and the heat wrapped around my heart again and squeezed ever so gently. “That?” His lips made to smile but seemed unable to go through with the motion. “It’s a physical manifestation of my love. While I can’t take the hurt away, I’m not without some minor magics. The easiest way to explain it is to say that I’m channeling some of my own emotions, pushing them into you and caressing your heart that the hurt might be a little more manageable. Is it better?”
Oddly, it was. “It’s a strange feeling,” I admitted.
He began to pull away and the ache grew sharper.
“No. Please, don’t stop. Give me a minute more.” I laid my head down on his chest and took a deep breath, my tears drying up, my breathing slowing.
Hellion spread the warmth and security throughout my torso, through my shoulders and down into my hips. I could only imagine that the feeling of security was somehow similar to the security an infant experiences while in the womb, knowing without really knowing that they are protected from the worst of the world. Was it a good comparison? Probably not, but it was the only one I could think of that came close to what he made me feel.
I nodded into his chest and whispered, “Thank you.”
He slowly withdrew his hand but the sense of well-being lingered. “I mean it, mo chroí, when I tell you that I won’t have you live a lifetime of regret. The bauble I gave you and the words we spoke? The bauble is yours, and the words aren’t binding. If it’s Bahlin who owns your heart, then you must consider that before we take this any further. I can only be the better man so often, and there will come a time when I’ll cease to be even remotely rational about this.” He set me aside and I let him. He scrubbed his hands over his face and stood up off the bed. In a firmer voice, he finished his thought. “If it’s Bahlin who holds your heart, love, you must go to him.”
“Because I can’t live like this, with you grieving him with every sunrise and—”
“Hellion,” I nearly barked, my voice firmer and more “me” sounding.
His head snapped up and he looked at me hard. “Aye?”
“Would you not fight for me?”
His jaw tightened hard and fast. “I’d slay armies for you. I’d pull down the stars from the sky. I’d defy the gods and find a way to make time stop, Madeleine Niteclif, if you’d only but ask.”
“Then you need to hear me on this.” I patted the edge of the bed and he obviously thought about it before coming to sit next to me. “I want to be very clear that that night in the park was horrible in so many ways. But choosing between you? God willing, I never, ever again have to make another decision like that where I know I’m going to cause someone such immense pain. That was the hard part, because I’d suspected for a while that Bahlin wasn’t good for me. Truly, I suspected we weren’t good for each other.
“And when I told you I loved you and time stood still?” I smiled softly and pushed on his shoulder so he fell back onto his elbows on the bed. “Time. Stood. Still. That was an eye opener that sealed the deal for me.”
He lay back on the piles of bedding. “So it’s simple magic tricks that turn the lady on, then? Good. Those can be arranged. Daily.”
I swatted his stomach with a pillow and he took it stoically. “No, you arrogant man.” I looked at Hellion, his arms tucked behind his head, one knee bent on the bed and the other on the floor, his shirt open to the waist, his pants button undone. Then I looked at the outline of his jaw, the perfect lips, the patrician nose and his beautiful cheekbones. Finally I made it to eyes that stared straight up at me. This time they were pulsing like mad, but they never wavered in their focus.
“With Bahlin, there were a few reasons to stay and a hundred to go. With you…” I paused, took a deep breath and willed myself not to cry. “With you, Hellion, there were thousand reasons to stay and only a few reasons to go. How could I deny that logic?” I missed Bahlin, and I knew I’d grieve him, but my future lay right in front of me.
“A mhuirnín, I’ve never seen you look that way.” He reached for my face and I let my cheek rest in the palm of his hand. “Are ye well?”
“Táim i ngrá leat, Hellion, síorghrá grá mo chroí.”
Hellion’s eyes misted over and he ran his hand over his mouth and I could see him biting his cheek, emotionally gobsmacked at the clear and concise way I’d spoken to him in his own language. “When? How? When?”
I leaned over and stroked his face and he immediately turned it into my hand, his eyes squinched shut hard, his breathing fast and uneven, his lips a thin white line.
“Hellion?” I asked, uneasy at his response.
He grabbed my wrist and laid my fingers to his lips and kissed them, his emotional state confusing me.
“Hellion, would you tell me—”
He shook his head, keeping my fingers pressed hard to his lips. When he finally opened his eyes, the irises had eaten all the white, so from a distance he would have appeared to have two empty sockets. Up close, though, up close was the real show. Because you could see things moving in his eyes, powerful things that you knew saw you and were greater in sum than the man who wielded them. His voice echoed around the room when he spoke. “You are my heart, Madeleine Niteclif. I live for you now, and all that I have is yours, vow or no vow.” His eyes faded to their normal black, and he looked at me so seriously.
Comforted, I crawled farther up the bed and curled into his side.
He held me tightly, settling the duvet over my naked, bandaged body. “Rest, a mhuirnín, here in my arms.”
I shifted myself so I lay against his chest, his heart beating a strong, comforting rhythm in my ear that soothed me back to sleep.
Just as I faded out I heard Hellion whisper into my hair, “You are my heart, Madeleine Niteclif. You are nourishment for my soul and as vital as the sun on my skin. I’ll not spend another day without you so long as I live.” He pressed his lips into my hair and his arms tightened gently.
And then I drifted off. For the first time in a long time, I slept without dreaming.
I awoke again sometime near noon if I judged by the light alone. I was still cocooned in Hellion’s embrace though the man himself was wide-awake. Stock reports were flashing across the TV at the foot of the bed, the volume so low I didn’t know how he could hear anything until I realized he had an earpiece in that allowed him to listen without disturbing me. I had just glanced up at him when something caused him to stiffen, his eyes widening and his breath seeming to hang up in his throat.
I turned slowly toward the screen, but what I saw made no sense. Rocks were strewn everywhere and the ground was torn up as if something violent had occurred. The sound of the reporter’s voice filled the room as Hellion disengaged his earpiece.
“…initially believed it was force of nature, now experts are relatively certain the stones were leveled by something. There are marks, Sylvia, indicating the stones were physically pushed over. As implausible as it would seem, experts are confident it was no
I didn’t hear what else the reporter said because a low buzzing filled my ears. I recognized the stone circle. It was mine.
Scenes of incomprehensible destruction flashed across the screen as I watched with growing horror. Gouged rocks were scattered around the field, some torn up from the ground and others pushed over; the alter stone was split and lay in two unequal halves on the ruined ground. But most shocking was the demolition of the point stone, or the stone that indicated true north. It was in pieces, broken as if it had been no more than a piece of chalk. A sickening sense of dread built as I watched the cameraman pan the area where the stone circle once stood. With the point stone gone and a couple others cracked, it appeared the most I could hope for was a reconstruction that included four stones. The circle had to have five in order to function as a place of protection and power. Without that fifth stone, the henge became just another ruin.
I turned to Hellion and found his face as pale as my own. “What does this mean for me?”
He shook his head slowly and turned the volume down. I watched as he programmed the digital recorder so we’d have the luxury to watch this later and consider the news reports and mundane speculations.
Reaching out, I grasped Hellion’s hand and we clung to each other, though I didn’t completely understand his reaction. It felt like I should, though, so I didn’t ask again for fear of appearing foolish and, well, just out of fear.
Hellion peeled my fingers off his and reached over to grab the empty water glass he’d fetched me earlier. He walked into the bathroom and emerged a brief moment later, the glass refreshed. Hands that could heal, love and destroy trembled violently.
Shit. I hated conversations that started with such bad news that I needed to either compose myself or throw up. The whites of my eyes must have shown clearly as he sat on the edge of the bed, set the water on the nightstand, and took my hands in his. There was something strange, suspiciously familiar to sympathy, in his eyes.
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