Under His Wings, page 1
Under His Wings
Dark Judgment, Book One
Warrior, lover…savior. A winged avenger with chocolate feathers and lavender eyes haunts Tamar Ridgeway’s dreams—her erotic escape after surviving a horrible plane crash and enduring years of painful physical therapy. But fantasy becomes terrifying reality when she’s attacked by a mythical creature from her darkest nightmares. Now her sexy dream warrior is vowing to save her, whether she wants his protection or not.
Nicolai Abioud, judge and executioner of the hippogryph, is stunned when the woman he rescues is the same who submits to him nightly in his dreams…and a replica of his dead wife. He’s fascinated by her beauty and spirit, consumed by the craving to touch…to take. Yet he lost his one true bondmate five hundred years ago. And falling for a human—no matter how beautiful—is a foolish risk. But the choice to love may be snatched away. Danger is closing in. They must conquer their enemy and fears, or be doomed to lose the love of a millennium.
A Romantica® paranormal erotic romance from Ellora’s Cave
UNDER HIS WINGS
To Gary, who sacrifices every day so I don’t cry. I love you.
To my heavenly Father who continues to bless my family and me, and provides five loaves of bread and three fish every month. Your creative spirit made this possible, not mine.
To my husband and children, your love and support are my lifelines. You guys are the greatest gifts God has ever given me.
To Jessica Lee, you have graduated from Jackie Chan to a Jet Li-Jason Statham hybrid! Not only are you an awesome writer but an even better friend—if that’s possible! I believe we’ll still call and cackle over the phone even when we’re old and gray.
To Stormy Pate, thank you so much for wanting to read this book and loaning me your time and giving me your excitement. You’re the best Beta reader ever!
To Debra Glass, I don’t have enough white space to list all you mean to me as an author and a friend. Without your insight, enthusiasm and encouragement this book wouldn’t have been completed. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, your experience and your heart.
To Violet Hughes…okay, I can get through this without tearing up…sorta. The day I received the email informing me you were my editor was one of the best days of my career. Not only did I gain a wonderful, professional, brilliant editor, I gained a cheerleader, a teacher, comic relief and a friend. I’ve become a better writer because of you! Thank you for being Kathy Griffin and Super-Valkyrie-Editor all rolled into one! You are the absolute best!
No empty fiction wrought by magic lore,
But natural was the steed the wizard pressed;
For him a filly to griffin bore;
Hight hippogryph. In wings and beak and crest,
Formed like his sire, as in the feet before;
But like the mare, his dam, in all the rest.
Such on Riphaean hills, though rarely found,
Are bred, beyond the frozen ocean's bound.
--Orlando furioso, Ludovico Ariosto
Dusk bullied its way across the skyline, the rolling bank of gray and black clouds forcing daylight to pick up its ball and go home.
Nicolai Abioud studied the fast-moving mass as several stories beneath him the denizens of the dark stirred and crept out of their hiding places, ready to go about their business of the encroaching night. The rundown five-story building he crouched on top of probably hosted all manner of illicit activities. Drug addicts and prostitutes peered out of windows as jagged as their souls, scouting the dirty garbage-littered streets for patrolling cops or predators more vicious then they.
He was such a predator.
Only he had bigger prey to bag.
He scanned the obsidian alleys, his raptor’s eyes sighting even the smallest scurry. Below, a scantily clad woman led an old man down the passageway. As she maneuvered him behind the large dumpster, she glanced toward the sky as if sensing the hunter who perched above her.
Even if she could spot Nico, her concern would’ve been misplaced. Her wariness was better reserved for the other who stalked these streets.
He didn’t glance over his shoulder as the low sandpaper-over-gravel voice echoed inside his head. The heavy strokes of wings against air had reached his ears several moments ago.
“Yes?” he asked aloud. The prostitute had finished her transaction and was headed toward the mouth of the alley. Either she had a blue-ribbon-talented mouth or the man had a two-second fuse. Nicolai was betting on the latter.
“There’s no sign of him,” Lukas Gallo reported along the telepathic link they shared. “Maybe he’s moved on.”
“No.” Nicolai met the steady ice-blue gaze of his second-in-command and one of the three males he led. Tonight Lukas hunted with him. The other two warriors—Adon Laskaris and Dorian Zarides—searched for traces of their prey on the east side of the city. Together the three males formed the krinos, the select highly trained fighting unit that served under the Dimios, their people’s executioner. Or Nicolai.
On the rooftop, Lukas’ obsidian plumage, wings and body seemed to swallow the shades around him, a wormhole sucking the shadows into his huge bulk. Only his arctic gaze and the distinctive three white stripes across his back relieved the midnight feathers, equestrian hindquarters and tail.
“This is prime hunting ground for him. He’s not finished,” Nicolai murmured.
A sigh whispered down their connection. “We were almost too late to cover up his last kill. Even Evander wouldn’t risk the exposure another would bring.”
“No?” Nicolai arched his eyebrow. “He’s a rogue, Lukas. By the very definition, he doesn’t give a fuck about rules. And he damn sure doesn’t care if he reveals us to the human world. It’s a game to him,” he rasped, returning his gaze to the streets that grew more active, teemed with more people…more quarry for the kill. “Us. Them. We’re all pawns in this screwed up version of Clue to which only he knows the rules.”
Lukas remained silent at the words that sounded bitter to Nicolai’s own ears. Evander Agnew, the latest of his people to go rogue. Over the last four months, he’d cut a bloody trail through Europe and now here to North America. The kills had been spread out and Nicolai, Lukas, Adon and Dorian had worked swiftly to cover them up. But Evander didn’t show any signs of stopping. The humans had no idea a monster out of their mythical lore—and their worst nightmares—had been unleashed on them.
And Nicolai had trained the sadistic bastard.
As the Dimios, the race’s judge, jury and executioner, it fell to Nicolai to hunt Evander and bring him down just as Nicolai had done all other rogues who’d gone off the proverbial reservation.
Hunting his brethren, executing them and preserving the secrecy of his people’s existence were Nicolai’s responsibilities—had been for eight hundred years. As long as the hippogryph had been in existence, they had those who’d gone rogue for one reason or another—resentment over the restrictions governing their exposure to the world, exile or bloodlust.
Whether they were angry, power hungry or deranged, he’d pursued them all. Yes, he experienced regret over some of the punishments, but it had never been personal.
Until Evander—an elite warrior Nicolai had trained and a trusted soldier he’d commanded—betrayed him by preying on the weak and defenseless.
Until four months ago when Evander had started his rampage with the murder of Nicolai’s best friend.
Grief writhed in his gut like snakes on a Gorgon’s head. Nicolai, Lukas, Adon, Dorian—they accepted their deaths were possible every time they pur
For that the betrayer would die. If Nicolai had to track him for the rest of his existence, he would destroy this rogue.
“Nico, let me take this one,” Lukas urged. “You’re too personally involved—”
“Forget it,” Nicolai snapped. A loud crack rent the air and he glanced down, startled his black talons had stabbed the edge of the roof. Fine fissures zigzagged over the railing and chunks of cement littered the ground. Lifting his head, he met Lukas’ censorious gaze. Juveniles half-shifted as they learned to dominate their beast. For an adult—especially a nine-hundred-year-old warrior—to do so meant a loss of control. Dangerous for one whose duty required he discipline not just himself but an entire race of people.
“Forget it,” he repeated, voice grim. He eyed his second-in-command until Lukas lowered his sleek black head, a sign of the male’s submission. “We hunt here tonight. And we’ll keep on until we find the demented bastard and take him out.”
The cold, grim words echoed in the night air as Nicolai leaped onto the high narrow ledge, landing in a crouch. He splayed his fingers on the rough concrete, maintaining his balance as he reexamined the murky expanse of sky. The dense blanket of pollution hid the twinkle of stars and obscured the moon’s pearlescent glow. A shaft of longing for the clean, fresh air of his home pierced him. If he breathed deep, he could almost taste the rain-scented breeze that blew over the private peninsula off the Washington state coast. There the stars glittered like bright diamonds scattered across a velvet cloth by a celestial hand.
As different from this place as shit from shine.
“Lukas.” Nicolai squinted at a sizeable dingy cloud sailing at a slightly faster clip than the others. Something about the odd shape…and when the moon’s beam struck it…
“That’s him,” he growled. Not waiting for Lukas’ reply, he dove off the ledge, arms outstretched, head thrown back. Magic sizzled from the soles of his feet, blazed a path up his legs, thighs, to his gut and chest and shot to his shoulder blades and legs. It consumed him. Bone snapped and popped, muscle and tendon contorted. His head rounded and formed a large high-arched beak and shaggy crest as feathers sprouted along his arms and back. Two pairs of legs—the front pair talon-tipped and the back hoofed—stretched and kicked as his wings beat hard once, twice, and the hippogryph’s powerful, magnificent body climbed high into air. At the same time he cast a gyges,the magical net rendering him invisible to the human eye.
Beside him, Lukas’ black half-eagle, half-stallion beast appeared and together they streaked through the sky after their prey.
“Stay back,” Nicolai ordered through the telepathic link. Lukas’ head snapped to the side, his arctic-blue eyes glittering with shock and growing anger. Before the other hippogryph could voice an objection, Nicolai growled, “Don’t interfere. That’s an order.”
Lukas’ rage crackled down their link, but he spread his wings wide and reared back on his hind legs, talons clawing the air.
Nicolai launched forward, all his attention focused on the smoky billow several feet beneath him. The mist—too thick to be natural—didn’t hinder his search. Tonight he would end this, damn it. He would end Evander. A warning whispered through his head. The same warning he gave those who trained under him.
Never let emotion enter the hunt. If you do, you’re dead as fuck.
Well he was as dead as a damn doornail because there was no way he could separate the hatred, the overwhelming grief and thirst for revenge…for blood. Nicolai wanted the black, shriveled lump Evander called a heart in his claws. It was the only outcome of this battle that would satisfy him.
The fog clung to his feathers and coarse hair on his back and legs, the wisps like chilled tentacles that sought to leach the warmth from his body, render him slow and sluggish. He relegated the discomfort to the part of his brain labeled Life’s a Bitch and peered deeper into the—
There! Triumph roared through him as he discerned feathers the color of ash. Folding his wings against his body, he lunged, slicing through the clouds.
A piercing battle cry escaped him. His legs extended, talons curled, ready to tear through flesh and hide.
Just as the tips of his claws grazed charcoal feathers, Evander cut hard to the left. Nicolai bulleted past him before abruptly drawing up. He wheeled around to the soft sound of taunting laughter inside his head.
“Tsk, tsk.” Evander hovered several feet above him, seeming to hang motionless in the air like a black spider suspended on its invisible web. A large crest rose behind his head, granting him the image of the crown he desired to own and detested serving. Mottled gray and black covered his breast and wings and merged with muscled, strong, fully feathered legs so deep-brown they appeared as dark as the rest of him. Evander was a phantom pillar of smoke, except for the ring of white that edged the outermost points of his wings as if the tips had been dipped in paint. “You violated your first rule in Attack 101. Never let ’em know you’re coming.”
“Fuck you,” Nicolai snarled.
A long-suffering sigh echoed in Nicolai’s head. “As eloquent as always, I see, Nico.”
Fury engulfed him, popped over every synapse and neuron. The nickname burned in his head like acid, what had once been an affectionate endearment now blasphemy.
“I’m going to end you, motherfucker,” he vowed, grim anticipation rolling through him, amping the fury that gripped his brain. “Slowly. Painfully.”
Delight shimmered down the link that had once bound them commander to soldier. “Careful,” Evander crowed. “You’re beginning to sound like me.”
“I could never be like you. A traitor and murderer.”
Evander’s head snapped back as if Nicolai’s accusation were a fist to the face. His hippogryph reared, his talons clawing the sky. Malice glittered in his obsidian eyes. “You are me, Nico. Don’t fool yourself. You’re one kill away from being me.”
With timing that spoke of skill honed by time and age, Evander shifted from beast to man except for the sharp dagger-like claws that formed his hands and the heavy flap of wings that kept him aloft. Nicolai knew that face—had recognized the swarthy, handsome features as those of a friend for over five hundred years. Yet now Evander bore the face of the enemy. The knowledge carved another sliver of pain from his soul.
“You betrayed me first. You were the traitor,” Evander snarled. “When you executed Gregor, you betrayed our friendship and me.”
The accusation stabbed Nicolai in the heart and bled into his veins even as he assumed the same form as Evander. Gregor had been Evander’s brother and the last hippogryph to go rogue. Hunting and killing the male he’d known and loved for over seven hundred years had damaged another piece of Nicolai’s spirit he couldn’t afford to lose. Guilt and grief had consumed him, but he didn’t allow his emotion to prevent him from completing what needed to be done. As the Dimios, he couldn’t allow one rogue to live while others died. If he didn’t uphold the law, chaos and death would follow.
But by the end of the hunt, they’d lost two males—Gregor to death and Evander to a hatred that had set him on the same path of destruction his twin had traveled.
And a month later, Nicolai had lost Bastien. In revenge. A life for a life.
The reminder razed a path of fury and grief up his gut, chest and out of his throat in a roar. The agony supplied the fuel that shot him across the sky, straight for his prey.
They clashed, twisted, bodies straining as the other fought to obtain the upper hand. In brute strength, Nicolai outweighed Evander—his upper torso heavier, broader. But he’d trained his former soldier well. What Evander lacked in sheer might, he made up for in agility and speed.
Evander’s bellow of rage and pain rumbled across the sky like thunder. Grim satisfaction rolled through Ni
He bit back a shout, resisting the urge to clap a hand to the injury Evander managed to inflict. Another enraged cry echoed above him seconds before a booming crack split the air. Nicolai jerked his head up. An iron spire and cement block teetered then tumbled off the roof of a nearby church. It bobbed toward Evander, floating on an unseen current until halting next to the rogue’s large frame. Arms stretched wide, Evander met Nico’s gaze, hatred flashing in his obsidian eyes. Blood pumped from the lower side of his torso, the rivulets slick oily spills on his olive skin.
“I propose a treasure hunt, Nico,” he taunted, his lips curling into a cruel smile. “There is a prize out there you may want to find before I do. Because if I get to it first…”
His smile widened to a grin as he shoved an image in Nicolai’s head along their mental path. A woman. Honey-gold skin. Wild light-brown curls. Gold eyes.
Pria. His bondmate. His dead bondmate.
“Don’t fail her a second time,” the rogue whispered. “Goodbye, Nico.”
Evander clapped his hands and the spire whistled through the air, a cross-tipped missile locked and loaded on Nicolai’s chest.
Shit. Nicolai’s thighs tightened, the muscles along his back that controlled his wings tensed, preparing to spiral upward.
But it was too late.
He gritted his teeth, braced himself for impact—
The space inches in front of his palms shimmered, solidified. Iron smashed, grated then crumbled against the shield Lukas had conjured with his mind.
Relief raced through Nicolai. He glanced down and caught his second-in-command’s gaze. “Thank you.”
Lukas dipped his obsidian head in acknowledgement.
Drawing his lips back from his teeth in a snarl, Nicolai whipped his attention back to Evander. Or the space Evander had occupied. The rogue had disappeared. The coward had used his telekinetic gift as a diversion while he escaped.
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