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Excerpt from Chapter 9

 

 

Ayleth was so startled, she froze in place. Her mortal eyes strained in the darkness to discern the features of the face so close above her own, unable to believe it was truly Terryn’s voice she had just heard.

Before she could make her mind fully grasp the situation, another sound caught her ears: spurs rattling on stones, crossing the yard from the stables. She twisted against the grasp on her arm and the hand over her mouth to see over her captor’s shoulder.

Striding through the moonlight came Venatrix Everild. She must have just returned from some errand on behalf of her Dominus, some last task that needed seeing to before the barrier spell was raised. If Ayleth had taken even two more steps into the stable yard, she would have ended up directly in Everild’s line of sight, her escape thwarted before it began.

Not that her current situation was any better.

Everild continued past the granary without a second glance. Her shade must be deeply suppressed, otherwise her shadow vision would certainly have spied the two souls pressed close together in the darkness of the doorway. She followed nearly the same route Ayleth had just used, headed for the tunnel leading to the back of the keep. The echo of her spurs soon faded behind her.

Ayleth let out a breath against the palm over her mouth and glanced at the face above her, still unable to discern more than shadows. But it was Terryn, she was sure of it. Now that her heart had calmed its frantic beating, she recognized the smell of him, that fresh smell of the forest, so out of place among the stone buildings of Dunloch.

She was suddenly aware of how close he was, of how he leaned into her, pressing her into the granary door. His breath was warm on her cheek, his lips hovering close to her ear.

When she shook her head, he let his hand slip from her mouth. “She’s gone now,” Ayleth muttered. “Um. Thank you.” She shifted against the door, expecting him to let go and back away.

Instead, the hand he’d pressed to her mouth moved to rest on her shoulder, close to her neck. It felt warm against her cold skin, and she realized that her loose undershirt had pulled far to one side during their short tussle, exposing her shoulder to the sharp autumn air.

“If you are making your escape, di Ferosa,” Terryn’s unmistakable deep-as-night voice rumbled, “one might advise you to take a cloak. It’s a chilly night.”

“One could stuff one’s advice back down one’s own throat,” Ayleth growled, flashing a glare he probably could not see. “No one thought to leave me a cloak. No cloak, no jerkin . . . Haunts, I had to borrow Venatrix di Lamaury’s trousers!”

“So, you decided to make your daring getaway wearing next to nothing? But then, you go into battle against witches wearing even less, so I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“Who says I’m making a daring getaway?”

“I should think that goes without saying.”

“I’m simply checking on my horse.” Ayleth let the lie slide right off her tongue, confident that it wouldn’t be believed in any case. “I want to be sure Chestibor’s being properly cared for. You never can tell with these fancy stable boys and their fancy uniforms. They don’t look like they know hoof from hock.” She tried to shift position again, to edge away and put a little more distance between them. His hand on her shoulder relaxed its grasp, and for a moment she thought she’d slip past him.

The next moment, however, his other hand slid around her waist, pulling her closer than before, and the hand on her shoulder moved to the back of her neck, its fingers tangling in her hair. Her skin flushed, and a thousand prickles of sensation raced up and down her spine. Why had her legs suddenly gone so weak? Was there still some residual sòm in her system?

His face turned, and despite the shadows, despite the fact that she could not see his features, she was suddenly, painfully aware of how near his lips were. Lips the shape of which she remembered quite well. Lips she had, not once but twice, pressed hers against, subtle and sensuous and alluringly responsive to her touch.

Haunts damn, what was she thinking?

A growl reverberated in her throat. She wrenched her hands up, grabbed hold of the front of his jerkin and, pivoting her weight abruptly, turned him completely around, out of the doorway, and put his back against the granary’s stone wall. From this new angle she could see his face, fully illuminated by moonlight. His eyes widened. His hand did not leave her waist but continued to hold her close, close enough to feel the coolness of his belt buckle through the thin linen of her shirt. His other hand slid down her neck to press between her shoulders, fingers splayed and firm.

“If you run away now, di Ferosa, you’ll make yourself look guilty,” he said, his voice thick.

“Guilty of what?” she snapped back, refusing to let her gaze stray from his eyes down to his mouth. “I haven’t done anything. Only killed the witch you failed to bring down.”

His teeth flashed in a grimace, and the muscles of his arms tensed around her. “If you’re not guilty, why are you sneaking out of your window in the middle of the night?”

Ayleth’s mind spun frantically for some excuse, any excuse. How could she begin to explain her interaction with Fendrel? Or that strange look she’d seen flash through the king’s eyes when she was presented? It didn’t make sense, none of it did. But she had to say something.

“They’re threatening to put me in a gown,” she growled. “I’m supposed to attend the wedding ceremony tomorrow night. And the ball, Goddess help me! I’m not a ball sort of girl, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

His grimace tilted into a smile. “I’d noticed. You’d look ridiculous in a ballgown.”

She was grateful for the silvery moonlight to disguise the sudden flush in her cheeks. The last thing she needed was for him to see that his comment affected her. With an effort, she made her cold fingers release their grip on the front of his jerkin, flattened her hands against his chest, and pushed. It wasn’t a particularly vigorous push, yet she still almost got away.

Terryn’s face hardened. He stood up straighter, stepping away from the wall she had pinned him against. The hand around her waist pressed against the small of her back while his other hand crept up into her hair once more, cupping the back of her head. She leaned back, reacting on the impulse of instinct rather than conscious will, and gazed up into those ice-cold eyes of his, which were suddenly burning in the moonlight, their dark centers ringed in blue fire.

“Careful, di Ferosa,” he murmured, his voice an octave deeper than before. “Choose your next move wisely.”

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January 10, 2020

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