GUARDIAN'S CHALLENGE


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.