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Burke is one breath from breaking. At war with the inner Mountaincat that stole his birthright in the Wolf Clan, he is a lone alpha, banished and distrusted. When he finds Nomi, a wandering soul uneasy in her Guild, he knows he should stay away. But he can't. At the same time he recognizes she can never be his, for to claim her would require acknowledging the cat he despises inside himself. The balancing act of befriending Nomi and holding his cat at bay is shredding his already perilous control. Then Nomi ...
Burke is one breath from breaking. At war with the inner Mountaincat that stole his birthright in the Wolf Clan, he is a lone alpha, banished and distrusted. When he finds Nomi, a wandering soul uneasy in her Guild, he knows he should stay away. But he can't. At the same time he recognizes she can never be his, for to claim her would require acknowledging the cat he despises inside himself. The balancing act of befriending Nomi and holding his cat at bay is shredding his already perilous control. Then Nomi decides to seduce him ... and the balance is lost.
Contains: voyeurism, shifted sex, shapeshifters, fantasy, paranormal, forced sex, anal, light bondage
The night was soft. It was one of those perfect summer evenings where the insects sang with happiness and the stars danced for them. She loved the coziness of lounging in the meadow with the grass tall around her. The sky was a sparkling, velvet swath like a royal's cape, close enough to kiss.
Now what had made her think of kisses.
"Evening, Nomi." The quiet male voice was part of the night, part of the Wild.
A smile curved her lips. Ah. Maybe that's why. Him. The quiet warrior who came to her in the shadows. Her only friend.
"Evening, Burke," she murmured back.
A tall shape broke from the darkness at the foot of the trees and moved into the field. He hovered nearby, a shaggy head, broad shoulders. She could tell by his silhouette that he wore a simple leather vest like hers, his bare arms sleekly muscled. He settled into the grass. A sigh came from him, contented, relaxing.
They lay side by side, a frill of stalks between them. A cricket chirped near her feet and was still. He didn't speak. He rarely did. She liked to think they didn't need to. But mostly, he was an exotic, mysterious stranger she'd met one night a few weeks ago. She'd woken to him sitting by her side, clasping one folded knee, studying her with cocked head. She'd smiled at him, and he'd smiled back.
Since then, when she found the energy to venture off the Farm and into the Wild, he found her. Precious few of her Guild ventured beyond the magelights, huddled inside the tightest security the Beasts could provide. Despite the generations of humans who had existed at the Farm, they were still creatures who craved City walls. Nomi had discovered there were ringsof security, and she wasn't foolish enough to venture past the farthest. But she did like the feeling of being at the edge, more alone, almost alone. So when the day's end was particularly beautiful, or the fieldwork hadn't been quite as backbreaking, or her Guild had been especially vicious and cold, she'd go exploring where she shouldn't. She'd been doing it since she was six.
Despite all her thirty-six years of wandering through the Beast warriors' invisible guard, none had approached her. Until this summer, when Burke started to shadow her. She was proud of herself for figuring out when he was there by the change in water's energy, of the feel of the woods. She hadn't thought she was that powerful in her magecraft, not that she could always sense him. Later, she'd spoken to him, calling boldly into the night. She'd told him she wanted to meet her watcher. He hadn't answered that night. But a few nights later, he'd been there, by her side, when she woke.
Looking up at the stars, Nomi couldn't stop smiling at his presence beside her. Tonight was a celebration. Finally, she had a new house, new freedom, and even a new man, of a sort. "Nice night."
She didn't mind his silence. It always felt warm and interested. She'd never been a talker herself. Not much occasion to do it, when no one wanted to be near you. But she didn't mind sharing her thoughts with him. It was natural, so easy, to share her observations with Burke. "On dark moon nights like this, it takes me a long time to move through the woods."
"You know the paths well."
"It would be easier to wait until you had more moon to see by."
"Sometimes I feel like if I have to stay one more second in that village, I'll lose my mind. My skin gets tight, and I can't breathe. If I can't get away, I start to feel small, and angry. Sometimes you just can't stay, you know?"
One of his tremors ran through him. She was used to them. The tight, subtle ripples were more felt than seen.
"I know. I know exactly what you mean." He sounded tired. He fell silent, but she felt his intensity sharpen. "Nomi..."
She grinned. Ah-ha. He was working himself up to a rare question. She waited.
"You are not bound to that man anymore."
It wasn't a question, but it was. He was asking about Drave. Nomi's breath caught at the implication. Burke knew about her life on the Farm.
"Are you spying on me?"
Silence. A tremor. "Yes."
Something curled in her belly, low, deep, triggered by the depth of his low voice. It felt uncomfortably like attraction. No. Not Burke. She ruthlessly suppressed it, as she always did on the rare times his attentive male presence got to her. He was safe, and a friend, and would stay that way. She had ached for sex for years, taking care of herself, and could continue on like that if she had to.
Besides, he was a Beast. The Beasts were a race of mage-warriors who lived in the Wilderness. They were honorable to the bone, the reputation of their race seeming to rest on the behavior of every single one of them. They stuck to the paid women like glue, and ignored everyone else. There were rumors of how violent they were during sex, and how the whores had to fuck their animal forms, too.
Nomi didn't like rumors. They were often cruel for the sake of a thrilling story, regardless of the fact the subject was a real person. But she knew Burke was out of her league. Out of her Guild, out of her race, and at all costs, out of her dreams. For even though there were human women from the Cities who went to live with them, she knew that Beasts lived in close groups called Clans. The thought of having to live underground, in an even closer, tighter group of people than what she'd seen in a City left her in a panicked sweat. She never got any sexual overtone from Burke at all. But it was definitely odd he was interested in her, the Guild misfit. And now he was asking about her ex-husband, surely as a concerned friend.
"You're angry." His voice was sorrowful.
"No. Surprised." It was on the tip of her tongue to ask why he was here, lying next to her. She didn't. "Yes, Burke. I am now finally, officially divorced."
"You're glad, but angry."
Her breath caught. By Mother Earth, he was so intuitive. But then, intuition was something most watermages had in common.
"Yes, I am both glad and angry." How could a marriage last when it was based on nothing but status? Her parents had wanted to get to the City. For that, they needed a child to take their place as a producing pair for the farm. Nomi had even gone so far out of character as to cry, pleading. I need to be solitary, Mother. People make me ache. Have I ever been one to follow friends, to seek others out? Please, don't make me marry.
How ironic that it was Drave who now muttered about being placed in the City. He needed a child to marry off in order to earn that as a cushy Guild retirement. His baby clock was ticking. Ten years of his grunting, and occasionally a thrill of pleasure, and no babes. Without a child, divorced, she was like to remain on the Farm even as she aged. Nomi smiled. What else could she do to ensure she'd never get carted off to the stinking, noisy, crowded streets of power grubbing City Guilds?
Still, now she was divorced, a rare concession from the Temple, only achieved through Drave's status in the Guild. They'd moved her into a tiny little hut yesterday. It would fade in time, but right now the disapproval and delighted horror was rife. Both upheavals in her life were due to people who saw her as a gate preventing their escape from the Farm. People who should have cared about her. That little black-haired girl could have Drave. Nomi had no emotion left for the man who had never been more than the best scenario in a bad situation. No, she was delighted to be free of him.
"I am very happy to have my own home. They even let me have one at the farthest edge of the village. I have a lovely view of the woods, just a few bodylengths from my window. I'm angry at my Guild when I shouldn't be. They've never understood me. I'm not like them, and people turn on those who are different."
Again, the tremor ran through him, a shimmer in the grass.
"Are you cold?" Despite the warm night, lying in the dew could sometimes chill her, especially if it sank into her leathers.
"You shiver sometimes." A horrible thought occurred to her. She rolled onto her side, looking at his strong profile through the veil of grass. His forehead, his nose, his full lips, strong chin. As always, he was a mere shadow in the starlight. "Burke. Are you ill?"
His head turned toward her, and she lost all detail as his face became a black oval. "Am I sick?"
She waited, her heart in her throat. He was thinking. Trust me. Tell me. But she didn't say it.
He sat up abruptly, and ran his hands through his shoulder-length hair. "Everything you say tonight is a body blow." He choked on a short, bitter laugh. "Do I tell you? Am I coward? Yes, Nomi, I am. I am very ill. I'm infected. With a cat." He rolled to his feet in one powerful lunge.
Nomi sat up, craning her neck up at the dark tower of him.
"And as with any illness, it's wrong that I'm near you. It isn't safe. It isn't ... right. I know this. So why can't I leave you alone?"
Nomi's heart beat hard in her throat. This wasn't about a sickness of the body. "I've never felt unsafe with you."
"Have you ever had a dream, Nomi? A dream so pure and good it fills you with purpose, drives everything you do?"
He was silent, and she realized he actually wanted an answer. She considered the question carefully. "I ... I have. But--it's not--I know it will only ever be a dream, so it's more like an ache, than a strength."
He staggered back, as if she had driven a knife in his gut, clutching his arms around him. "Yes. Yes. That is what it's become. Impossible. Gone. I'm lost, Nomi. I'm trying, but you're the only thing that makes sense. So I keep coming back, when I know it's not right."
She pushed herself to her feet, noticing all the summer music had stopped. The whole world held its breath with her. "I've thought that, too, that our visits aren't quite right. But Burke, you're the only thing that makes sense to me, also. Being out here, in the Wild, with you."
In a blink, he was in front of her, his hands wrapped tight around her upper arms. "Don't say that! By the Six! You can't know what you're saying!" He stumbled away, staring at his spread hands in horror. He whispered something she didn't catch.
"You didn't hurt me, Burke."
His head turned toward her, but his face was too shadowed for her to read his expression.
"I put my hands on you in anger." The words were still whispered, but she caught them this time, the horror and disbelief.
Nomi frowned. She stayed very still. "Burke, you are the first friend I've ever had. I've only known you a month, but I trust you. Please, talk to me."
Moving with Beast speed, he was gone. A faint gap in the moving grass tassels was all that he left. That and the warmth burning her arms from where he'd touched her for the first time. An animal cried out in the night. Hoof beats, probably a deerish, pattered past in a panic on the far side of the meadow. She sighed, shakily.
It had been a long time since she'd faced someone's raw emotions. Her contact with others was limited to caring for the livestock and the crops. Before the conversations necessary for the divorce, she hadn't spoken to Drave for over a year, despite sharing the same house with him.
She took a step, to follow Burke. No. Somehow he felt ashamed for coming up to her. He worried about hurting her, which she knew to her bones to be an irrational fear. He would never. But he was already gone.
Looking down, she saw that she stood where Burke's body had flattened the meadow. Impulsively, she lay down in his imprint. Odd, the stars looked different from his view. Fitting, though.
She'd often tried, since meeting him, to consider what it was like to have a wild animal living inside you. A cat. He'd said it with such disdain. Loathing, even. But she could see it, now that she knew which Beast was his. The way he'd stalked her. The way he watched her, silent, thinking his own deep thoughts. The gorgeous, controlled, sleek way he moved.
Lifting one hand, she closed one eye and used the stars to draw out her childhood fantasy. A pure, good dream. There was the tiny hut in a tall forest, there was the stream nearby. A garden by the side, and a shed for a few sheep. She thought of not talking to a soul for days, of doing for herself. Now that she was an adult, she knew how much work it would be. And she was just as firm in her belief that she'd be happier.
People were mean, and those who weren't were usually selfish. No one wanted to help a little girl who was different. She wanted to be alone. She liked it. And that was just absolutely not normal. No one had ever understood. The ones who thought she needed help were the ones who'd caused the most pain, trying to force her to be like the others, and force the others to like her. Eventually, they learned to let her go into the forest. Let her go alone. She needed to be free. She couldn't concentrate like the others. She listened to Water.
She flattened her hand and swirled it over the sky until it was nothing but a palette of shimmering black once more. She'd been seeing the same variation on this image her whole life. She could picture it so clearly it almost seemed like a vision sometimes. Some of the vision was coming true, sort of. She now had her own little hut. How had the odd little girl who wandered from her lessons, wandered from her chores, ended up being the discarded wife of the corn manager? Who had she become? As a human woman, she couldn't be any more solitary than a misfit member of the Farm Guild, yet her spirit craved something wilder than the clusters of homes around the fenced, orderly fields. What was wrong with her?
Rising to her feet, she began the careful, dark walk home. A more interesting question was what was wrong with Burke. Mostly, she'd been focused on what he saw in her, that he bothered spending time with her. She'd asked him once what he did. He'd told her he was a watermage trained in irrigation and offense. She'd grown still, shocked. She'd never in her life even imagined using her craft as a tool of violence. It had been a sobering indication of how different their worlds were.
Reaching to steady herself on a tree, her fingers encountered some moss. She paused to stroke the soft mound of it gently. Somehow, for some reason, he was drawn to her. Maybe he'd been one of the Beast guards her Farm Guild contracted, and had grown curious at seeing a human woman wander the woods at night. Maybe he'd been wandering the woods alone, too, and it had been fate. She didn't think she'd charmed him with her scintillating beauty and wit.
Moving on, she brushed a cobweb from her shoulder. Nomi knew she was straw plain and stone sturdy. Her hands were tough, her skin was tan, and her brown eyes had sun lines. She often had a host of cuts, scratches, and bug bites, and her light brown hair was never out of its basic braid at her nape. In the beginning, Drave had told her she had great tits, and he'd loved how taut and flat her belly was, how strong her legs. Her belly had been much tighter and flatter than his, that's for sure. She shivered, banishing the memory of his mushiness. She had enjoyed her occasional furtive lover when she was younger, but had preferred her own efforts to joining Drave in recent years.
Burke had not one tiny smidgen of mushiness. He was all sculpted muscle, flowing lines. His hair was longer than most of the Guild men kept theirs. On the nights where the moon had been strong, she'd been able to tell it was a dark color of some sort, and that his eyes were light. She imagined him in shades of silver and black when she let herself think of him as she hoed, or mucked, or dug. He listened to her, and seemed to ... value her. She loved how he felt so calm. Up until tonight's outburst, of course. Now she thought he was simply restrained. And when she had hit a sore spot, he'd been wild with pain inside. His hands on her hadn't frightened her. The rage wasn't directed at her. His touch had spoken of desperation.
He said he was infected with a cat ... Plucking a fat-headed grass stalk, she chomped on it, watching the fluffy seed head bob and dip as she twirled it in her teeth. Could Beasts choose which animal they called? She thought they were born that way. Maybe it was the other way around. Maybe the animal chose the man. It was only recently that humans had learned more about the race that had for centuries acted as the keepers of humanity's honor. If not for their guard duty and dedication to wiping out darkmages, no doubt the Kingdom of Seven Cities would be a poorer, darker, more violent place. They were universally respected, and universally feared. And that combination could inspire anger in people.
The leaves crunched under her feet, and a faint, warm wind rustled the branches above her. This rise had thirsty earth so Nomi gently called some water with a thought and a pulse of will. Tonight it was like summoning a frisky kitten. Rise, shimmy, burble. The earth dampened beneath her. She walked on. Nomi remembered how her grandfather would always spit after a Trux left the village upon collecting some portion of the Farm's payment. And how her grandmother would cower inside baking on those days.
She snorted. Fools. As if Beasts didn't earn their payment, keeping the Farm safe from wild creatures, mage creatures, and wild men. As if the warriors would harm an innocent woman, or steal her away for their beastly lust. The rumors still said they did kidnap women, and worse, that the royal family negotiated to pay them with women, forcing the City Guilds to send a portion of their females as payment. Pish. Nomi would never believe the warriors who guarded her people so respectfully would also see them as payment. If Guild women went to live in the Beast Clans, it was because strong, powerful, handsome warriors made better husbands than fat, greedy merchants.
Poor Burke. He was in such turmoil. Even a bit afraid. Nomi clearly mattered more to him than she'd thought. And now that he was gone, she realized he mattered to her, too. Her wild man, unafraid of the forest at night, and not expecting her to be either. She'd been able to talk to him, without worrying about any judgment whatsoever.
The magelights that ringed the fence between Farm and forest reached into the woods, ruining the peace of the night. Stopping before she came into the light, she crouched for her bedtime prayers. Nomi reached out her hands and placed them flat, spread on the ground. She pressed hard, curling her fingertips into the soft earth. Water greeted her eagerly, with its constant whisper. Burble, spatter, seep. Sending her prayer deep into the ground, she concentrated. Earthmother, thank you for this glorious night, this peaceful place. Your daughter is thinking of her friend this eve. Burke needs steadying strength. He needs help. Send him some of yours, and send him back to me.
"Be well, Burke. Someone cares about you."
Relaxing her arms, Nomi stood and moved toward her new little house.
Burke watched Nomi from a low tree limb. Hunkered against the trunk, he only blinked when his eyes burned. Last night, he touched her. Her skin was cool, her arms firm with muscle, but tiny, thin. Later, in his silent cave, he laid his hands against his face and smelled her. It had quieted the constant, steady, ripping frenzy of the cat. He'd been able to sleep a few hours, such a gift.
She was lashing a railing to a fence post, repairing it. Her shoulders rolled as she twined the rope around and around the joint. Her hair was dark with sweat at the edges. Her throat gleamed with it. He licked his lips.
He'd grabbed her before he knew what he'd done. To say he couldn't believe it would be a falsehood. He knew all too well that he was capable of going insane. He'd grabbed a woman he had no right to touch, with heat, with desperation. In the dimming light of day, he could see she had no bruises. His chest ached just thinking about the possibility. Or maybe it ached at what he was here to do. It was no use pretending anymore. Tonight, he would leave her. He must.
The leaves of the branches that hid him rained down as his grip ripped at the fragile stems. Now she was legally free among her own people, without even the pretense of a husband like before. That one social construct had been a leash of sorts. He could tell himself she was taken, even though she smelled of herself. He had watched her enter the large house each night, the house of another man. But now she came smiling out of an insultingly small hut. Alone.
She wasn't just a friendly woman to distract him from his fear. He hadn't merely found a kindred watermage to pass the evenings with. Nomi was his mate. And as such, he was a danger to her. Even more a danger than a lone alpha usually was. The Mountaincat inside him was driven into a frenzy every time they saw her, every time they left her. His hate of the creature was solid enough to keep it contained, but it was so draining.
Day after tedious day, night after lonely night, he had no Clan, no friends, no family, no touch, no purpose but to keep his little plot of land clear and safe. And keep the cat contained. Always, the rampant fury, the wildness twisting inside him. Every second of every minute. The thought of existing like this for the next sixty years infuriated him. Tormented him. Sucked every drop of hope from his veins as he stared at the being who was his salvation.
With a graceful lunge of her body, she braced her arms on the new railing and twisted, sitting on it. She bounced a few times, testing it. She fell still, shrinking into herself. Burke's eyes jumped to the path. A man walked by with a cluster of hoes gathered on one shoulder. He never looked at her, never said a word in passing. Nomi sat still on the fence until he was a few bodylengths away, then jumped down, gathering her extra twine and tools. Burke lost sight of her as she wove into the cornfield, hurrying, hiding.
The cat screamed and slashed, making his ribs throb. His thighs ached with the will he exerted to not follow her. He went to the field where they lay last night, dodging a Wolf on patrol. The flattened area still smelled faintly of her. He moved to the waterfall, climbed the rocks to the top. Leaning low, he took a drink of the cool, swift water. Then he sat on the ledge, legs dangling, staring at the pile of boulders below. He sat there until the night sky was black. The cloud covering thickened the air but gave no relief.
Eventually, he heard her footsteps. Tonight, he did not have to hunt her. He'd guessed right, that the humidity would drive her here. Her tread was slow, and sometimes paused. She respected the forest. Despite her comfort with it, she was never overconfident in it. He was so amazed and proud at her lack of human fear.
She paused when she entered the clearing by the river. "Evening, Burke."
The cat stilled, quivering. His shoulders burned as they relaxed. He took his first easy breath of the day. "Evening, Nomi."
"I wish you hadn't left last night."
He stayed silent. He had nothing to say. She didn't know how dangerous he was. How even his own people distrusted him.
"I'm glad you're here now, though."
His heart flipped in his chest. Having spent many hours watching her in the daytime, he knew she didn't speak much with the others in her Guild. Yet with him, she was generous, open and easy. She moved along the path downhill, winding through the trees gracefully.
"Hot today. Storm won't break, though. It will pass us."
"Yes." He suspected she was a stronger watermage than he. And with his Truxet blood, that was saying something. He bet that if she had to, she'd have been able to survive the Council tests and earn a place as a Council watermage. She wouldn't have been banished, failing as he had.
He watched her unwind her laces from the leather vest. She pulled it off and dropped it next to the rocks at the river's edge. The sigh of relief she gave went right to his gut. The cat roared, shaking his bones inside him. Sitting on a rock, she worked on her boots. Her smell mingled with that of the forest, the waterfall saturating the air, the storm. He drew it in as deeply as he could, and held it, memorized it.
"Are you coming in?" Her voice was low, her face bent over her feet, but he heard her clearly. Just as he saw with perfect clarity the line of her spine, the sweep of her ribs, the subtle flare of her hips.
He stood and began to strip.
Posted April 6, 2011
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