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By LUCINDA BETTS
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Lucinda Betts
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the cool shade of the adobe wall, the knife blade in Sureya's hand glittered madly, dangerously. For a heartbeat she thought she heard the impossible, her little brother's gurgling coo. Careful of the thorns, she looked up from the blood-red roses expecting to see one of her charges.
Instead, she gasped. A second sun burned on the horizon-a lava-red heart surrounded by a halo of deep blue. Two icy white tails trailed behind, long and bright against the summer sky.
A strange sensation pervaded her senses. Between her thighs a rhythmic pulsing began, matched by the throbbing of the heart in the sky. She became aware of the length of her neck, the weight of her breasts, the curve of her lips.
A catty voice from the cherry tree in the distance caught her attention. "Oh, no," it said. Had one of the children climbed the tree?
Looking across the courtyard, she saw no child. Her employer, Risham, was plucking the last fat cherries of the season. He cupped several in his hand, looking like he was holding something precious. Even in her confusion, her nipples hardened with desire. He was supposed to be in town, with his wife.
"Risham," she called.
With a dark look, he strode toward her. He looked purposeful and strong. Knowing she shouldn't, Sureya admired his lithe movements, his fine features.
"Risham," she breathed ashe moved into her space. The musky scent of him swirled around her, luring her toward him. Wordlessly, he cupped her cheek in his hand, his eyes locked on hers. She recognized desire. He burned with it, just as she did. "What are you-"
But he raised his sun-soaked fingers to her lips, and brought the warm, succulent fruit to her mouth. The sweet juice kissed her. The moment ripened in her mind. She could turn away now. She could leave Risham to his wife and children.
Instead, she opened her mouth, accepting his gift.
His finger brushed against her lip as she took the cherry, sending electric jolts through her. The tangy sweetness spread over her tongue, delighting her senses. Putting his hand on the curve of her waist, he pulled her toward him. Closing her eyes, she yielded to his touch.
"Oh, no," she heard again from the branches across the courtyard. The voice sounded husky, almost feline.
She opened her eyes and found Risham gone. Had he even been there? Alarm flooded through her. What was happening? And where were her charges?
"Nika!" she called. "Dayy! Lulal!"
Across the courtyard, gray feathers fluttered among the leafy branches. A catbird struggled in its nest, shoving something around with its beak. "This just won't do," the bird called to her, and then it meowed.
Sureya blinked, and the new sun shifted in the sky again, lurching its fiery heart closer to the horizon.
Standing in the cool shade of the fat adobe wall, Sureya's nipples hardened, almost painfully. Her breasts were tight, longing for something to loosen them-a hand, lips, fingertips. Anything would be better than this unfamiliar longing.
"Nika! Dayy! Lulal!" she called.
"These won't do at all," the bird said in its catty voice. It tossed its eggs-glossy and blue-out of its nest and into the air.
Sureya gasped, wanting to catch the eggs, wanting to return them to the feathery safety of their nest. She ran, hands outstretched, knowing she wasn't close enough to help.
But as the eggs fell, they hatched. Naked chicks squeaked indignation at their early flight. Midair, they flowered into frothy blossoms and floated softly to the ground.
The chicks, Sureya thought as a bloom caressed her cheek. Fighting a growing panic, she looked around the courtyard for the children in her care, the children of her heart.
They stood right before her.
But the yard, filled with the happy screams and laughter of older children just moments ago, was eerily silent. Nika and Dayy eyed the sky, oblivious of the catbird in the cherry tree, to chicks that turned into flowers.
Ignoring the throbbing between her thighs, hoping the sensation would go away, Sureya watched the red heart pound on the horizon.
"It's beautiful," Dayy said.
"But so strange," Nika added.
The children were enthralled. Watching the new sun, awe etched in their plump expressions, they stood rapt. Only the youngest child still chattered at her side, happily, thoughtlessly.
The throbbing between Sureya's thighs matched the pulsing on the horizon beat for beat. Sureya sighed, getting a hold of her strange emotions.
She set aside the basket of roses she and the youngest child were cutting. Over the thick peach adobe wall, fields of artichokes and grapes spread before her, just as expected. No talking birds. But the brawny peasants had stopped their work to stare at the horizon, pale-skinned hands on their white foreheads to better see the new sun.
Little Lulal grabbed Sureya's skirt and tugged. Sureya ripped her gaze away from the new sun and looked down, amazed even now at how much the girl's eyes looked like her father's. Her skin was as dark as her father's, so beautiful. So unlike her own. Affection for the girl surged through Sureya's heart.
She ignored the liquid silk flowing between her legs. She ignored her aching nipples, the way she felt suddenly aware of the fullness of her lips.
"Why's everyone quiet all of a sudden, Miss Sureya?" Lulal asked. Sureya realized the little girl couldn't see above the wall. She picked up her beloved charge and balanced the girl on her hip. Lulal clung to Sureya's side like she belonged there.
"Now you can see it," Sureya said, pointing to the bizarre sky. The warm comfort of Lulal's body soothed her jangling nerves. The child smelled like her father.
"What is it?" Lulal asked. "The sky looks so weird."
"I don't know, little girl. It's probably nothing." But the plaza bells started ringing wildly, off kilter and chaotically, as if to contradict her calming words. Someone in town was yanking on the tower ropes, randomly and hard.
Hard hands. Hard mouths. Hard bodies pounding into hers.
What was happening?
For a frantic moment, Sureya wondered whether she should run, take the children and go someplace safe. The mountains, maybe. But how would the children's parents find them? She couldn't leave without Risham-without his shiny brown hair and his deep, lambent eyes. She'd miss the burning look he sometimes gave her across the dinner table, while he sat next to his wife and their children.
And how could she outrun the sky?
"Let's go inside," Sureya said to the older children over the resonating clanging. Her charges looked at her blankly, and Sureya realized they couldn't hear her over the cacophony.
"Into the house!" she shouted, pointing to the door with her empty hand. The two older children ran inside, their hands over their ears, screaming. Nika was crying, her face pink in anger and fear. Sureya cursed the bells. The new sun was frightening enough without their riotous racket.
Sureya's upper thighs slid together as she fled into the house. An image-a woman's dark hair and skin, crimson nails-danced through her mind. The woman carried a scent of sun-ripe mulberries, a dangerous aura of sensuality.
The thick adobe walls of the house muffled sound and cooled the hot summer air, but her small charges were staring at her with terror-struck eyes.
"Shh, my little girl," she said, petting Nika's forehead. "Don't fret so. It's a little nothing."
"What is it?" asked Dayy, worry etched on his eleven-year-old face. "What is it, exactly?" He raised his voice slightly to overcome the pealing bells.
Sureya ignored the question. She ignored the swollen pearl between her thighs. Still carrying Lulal, she closed the door behind them with her foot. Then she walked around the house and shuttered the windows.
What would Risham do, if he were here with his children?
Sureya knew the answer-he'd pretend everything was normal. He'd make things customary with his calm attitude.
"Now," she said in a steady voice as she closed the last shutter, "we'll be able to hear each other." Maybe it would shut out some of the afternoon's evil, too.
"But what is it?" Dayy asked again.
Sureya put Lulal down on the floor and stroked her head. "Lulal, my love, why don't you go with Nika and ask Cook to prepare tea and cakes for us?"
"Yay!" Lulal chirped. She grabbed her sister's hand and dragged her toward Cook's lair. Trailing behind her little sister, Nika shot a look at her nanny. Sureya read reluctance to leave the safety of her nanny's side.
"But what-" the boy said again.
"Dayy!" Sureya said. "I heard your question, and I don't know the answer."
"But you always know the answer," the boy said, his green eyes shining in dismay. He looked more like his mother than the other children did, and Sureya had to remind herself that she had nothing for which to feel guilty.
Except ... she'd eaten a summer cherry from sun-soaked fingers. And the catbird had fed her eggs to the wind.
Images of a woman's dark hand sliding over her white breast skated through her mind: long, tapered nails over her hardened nipple. The area between her thighs ached for-for something she couldn't name.
What was wrong with her?
"Miss Sureya!" the boy said.
"I'm sorry, Dayy," she said, shaking herself from her inappropriate thoughts. "I don't know what that thing is in the sky, and I just wish those bells would stop ringing-"
Just then, the bells fell silent.
"How'd you do that?" Dayy asked.
Sureya laughed, sounding nervous to herself. "I didn't do it!" She wiped her damp palms on her skirt and said, "The priests probably stopped the village madman from pulling the ropes."
"Do you think they know about the new sun-the priests, I mean? What will they do?"
"Dayy, my love, I just don't know. The holy fathers probably have to make a sacrifice or two and say a whole bunch of prayers. Then it'll probably leave."
"But it's a new sun," the boy said. "How can anyone make the sun leave?"
The girls burst into the room before she could answer, and Sureya breathed a sigh of relief.
"Look! Cook gave us honey!" Lulal said. Nika hurried back to the dining room with a kitchen servant in tow. The sweet scent of almond cakes filled the room, warm and delicious. The servant set out a pot of honeyed khal and plates for the rolls.
"Thank you, Weset," Sureya said to the servant, and to the children, she said, "Sit, please."
Sureya placed the last roll on Dayy's plate just as the door swung open, wafting hot, dusty air over them. "Risham!" Sureya said, resisting the urge to throw herself into his strong, safe arms. "Daddy!" the children shouted.
His gaze flew over the children sitting around the table eating almond cakes. "Thank the One God, the children are safe!" Finally, he looked at his nanny. "Thank you, Sureya." He sounded surprisingly relieved.
Sureya blinked. His fingers dripped with what looked like cherry juice. Had there been a real danger?
But when his eyes locked on hers, she felt a different hazard. Her knees tingled and her stomach fluttered. "You're welcome," she said.
"What's happening, father?" Dayy asked.
"And where's Momma?" Nika asked.
The front door opened again, this time smacking the adobe wall behind it with a loud crack.
"Momma!" Lulal cried, rushing from the table and flinging herself into her mother's arms. Nika did the same. Even in the chaos, Sureya caught Dayy's look. He dearly wanted to find comfort in his mother's arms, but he didn't want to look like a baby. Sureya stepped behind him and surreptitiously put her hand on his shoulder.
Fajal closed the door and paused to pet her girls. Sureya watched the woman close her eyes as she ran her brown fingers over the silky hair of her children.
Sureya squashed a jagged pang of jealousy. Of course the children loved their mother. They might also love Sureya in their own way, but she would always be hired help. She would always be white.
Watching the mother's fingers as they stroked her children's heads, Sureya wondered whether it were Fajal's hand she'd imagined skimming under her chemise, hardening her nipples. What would it feel like if Fajal actually touched her like that?
But somehow the thought didn't seem ... accurate. Fajal didn't smell like mulberries. The scent of ginger wafted around her employer.
Sureya shook her head. Why was she thinking such absurd and disturbing things?
She snuck a gaze at Risham and found him looking at her. Was that burning intensity she saw, or was it her heated imagination? His fingertips were stained a cherry red, and her mouth watered for sun-soaked summer fruit.
Silly girl, she chided herself, ignoring her wobbly knees. Stupid girl. She would always be in the peasant class. Her skin color ensured it. Risham belonged to his wife, and no amount of longing would bring him to her.
Sureya shook her head. She'd never do anything to hurt this family. They were all she had. The bloody barbarians had orphaned her; only Risham's and Fajal's kindness redeemed her.
Fajal untangled herself from her brood and straightened. Then she walked over to the heavy door and locked it, making butterflies flutter through Sureya's stomach. Why would the door need locking in the afternoon?
Then Fajal looked right at her, as if the older woman could read all the longing Sureya felt, as if Fajal could sense the strange magic pulsing through her thighs and breasts and lips and fingers.
"Children," Fajal said, "I want you to play by yourselves quietly for a few moments-in the cellar."
"But Momma!" Lulal objected. "It's dark down there. And stinky."
"Sureya will light a lantern for you-no, two lanterns. Grab your paints and your books if you want them, Nika, and yes, Lulal, you may bring your stuffed pony. Be quick."
Why did Fajal want them hidden in the dark amongst the roots and apples? Squashing her growing alarm, she turned to usher the children to the cellar.
"Sureya," Fajal added.
"Please return to the study immediately after you get them settled."
"You'd better hurry," her mistress added in her smoky voice. "I want to talk to you."
Chapter TwoWith a feeling of unease, the king of Marotiri inhaled deeply. Scraps of ancient song wafted over the wall in the breeze. Voices kept time with swinging scythes, and peasants worked calmly under the warm sun, singing stories filled with longing, with ache.
Wondering if the feeling was contagious, Kalief looked over the rooftop parapet to the fields sprawling before him. Sheep grazed placidly on the hilltop. Barley, tomatoes, and grapes filled the flatlands. Everywhere he looked he saw an abundance of food. He saw safety and prosperity.
He saw it, but he didn't feel it.
"Sire!" His castellan burst onto the parapet.
"What is it?"
"The barbarians, sire! They've attacked Xoreztown!"
"By the Above, they're getting bold. Ready my warhorse," he ordered, turning toward the door.
"He's ready, sire. The soldiers are waiting for you."
Running now, Kalief shouted over his shoulder, "Teron?"
"He's there, too, sire."
"Inform Abbess Anhara!" he shouted to his castellan as he pounded down the stairs toward the stable. Reaching the base of the tower, he flung open the stable door and shouted, "Teron!"
"Here!" His second was mounted, his huge gray pawing the ground impatiently. One hundred mounted soldiers waited on Teron's cue in silence.
"What do we have?" he asked Teron, vaulting atop his horse.
"The standard company-fifteen longbows, fifteen short-bows, seventy swordsmen."
"No, sire," Teron answered. "Do you want the Abbess Anhara or her nuns?"
Kalief grabbed his reins, and his horse leapt forward toward the stable door, eager to run. "No," he answered Teron. "She knows where we're going. Let's run."
As one, Teron and the other soldiers followed him, and the pounding of the hooves behind him shook the ground. The sound sent an undeniable surge of power through him. He wanted to annihilate the barbarians.
But as they approached Xoreztown, Kalief saw smoke pouring from within the walls. The acrid odor burned his nostrils. The village would be lost. "The One's balls," Kalief swore.
He ached to bury his sword in throat after barbarian throat, in gut after gut. Battle lust licking through his veins, Kalief kicked his stallion, but his outrider galloped past him. It was the man's job to draw out any enemy, and his horse was the swiftest among the king's herd. Kalief should have let him pass.
Excerpted from THE SUPPLICANT by LUCINDA BETTS Copyright © 2007 by Lucinda Betts. Excerpted by permission.
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