Authors: Jess Raven,Paula Black
Mac pushed open the door to his chambers. The heat of him crowded against her spine as he motioned her in, thawing the icy layer of fear still clinging to her skin. The passages of the wolves’ termite-mound dwelling looked so similar, Ash hadn’t realised they’d come full circle. Her head was in the pit, facing nightmares in the flesh.
He inspected the lock she’d jimmied earlier and turned his shrewd gaze on her. ‘The lock was for your own protection, Ashling.’ His voice tugged her into the room.
She twitched up one eyebrow. ‘My protection? I won’t be your prisoner, Mac.’
The bed was a no-go for seating. She glanced at it and dismissed it. She’d been in that bed with him before, and that had ended … interestingly. Ash lowered herself gingerly to a fur rug and crossed her legs, bringing the folds of the robe over her knees. She prayed she wasn’t sitting on someone’s brother. Even after seeing the hell-wolves up close, it troubled her, more than she let on, that this place was filled with pelts. She understood the need for warmth, for clothing from whoever’s fur it was, but the underlying tone of violence unnerved her.
Black eyes narrowed on her and an inhuman growl rumbled up a human throat. A protest to the distance between them. But he said nothing as he sat on the edge of the bed.
‘I am not one of those creatures, Mac.’
‘No. You are so much more. Humanity has empowered our species to be greater than the sum of the two. We have the strength of the beast and the intelligence to tame it.’
‘And yet you’re almost extinct. You said your ancestors spliced themselves with humans? Why not solve your ‘shortage’ by doing it again, with those monsters?’
‘If only it were that easy,’ Mac exhaled. ‘We can’t do it alone. You might say we had divine intervention the first time.’
‘The hand of God?’ Her brows rose in incredulous arches.
‘Not God, though some call her a goddess. We brokered a deal with the Morrígan.’ Elbows propped on his knees, half of MacTire’s face was concealed by his hair. His voice dropped an octave, angry. ‘We are no longer on bargaining terms with your grandmother.’
‘My grandmother …’
… DeMorgan. Lightbulbs flashed.
Connal had told her these things. They’d been strange at the time, and now …
‘My grandmother is the Morrígan?’ She’d only ever read of the shapeshifting Goddess of Battle. The Morrígan supposedly fought alongside the Tuatha Dé Danann to trap the Fomorians, that much she knew. She prophesied the end of the world. Ash really couldn’t see her frail grandmother being up to that task.
‘Well,’ she laughed nervously, ‘it’s not everyday you learn you’re related to a deity.’
poisoned my brother against his own people. She trained Connal to contain us and hunt us to the verge of extinction. It was never supposed to be this way.’ He came off the bed like a big cat, fluid and powerful, muscle bunching under tawny skin, and then he dropped, gracefully folding his massive frame onto his knees in front of her. Mac reached for her hands and she flinched, but he merely brushed his fingers over her own. ‘You must see, Ashling, I had no choice. Connal knew it too. He brought you here, to save us all.’
‘I don’t want to be your saviour. I just want to go home, back to my nice, boring life.’ Confusion battered around her skull so much she could have been an arcade game. Nobody was who she thought they were.
Fuck, I’m not who I thought I was
. She was changed. Her thoughts were a mire and she was sinking in the truth of it all. Because if, damn it all, if she was one of them, then she was trapped here, a prisoner of her new biology. His prisoner.
‘There’s nothing for you above-ground, Ashling. Your home is here now. You are safe, with your own kind.’ His voice was deceptively soft. He sounded like he cared and touched her like she could break, or he was stopping himself from breaking her. There was an intensity in the energy around him, reinforcing his point.
He was not going to let her leave.
‘You can’t keep me prisoner. This is barbaric. I’m not one of you. I’ll be fine, back in my world. With the humans.’ Denial, rough and polluting, tried to swallow the truth. ‘There is a way back. I saw those men, wolves, when the doctor took me to the club. They were there.’
‘The black waters can only be traversed during full moon. You have been victim to the Morrígan’s curse once, would you wish that upon yourself again?’
Her emotions shifted and the primal energy within her responded, its claws pressing cuts into her fisted palms. ‘What am I?’
‘You are incredible.’ Strong fingers wound in her hair, bunching it at her nape. He leaned in close, drawing an inhale along her skin and she shuddered, protesting the rein he had on her hair. ‘I can help you, teach you,’ he said.
‘Don’t touch me.’ Her words were ice to the heat of lust in his voice.
His nod was short. Coal eyes bright with the sting of yet another rejection, he rose from her.
Sensing his tension, Ash hoped to deflect his attention away from her. ‘Connal said there were others like me, other girls. He called them latents.’
‘Not like you, Ashling. You are unique.’ Mac paced a small way from her. It made her nervous when he prowled. ‘It’s true we hoped to find a solution to our problem, but those women were weak-blooded mongrels. None could withstand the potency of the bite, or carry a child to term. If the
didn’t drive them insane, it transformed them into that female you saw back there.’
Yeah, she’d seen them at the club too, a bunch of mindless, sex-driven addicts. ‘Why were they weak-blooded?’
‘Because they are the defective issue of
matings with humans.’
? Like the doctor?’ That bastard stole her blood and lured her back to Form on the pretense of helping her. She had a couple of words for him next time they met. ‘But Connal said they were celibates.’
‘Sworn not to taint the Fomorian bloodlines, yes. But, fallible and subject to temptation on rare occasions, like the best of us.’
She scowled, knowing damn well he was referring to Connal, and what he’d allegedly done to that girl.
‘Is that what I am? The love-child of some monk’s broken vow?’ Even as a child, Ash rarely questioned her paternity. It hurt her mother to speak of it. Little wonder, if she was the result of a one-night-stand, or worse, with some horny priest who couldn’t keep it in his pants. She’d assumed if her mother hadn’t wanted to tell her, she was better off in the dark. ‘Do you know who my father was?’
‘I cannot say with certainty, but my every instinct tells me he was one of us, a pure-blood wolf.’
‘Are you telling me one of your men raped my mother?’
‘We are not the monsters you think us. We are a proud and ancient race fighting for survival, and desperate times call for extreme measures. Fomorians inhabited Ireland before any others; We have as much right to our homeland as they do. Is it wrong to desire freedom?’
‘Will you grant me mine?’ she challenged.
Mac moved with animal grace towards the door, aiming gruff words over his shoulder. ‘I want to help you, Ashling. Let me. In time, you will see Fomor as a home, not a prison, and perhaps, what you feel for me … can be something more than just this blood-tie we share. I have already waited an eternity. I mean to persuade you that you can love me, Ashling, as you thought you loved him.’
Triggered by MacTire’s exit, the tension keeping Ash rigid and angry dissolved, opening the floodgates and turning her into a fetal ball on the floor.
Her head was reeling with Mac's revelations. Little wonder she'd felt a connection with Connal. Like recognised like. They had history in common, so much he never had the chance to tell her. He lost his mother young, just as she had. He'd been dragged from the life he knew and was left to fend for himself. Sure, a few rough years bouncing around foster homes didn't begin to compare, but the loneliness, the abandonment, the fear. Those were her old friends.
Except that was where the similarities ended.
He fought back.
Her heart refused to believe he was all bad. She'd seen his compassion, with the damn dog, with the graveyard, with his dead son. He’d given his life, for her.
What had she done? Cringed away from the nightmare of her childhood, tried to make herself so small that maybe nobody would notice her, and she’d be left alone. All her life, she avoided friendships and relationships, too cowardly to face what life might throw at her. She'd kept her head down, buried in ancient mythology, because the real world seemed so much scarier. And for what? The monsters found her anyway.
Maybe Mac was right. There was nothing left for her in her old life. She'd been so busy avoiding life, it had passed her by.
Ash cried until her heart hurt and her chest seized up. She was alone, the cuckoo bird dropped into another’s nest. She’d die without them, Mac made that much clear. But honestly? What did he think she had to live for? Her man was gone, if he’d ever really been hers, and she was left with some wolf hoodoo she was trying not to understand.
Ash had no one.
Mac wanted to be her someone.
It was a mess, a big, volatile mess, and she was exhausted by it. Tears blurred her vision and she whined pathetically, giving in to the next wave of despair.
Sleep must have taken her at some point because when she next opened her eyes, her head was pillowed. She’d been moved and was sprawled on a giant bed, the weight of a powerful arm draped across her waist, a large palm spread over her stomach. She was fitted flush to the lines of a muscled body and in her waking fog, Ash could almost pretend it was Connal holding her. But straight blonde was intertwined with her dark curls and it shattered the dream.
The King’s bed held none of the comfort Connal’s had, in fact … She lifted the arm pinning her and scooted from under it, redistributing her weight on all fours for minimal disruption. The mattress shifted, but Mac only growled, eyelids fluttering in sleep. He was an arrogant bastard, forcing her to his bed when sleep made her helpless. Her eyes were aching from the salt of her tears, raw and gritty under the rub of her knuckles. The last time Ash had cried herself to sleep was that damn night when Connal broke into her house, making the wolf-symbol of her nightmares a reality. She’d recoiled from him then. Now? What wouldn’t she give for a do-over.
She glared at the sleeping predator, itching for a pillow so she could just …
Gah, I want to smother him! That would end all my problems. Or get me killed quicker.
Settling for stealthing the pillows from under his head, Ash returned to the fur rug and fluffed her stolen luxuries.
Better to sleep on the floor like a dog than be the King’s bitch.
Said king flopped over, making the wood posts creak. Ash kicked her foot out to the base, frustrated. The creaking stopped. Satisfied he’d shut up, she figured she could sleep some more, while she waited for him to wake and leave.
The bastard was one of the monsters, but he was the monster she knew right now. A prisoner of her own fear, Ash was still lost. Her escape hadn’t gone to plan and she’d been punished by the foreign desires that took her over.
Her next escape would end so very differently.
She couldn’t stay. When they started their plan to turn her into Mother Of The Year, she’d be better off dead. Her imagination played out scenarios in cringeworthy detail, and none ended well. Fomor was overrun with wolves, not a place to wander around unescorted, especially for a woman. She'd seen what they did to Red Shoes, and as much as it affected her, Ash refused to be a chew toy for their appetites. They'd devour her and she'd lose herself forever.
As days passed, it became a ritual of sorts. She’d fall asleep on the rug she’d claimed only to wake snuggled into MacTire’s warmth as he nuzzled her hair and growled in his sleep. Ash always eased herself free and settled back on the floor. As a show of defiance, it was pretty pathetic. She’d drift back into dreams with her head full of escape plots and wake again, captured in his bed. Truth be told, the floor was not as comfortable, and she had bruises and aches from laying too long on one side, but she refused to give in. He didn’t have the right to hold her, or share the intimate trust that came with sleeping beside another person. She didn’t trust him.
While her nights, or what passed as night in this sunless realm, were filled with broken sleep, her days were stuffed full of him. When Mac could be with her, he was. He fed her sweet roots and some sort of meat she was too hungry to refuse. He seemed to take pleasure in the task. The meals were haphazard creations of whatever they’d managed to bring down at the full moon and what they somehow cultivated in the wasteland. Her ‘
What is this?
’ was always met with a slow smile and a wink. ‘
Just try it, you’ll like it.
’ And since he didn’t die, she ate it too.
He did his best with her. He curbed the asshole in him, telling her stories of his youth, the funnier antics of his
and the tragedy of the aptly named Knutr who was locked in the dungeon for his own safety. He was trying, and she tried her hardest not to antagonise him, biding time and gathering information.
She behaved, sometimes, but the endless darkness incited violent frustration. The days when she was caged in his rooms, alone, were when she snapped, leaving his chambers destroyed on more than one occasion. He’d greet her with a tight smile and usher the
to clean up her mess. Then he’d stonewall her with his silence, leaving her with her own thoughts. Mac was an ass at those times, but she learned quickly that he could be soothed when she allowed his touches; the brush of his fingers through her hair or the sweep of his palm up her spine, the possessive way he’d grip her around the waist when they passed another wolf. He was never cruel, never pushed her for what she knew his body raged for. Yet Ash still cried herself to sleep, holding on to the last piece of Connal she had.