Authors: Donna Grant
After what the female didâand consequently the Kings' retaliation against herâLaith hadn't been able to look at his woman the same. Then the war with the humans broke out, and the strain on their relationship was like the straw that broke the camel's back.
He might have had difficultly trusting humans with more than helping him run the pub, but he never despised them as Ulrik and even Kellan had. Matter of fact, Laith didn't think much about them at all. The Dragon Kings were meant to protect the humans, and they did to a degree. The Kings didn't protect the humans from themselves. Not once had the Kings stopped a human war.
The Kings had, however, stopped the Fae from taking over the realm. It was one of many wars the Kings fought for the humans without them ever knowing it. Unlike others, Laith had done his duty without much fuss simply because he had given his oath. And an oath, once given, was binding.
He couldn't take his eyes from Iona. She lured him, enticed him without even trying. Laith didn't want to think what she could do to him if she tried. His body vibrated with uncontrollable need and uncontainable desire.
Every fiber of his being told him to leave, but he couldn't. Iona was appealing in ways he couldn't begin to describe, exciting in ways he didn't try to define.
There was no denying her beauty, but it was more than just her flawless sun-kissed skin. She had an air of confidence that hid the uncertainty and trepidation within. That combination of self-assurance and vulnerability was a heady mix indeed.
In all his millions of years of living, Laith had met all kinds of humans, but there had never been anyone like Iona. She was a beacon, a light that led him straight to her. As much as Laith might want her, he knew better than to get entangled deeply with her. It wasn't in his nature.
He dropped his arm and took a step toward Iona when Sammi's eyes suddenly went wide. She was looking at the door of the pub, not Iona. Laith followed her gaze. As soon as he caught sight of Rhi, he wasn't sure whether to shout with joy or call Phelan and let the Warrior know Rhi was all right.
Rhi's gaze slowly moved around the pub until she spotted him. She didn't smile, or even acknowledge him. Instead, her eyes kept roving until she noticed Sammi. The heels of Rhi's black heels were loud in a pub that had suddenly gone silent at her arrival.
For men who had never seen her before, they were struck dumb by her ethereal beauty, not realizing they were gazing upon a Fae.
For the women, there was a blend of envy and desire.
Rhi came to a stop beside Sammi and Iona's table and offered a small smile to Sammi. Sammi jumped up and threw her arms around Rhi. Laith watched as Rhi stood as still as a stone for two heartbeats before she hesitantly returned the embrace.
That's all Laith needed to see to know that Rhi was still somewhat herself. It was a relief, even if he knew the Rhi that had always been might not be the Rhi standing in his pub now.
Laith walked to them just as Sammi was stepping back and wiping the tears from her face.
“Damn you, Rhi,” Sammi said with a sniff. “You know I don't cry.”
Rhi's smile was wider as she glanced at Laith and focused on Sammi. “It's good to see you as well.”
“We were worried. I'm glad you dropped by,” Laith said.
Rhi looked to the ground before she swiveled her silver eyes to him. “Not everyone was worried, I'm sure.”
“The ones who count,” Sammi hastened to say.
Rhi smirked and tossed her long black hair over her shoulder. Laith noticed the tips of Rhi's nails were painted black.
The black shirt wasn't what caused Laith's concern because it wasn't the first time Rhi wore black. It was her nails. Rhi loved her polish. Everyone knew that, and for the most part, you could discern her mood by the colors she chose.
The black was significant. Mainly because she often used it as an accent, but she had never painted her nails that color.
When he looked up from her denim-clad legs, her brows were raised as she watched him. Laith lifted one shoulder in a shrug. She took a deep breath, and when she released it, her shoulders sagged a little, as if she had decided something.
“I'm not the same,” she said softly.
Laith couldn't even imagine what she had gone through while in the Dark's dungeon with Balladyn, her once closest friend, torturing her. Phelan had described what Rhi looked like when he saw her chained, as had Kiril and Shara, but none of them could really know what she endured.
Without a word, Laith wrapped an arm about her shoulders and gave her as much of a hug as he knew he could get away with. Rhi was leery of the Dragon Kings, after she and her King lover had ended their affair.
Rhi patted his hand on her shoulder.
He leaned close and whispered, “If you need anything, let me know.”
“Who is this?” Rhi asked as she looked at Iona.
Laith shifted his gaze to Iona to find her staring. He cleared his throat and tried to drop his arm, but Rhi kept ahold of his hand. “This is Iona Campbell. Iona, let me introduce you to a good friend, Rhi.”
“Rhi,” Iona said, glancing at Rhi's hand atop Laith's.
Rhi grinned slyly. “Iona.”
Sammi looked between the two women. Then she asked Rhi, “Have you seen Tristan yet?”
“No,” Rhi said and pulled her gaze from Iona to Sammi. “I stopped here first.”
“Here?” Laith said and managed to pull his hand from Rhi's. “Why?”
She shrugged and waved at Glen who immediately brought her a glass of whisky. She smiled brightly, causing Glen to blush to the roots of his red hair. He tripped over a nearby chair on his way back to the bar.
“Rhi,” Laith mumbled.
“It's not my fault,” she said with a smile.
And for the first time Laith grasped that her smile didn't reach her eyes. She was trying, but failing miserably. The concern he'd had earlier returned tenfold.
As if sensing his scrutiny, Rhi's smile faded altogether as she tossed back the whisky and slammed the glass facedown on the table.
Laith had to take the attention off Rhi. He jerked his chin to Iona and told Rhi, “Iona is here for a wee bit settling her father's estate.”
“Campbell you say?” Rhi asked and looked closely at Iona.
Iona lifted a brow and asked saucily, “Is there something on my face?”
“Do you have any family?” Rhi asked.
Iona frowned as she looked to Sammi and then back at Rhi. “Just my mum, why?”
“No other Campbells?”
“No,” Iona stated tightly.
Laith knew Rhi had seen what others hadâthat Iona looked a lot like Hayden Campbell. He opened his mouth to stop whatever Rhi was going to say, but it was too late.
“I know a Campbell,” Rhi said.
Iona chuckled softly. “There are many Campbells in Scotland.”
“True enough,” Rhi said before she turned on her heel and walked away.
Laith looked to Sammi to find her brow furrowed deeply as she stared after Rhi. After a glance at Iona, Laith hurried after Rhi. He managed to catch her outside the pub before she could vanish, as the Fae were wont to do.
“Rhi,” he called.
She stopped, sighing loudly as she slapped her hands on her thighs and looked dramatically at the stars. “Go back inside and flirt with Iona, Laith. There's nothing for you out here.”
He halted beside her and waited for Rhi to look at him. “You have no idea how worried everyone has been. Phelan and Aisley have been beside themselves.”
“Phelan is a Warrior and half-Fae, and Aisley is a Phoenix. They're married and can find many ways to occupy themselves other than to worry about me.”
“You really don't have any idea how much you mean to them, do you?” Laith asked.
Rhi hurriedly looked away and crossed her arms over her chest. “I needed time.”
“Anyone would. We doona hold that against you, but we thought you were dead. After Con told us Ulrik took you, we thought the worst.”
She stood silently for so long that Laith didn't think she was going to say more. Then she spoke in such a low whisper that the wind couldn't even find her words. “I'm not the same.”
“You freed yourself, Rhi. You broke the Chains of Mordare. Do you know how strong you have to be mentally to do that?”
She snorted and jerked her head around to him. “Strong? You think I'm strong?” she all but yelled, her eyes bright. “I'm broken!”
As soon as the last word left her lips, she was gone.
Laith put his hands on his hips and dropped his chin to his chest. He hadn't handled that well. All he could do was hope that Rhi went to see Phelan soon. The Warrior and Aisley considered Rhi family. What was more, Rhi knew that. Perhaps that's why she hadn't gone to see them.
Not because she didn't care, but because she cared too much.
Was that why she hadn't been to Dreagan yet? At first glance, he assumed she had managed to get past whatever happened to her, but it was apparent she was far from that. Going to Dreagan would put her too close to her past and the love she'd lost.
And might very well send her over the knife's edge she walked upon.
Laith lifted his head when he heard the pub door open and saw Sammi and Iona rush out.
Sammi was the first to him. She looked around expectantly. “Where is she?”
Laith dropped his arms and sighed. “Gone.”
“She needs more time.”
Iona finally reached them. “Rhi needs time for what?”
“Umâ¦” Sammi hesitated, glancing at him. “She was recently kidnapped. She's still dealing with all of it.”
Iona looked down as she kicked the toe of her hiking boot against the rocks. “I didn't know. I feel bad for giving her attitude.”
“Trust me, Rhi didn't mind that,” Laith said.
Sammi blew out a breath. “I guess we better return for our food.”
“Yeah,” Iona said.
Yet she delayed even as Sammi went back inside. Laith faced Iona, wondering what would keep her outside with him. It was the first time they had been alone, and in the cool night air under the stars, he was having a hard time thinking of anything other than tasting her lips.
“Did you and Rhi date?” Iona asked.
“Date?” he repeated in shock. “Nay.”
Iona smiled. “Good,” she said and pivoted to go back into the pub.
Laith waited until Iona was back inside the pub before he peered into the shadows and saw a shape. It shifted and walked out from the tree line. He sighed when he recognized Rhys.
“How long have you been there?” Laith asked.
Rhys shrugged. “Long enough.”
In other words, he had seen Rhi. “What's your take on Rhi?”
Rhys was quiet for a long moment before he said, “She's trying to be what she was before, but something has changed her.”
Laith glanced at the ground, because he knew Rhys was also talking about himself. Ever since the wound he received while fighting the Dark Ones in Ireland, he hadn't been the same. No one had.
Because his wound had been delivered by a Dragon King.
They had yet to determine who it was, but no one was more aware of it than Rhys. Though he pretended everything was fine, it wasn't even close.
Laith let him lie. He wanted to push Rhys to talk, but if Rhys was going to talk to anyone, it was Kiril.
“Aye. You've the right of it,” Laith said. “I'm happy she's back.”
“The question is: how long was she with Ulrik?”
“It couldna have been for long. Con has him under surveillance.”
Rhys snorted derisively. “As if that makes a difference. He's the one who took Rhi out of that hell.”
“Are you saying you believe Rhi might have turned against us?”
“Rhi has never let us down. We really can no' trust anyone else.”
Laith frowned and took a step toward Rhys. “You can trust us. We're your brothers.”
“Really? It was a King who sent that blast of magic toward me.”
“This is what our enemies want, Rhys. They want us fractured from within.”
Rhys looked at the pub. “Are you returning to woo the lovely Iona, or are you taking to the skies?”
“Iona is here. I'll meet up with you later.”
Rhys turned on his heel and faded back into the shadows. Laith remained where he was for a time thinking over Rhys's words. It was true that Rhys's wound had been dealt by a Dragon King. Dragon magic was recognizable by a King, but Laith couldn't believe it was anyone at Dreagan.
Which left Ulrik. He was the likely culprit, and yet his magicâas well as his ability to shift into dragon formâhad been taken when he was banished from Dreagan. Ulrik let everyone know he would come for Con one day to exact his revenge, and yet Laith couldn't imagine Ulrik attacking anyone else but Con.
Ulrik might have escalated the war with the humans, but he was honorable. Or was he? For thousands of millennia, Ulrik had been confined to his human form to wander the earth and never return to Dreagan.
If the same had been done to him, Laith knew eventually the anger and resentment would change him. It was possible the same could have happened to Ulrik. The fact of the matter was that Rhys was healed, and until Laith knew for certain that Ulrik was the one trying to expose them, he wasn't going to go after him.
“Doona let me be wrong,” he whispered to the night.
Laith returned to the pub. Once inside, his gaze fastened on Iona who had taken her seat across from Sammi. Iona had her back to him as she laughed at something Sammi said and took a drink of ale.
He walked to them, his eyes never wavering from Iona. As he approached, she turned her head and flashed him a welcoming smile. His lips tilted up in answer. He didn't want to like her, didn't want to notice how her shirt hugged her curves or how good her long legs looked encased in the denim.
“My shift has begun,” Sammi said and slid out of the booth. “Take my spot, Laith,” she said and waved at Iona before walking away.