Authors: Claire Ashgrove
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Gothic, #Paranormal
“But…” Unable to find the words, Noelle trailed off with a tight frown.
“Farran’s good to you, isn’t he?”
The abrupt subject change caught Noelle off guard. At once, the memory of his kiss, of the weight of his body pressing into hers, slammed into her. She shivered with the impact, recalling just how good Farran could be when he wasn’t carrying on about demons and angels. “Sometimes,” she conceded in a whisper.
“Like Tane, like most everyone here, Farran’s a good man. He’s a little rougher around the edges than the rest of them. But give him time. Let him prove himself to you. Like Tane, he can make a difference in your life. The real man will show through if you give him opportunity.”
Give him opportunity? Did that mean she could do something that might make him find her more desirable? She flinched at the idea. Even if she wanted him to find her irresistible, she didn’t have the slightest clue how to accomplish that. When it came to men, they were as foreign as that piece of wood in the basement.
The twisting of her heart made the obvious unavoidable. Reluctantly, she surrendered to the illogical realization she
want to make a difference to Farran. She couldn’t keep him, couldn’t abide by his beliefs, and yet every time he stood within two feet of her, her heart did a little tap dance against her ribs. And the kiss, that incredible kiss … She’d give her eyeteeth for this morning to have meant something.
From the corner of her eye, she studied Anne as they walked down the hall. She knew Farran. She knew
. Maybe Anne could give her some advice.
A blush crept in fast and furious, negating the thought. No, aside from Farran, Anne was the last person Noelle wanted to look stupid in front of. She’d only feel more insecure if she confided her naivety. Better that she say nothing at all. In a few days, it wouldn’t matter. She wouldn’t be here to care. Farran, along with Anne, would be strangers she’d leave in a dark corner of her memory.
They passed the commons, stalked down a wide carpeted hall, and entered a padded room the size of a gymnasium. Merrick sat in a folding chair in the middle, two wooden swords lying across his lap. He stood, his eyes only for Anne as they approached, and again Noelle felt the foreign pang of yearning. To be looked at like that, like no one else was present … She surrendered to a wistful, inward sigh.
“Are you ready, Noelle?”
Before she could answer, Merrick arced an arm across his body, and the flat length of the makeshift weapon thumped into her stomach. She doubled over, gasping for breath.
“Use that to remember. Never allow your opponent to anticipate your actions,” Merrick instructed in a low, even tone.
Farran rose and dusted his hands on his jeans. The crisp winter breeze stirred his hair. In the chill, he caught the scent of snow. Christmas would come again. Each year it passed, another day of celebration and merriment he did not share. This year would be no different.
He turned his face to the full moon, seeking answers in its silver glow. For centuries, he had sated his physical needs in exchange for a handful of coins, unashamed. Not even the Order’s code of chastity, nor the punishment for breaking it, gave him pause. He was a man. He would suffer the temporary loss of sword and robes to keep himself sane. And oft he had.
Yet Anne had run him through like a pike.
She will know.
So deeply did the claim puncture, the prospect of a stolen hour of escape with Leah soured.
’Twas what brought him to the gardens to sit in the dark. He should not care whether he wounded Noelle. It should matter not if the truth of his preferences moistened her fawnlike eyes.
Still, for a reason that eluded him, he did not wish to cause her pain. He knew only that he wished to keep intact the happiness she had shown him.
Make it blossom.
A realization that shook him to the core, for it rang too similar to the innocent hope he had harbored, a long-ago summer, with a maid named Brighid.
He blew out a breath, watched it cloud before him. The breeze stirred again, and he embraced the cold. Icy fingers slid beneath his clothes, across his skin, and into his veins where the biting sting tempered his overwarm blood.
Lowering his gaze, he scanned the perimeter’s iron gate. Beyond, the rustle of dried leaves set his senses on alert. Azazel could send his foolish shades. He could order all the horrific nytyms to attack. He could even instruct his shape-shifting demons to aid his foul knights. Farran would meet them all with a smile to match their wickedness. But Azazel would not harm Noelle. Not as long as breath remained in Farran’s body. He would walk with Azazel’s minions in hell before a claw could touch her pretty face.
The simmering of anger stirred in his veins, and he looked away. Tonight they would fight again. But not now. Not yet.
A shadowy flicker behind a distant window made him squint. Silhouettes faced off, swords in hand. In a dance he knew by heart, they circled slow. A hand thrust forth. A body jerked back. Long hair slashed sideways, and the evader returned the strike.
Curiosity prickled his skin. Did Noelle practice? He shuffled a heel against hard-packed earth, fighting the pull of discovery. Before his eyes, the figures came together in a clash of blades, and one stumbled back. Fell.
Like sparks set to dried rushes, his temper flared. He ground his teeth together and stormed across the lawn. The rear door gave easily beneath the slap of his palm, and he stalked down the hall to the indoor training room. If ’twas her, he had words to say. She was too inexperienced to parry thus.
As the doors swung open, Farran halted in place. Where he had expected to find his seraph still in a crumpled heap, she stood toe-to-toe with Anne. Pulled back in a ponytail that brushed her waist, her long hair swayed with the graceful rhythm of her body. Perspiration dampened straying strands that clung to her face, and her cheeks were flushed. Rosy, to match her parted lips.
To his amazement, exhaustion did not slur her actions nor cling to her expression. If his eyes did not mistake him, behind her glasses, excitement gleamed.
Farran stood unmoving, counting off the elementary paces in his head. Parry, back, parry, thrust, parry … Feint? Where had she learned to feint?
Anne stumbled against her own force, Noelle’s surprise maneuver catching her off guard. She rose, her back meeting the edge of Noelle’s blade. Beaten, Anne set her hands on her knees and panted.
“Again,” Merrick barked. “’Tis twice she has caught you in that trick, Anne. Use your head.”
Twice. ’Twas not a lucky step. Pride swelled through Farran. With the sudden infusion, his heart thumped hard. A heavy beat he would have never imagined possible, yet one he could not hope to deny. With the next weighty drum, his awareness of Noelle intensified. The way her body arced and twisted, the way her hair swung wild. With relentless persistence, she pursued Anne, each clack of her wooden blade drowning him deeper in all she was. Simple scientist, innocent maid, aggressive warrior, gentle healer—he knew not which he preferred, but he craved them all.
She possessed so many different layers. And God help him, he wanted to peel every fascinating one away until she stood before him, utterly bare.
“She is good. ’Tis as if her arm is blessed by the Almighty,” Merrick commented at Farran’s side. “Tomorrow, I shall give her a real blade.”
Unable to tear his eyes off the vision of angelic beauty before him, Farran could only murmur, “Aye.” Indeed, she took to the sword naturally. A fact that contradicted the clumsiness he found so inexplicably enchanting.
* * *
Noelle was all too aware of Farran’s unexpected presence, and her nerves kicked in. She struggled to keep her focus on Anne and the effortless way she wielded her wooden sword.
She’d been doing good, damn it. Good enough she didn’t feel quite as insecure around Anne. What Merrick had instructed after his surprise attack had somehow connected with her former lessons, and like before, her scientific mind clicked them in place. Swordsmanship was like physics. The calculations only a derivation of theories. Once she’d grasped the hang of the heavier weight in her hand, everything else came naturally.
Even her clumsy feet recalled the long-ago dance.
But now, with Farran watching, the cadence in her mind stuttered … along with her arm. She hesitated a split second too long, giving Anne the advantage. Anne swept in to drive her sword down on Noelle’s wrist.
A startled cry escaped at the biting smack, and Noelle’s hand faltered. Her fingers released. The blade clattered to the floor.
“Enough,” Farran barked. His harsh tone softened as he added, “For tonight. Noelle grows weary.”
A low growl threatened to possess her. Weary? How the hell would he know? She had another few rounds left in her yet.
In defiance, she picked up her sword and faced Anne in an open stance. Anne’s slight head shake, however, terminated their spar. “Go with him,” she urged quietly.
Noelle turned around to find Farran marching toward her, his features tight. He stopped a foot away and grabbed at her smarting wrist. Strong fingers probed with the gentleness she’d come to cherish. He chewed at his lower lip, turned her arm over to inspect the opposite side.
When he lifted his head, and his eyes met hers, Noelle’s breath caught. Annoyance didn’t create the grimness of his mouth or the deep furrow between his golden eyebrows. No, concern gleamed within those ale-brown pools. Bright enough it burned.
“Can you turn it?”
The question jarred her. She blinked to ward off the power of his unsettling stare. “What?”
Farran bounced her fingers in his. “Your wrist.”
“Oh!” As heat rushed to her cheeks, she hastened to tug her hand free. “Yeah. It’s just a bruise. I’ll be fine.”
He looked unconvinced. “’Twill swell. ’Tis best if we ice it.”
As if she were some fragile doll apt to break under too much force, he moved around her carefully. Never once did his fingers stray from her skin. His hand slid to her elbow, around her ribs, then settled into place at the small of her back. As he took her free hand in his, his gaze held hers, conveying messages she couldn’t begin to interpret. Whatever they were, they possessed him, and the light within his mesmerizing eyes took on a darker hue. She shivered against the sudden wash of warmth that seeped into her where they touched. Butterflies seized her stomach. Tingles broke out in their fluttering wake, and Noelle’s pulse skipped several beats.
Dumbstruck, she allowed him to lead her into the hall. He didn’t hurry. Had abandoned his usual purposeful stride. In a manner that defied all she knew about Farran … he strolled. As if he would be content to have their walk last all night.
“Where are we going?” she asked to break the thick silence.
“To your rooms.” His rich baritone took on a rough, hoarse edge. He cleared his throat and avoided her curious gaze. “Have you practiced swords before?”
“I was on the high school fencing team my sophomore and junior year. Why?”
“You are gifted in the art.” Before he fell quiet, he brushed his hand across the small of her back.
She joined him in silence as he escorted her to the kitchen for a bowl of ice, uncertain how to react, or even what to think of this side of him he rarely let her see.
Up the stairs he led her, then through her entry and into the shadowy confines of her bedroom. There, he turned her loose and clicked on the bedside lamp. He lingered over the nightstand, his chest expanding as he pulled in a deep breath. Noelle caught the closing of his eyes before he straightened and looked at her once more. His features were normal again—an impassive wall of tight lines and stiff muscles. Whatever troubled his thoughts, he’d wrestled into place.
Immediately self-conscious, Noelle rushed to excuse him from a chore he obviously didn’t relish. “Really, I’m fine, Farran. I can take care of this myself.”
“I know you can,” he snapped. The same harsh rasp clung to his words. It scraped across her, a strangely pleasant chafe of sand and gravel that tightened her throat.
“Sit.” He motioned to the bed.
When she did, Farran retreated into the bathroom. Cabinets banged, drawers rattled. The rush of water replaced the rush of her blood in her ears. What had happened to him? Why was he treating her like a … She frowned. Like a princess?
Before the answers could take shape, Farran reappeared and knelt at her feet. He picked up her arm to examine it under the light. “It already swells.”
“Really, it’s fine.” Noelle tugged on her wrist, the heat of his fingers unbearable.
Farran held fast and shot her a scolding lift of his eyebrows.
Resisting the urge to squirm, Noelle resigned herself to Farran’s ministrations. He wrapped the ice in a water-soaked washcloth, then situated it around her wrist. His hands worked quickly, his touch light, yet laden with tenderness. Using long strands of bandage tape, he secured the loose ends and fastened the wrap in place. Precise. Meticulous—the compress fit snug around her defined bones, yet loose enough it didn’t create further pain.
Finished, he rocked back on his heels and caught her free hand in his. A smile touched the corners of his eyes. “Remove it in fifteen minutes. If you wish to bathe then, the hot water will aid further.” Standing, he gave her good arm an easy tug. “Up. I shall help you with your laces.”
She rose, bewildered by his unexpected tenderness. When he dropped her arm, then nudged it to the side, she raised her arms and twisted to give him access to her vest’s tight leather laces.
Farran stepped closer, so near the heat of his body ebbed into hers. The faint scent of woodsy-orange mingled with the aroma of the outdoors, teasing her senses into high alert. How divine it would be to lay her head against his chest, close her eyes, and breathe him in. Every fiber of her being rose in search of the contact, the comfort of his protective embrace. She needed only to take a half step more, and that pillow would touch her cheek.
Instead, she stared at his shoulder, determined to keep her mind off his close proximity. She didn’t dare be so bold. He’d laugh, and then she’d die of shame.