Authors: Amy Patrick
2016 by Amy Patrick
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HIDDEN DARKNESS is a work of fiction. Characters, names, places, brands, media, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and should not be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Oxford South Press/February 2016
Cover design by Cover Your Dreams
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Fire is a funny thing. It provides light, heat. It can mean life. It can bring death. It inspires fascination—and fear. And it all starts with one tiny spark. Blow on that ember, and the flame will grow. Properly fed, it can live forever. But deprive it of oxygen and fuel… and the light will go out for good, leaving only the memory of its warmth.
“I don’t think I can wait a month.” I rolled on top of Lad, straddling his lean waist and pinning his hands over his head to the bed beneath us. Shirtless and smiling up at me, his blond shoulder-length hair spread out on my heart-covered pillowcase, he looked like something from a dream—the best dream of my life.
“I won’t be able to wait either,” he said, sounding breathless but easily breaking my hold and lifting me off of his body. “… if you continue to tempt me like this.”
He deposited me on the bedspread beside him, the heat in his eyes doing nothing to discourage me. As it usually was when we were alone together for any length of time, my heart was galloping, and my skin was supersensitive all over, craving his touch. The feeling was too compelling to resist, and it made me brave, reckless with longing.
is the idea,” I said. My hand stole to his abdomen, caressing the silky skin stretched over hard, segmented muscle then drifting down to trace the top edge of his waistband. Looking at his body literally left me in awe sometimes, as did the thought that it was all
—or would be soon. Who could blame me for wanting him
My parents were out for the evening, having a romantic date night, while Lad and I had stayed in to “watch TV.” Naturally, we’d ended up in my room, kissing and touching and generally driving each other crazy. But as always, Lad was stopping things before they got all the way to permanent-bond territory.
His hand clamped over mine, halting its progress. Shuddering with effort, he slanted his eyes at me, his breath whistling through his clenched teeth. “Ryann… please.”
“Why not?” I whimpered as the tension broke and my heart sank. I already knew what his answer would be.
“I don’t want to ‘compromise’ you.”
Well, that was a new word. I couldn’t help but be amused, despite my disappointment. “Have you been reading historical novels again?”
He grinned at me. “Jane Austen. She was quite brilliant.”
“Yes, I know. And she wrote about another era entirely. Compromise me? What’s really going on here? If we’re getting married in a few weeks, what does it matter if we go ahead and bond now? Don’t you want to?”
Lad raised a brow and dipped his chin in that sardonic
What do you think?
“You are absolutely killing me, lying there looking so beautiful. Of course I want to possess you—every part of you—completely.” Just as my pulse sped up with hope, he added, “After we are married.”
Lad had proposed to me on the bridge to the wedding shrine in Altum shortly after Nox and Vancia’s wedding, and we had set the date for our own ceremony for as soon as possible—as soon as the traditional mourning period for Lad’s father Ivar—the murdered king—was ended.
It couldn’t come soon enough for me. I didn’t even care that I’d be the only married senior at Deep River High School. Sometimes I thought I might burn up from sheer longing before the day finally arrived.
Lad’s heated expression sobered as he stared into my eyes, playing with a lock of hair that hung over my shoulder. “There are no take-backs, you know.”
“I know that. It’s forever—however long that turns out to be for me.”
Since I was only three-quarters Elven, there was no guarantee I possessed immortality like Lad did. It was likely I’d at least have an extended lifespan, but there was no way to know by how much. It didn’t matter to me, but for him, being with an Elven-human hybrid was a sacrifice. If I died before him, he’d have the mark and be unable to bond with anyone else for eternity. It wasn’t fair, but he swore it was what he wanted, and I had to trust it was true. Besides, I simply couldn’t live without him.
not afraid of being bonded together permanently. But it sounds like you are.” My voice sounded as pouty as my face undoubtedly looked.
His arm snaked around my waist, drawing me close to his warm body again. He spoke against my lips. “I’m not afraid for my own sake. I want you more than anything I’ve ever—or ever will want.”
The tone of his voice told me it was true. So did the emotions I could read pouring from his heart and flowing around me like the deep, rushing current of Altum’s subterranean river. And the feel of his body pressed against me, hard and powerful, confirmed it. So why was he stalling?
you afraid of then?”
Lad’s mesmerizing leaf-green eyes filled with gravity. “If anything should happen to me…”
I sat up, my stomach clenching around a shot of cold alarm. “Wait—what’s going on? Has there been a threat to your life? Davis is dead. I thought there was peace between the Dark and Light Courts now thanks to you and Nox.”
“And to you and Vancia. No—there’s no specific threat.” He petted my arm and shoulder, running a large hand up and down in a calming gesture. “Don’t worry. It’s just that there are still some who are undoubtedly unhappy with the new alliance, with the dissolution of the plot to restore Elven reign over humanity. And…” The beautiful green eyes clouded. “My father was assassinated right there in Altum, right under the noses of all his guards and loyal subjects. If it could happen to him…”
I propped myself up on one elbow, my tone developing an insistent edge. “That
happen to you, Lad. You told me no one had ever considered before that a king could be murdered. But now you’re all aware of the possibility. You’re being careful, aren’t you? And I’ll be with you—I can read the emotions of those who approach you. I could warn you of danger.”
He gave me an amused grin and sifted a big hand through my hair. “My little guardian. Thank you. But you cannot be with me at all times. You have a company to take care of. You have school.”
He was right—between school and supervising things at the tea factory afterward, I mostly saw him on weekends and nights, if he could get away from his duties. At the moment, though, my own schedule seemed inconsequential. I was in full crisis management mode.
My pulse ticked a fast and steady beat as the words spilled out of me. “I’ll drop out—if it’s a matter of life and death—if you need me there to help keep you safe. And Grandma can run the company for now. She can teach Mom everything she’ll need to know so she can take her place later on. Nothing is more important to me than your life.”
His warm fingertip covered my lips, hushing my frantic plan-making. “I’ll be fine. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it. You need to finish school. You need to have a life. And the tea production is too important to us all. You’re absolutely right—I’m well-guarded. The fan pods in this country are disbanded. Nox says they’re making progress getting rid of them in Europe. The tea distribution is steadily expanding worldwide. And we have a peace pact with the Dark Court, finally.”
“So what are we even talking about then? Why delay?”
He drew in a deep breath and let it out on a long sigh. “I’ll just feel better if we wait until after we’re married, okay? After that, I promise you—no force on earth or in Alfheim could stop me from making you completely mine.”
His voice ached with raw longing, reigniting the internal flame that always seemed to smolder inside me when he was near. I wanted him so much. And he
want me—I knew it. It made me nervous that he’d put off something he so obviously desired. How big
the threat of assassination?
Unless he’s stalling for another reason.
And there it was. The doubt. Though I knew better, uncertainty still tickled my brain from time to time, left over from that awful time when I believed Lad no longer loved me—or that he never really had. Now the tickle was increasing in intensity until it was almost painful. Was he afraid he’d change his mind again? Did he want to keep his options open—just in case?
No, Ryann. No. Don’t even go down that path. I love you,
he said, pushing me gently to my back again. His fingers stroked my cheek as he stared down at me with an adoring gaze, making me feel like the most desirable girl in the world.
My eyes met his, recognizing unshakable certainty. I knew Lad wasn’t reading my mind—we could communicate without words but Elves weren’t mind readers. He just knew me too well.
I love you, too. For better or worse.
We’ve already had the worst. It will only get better and better for you and me.
Lad punctuated his reassurance with a deep, drugging kiss that set my heart to an urgent new rhythm.
How long until that wedding again?
I asked, kissing him back and communicating my eagerness with my body. I hitched one leg over his hip and arched to get as close to him as possible. As close as he’d allow.
Lad responded with gratifying enthusiasm, his breath now coming in heavy gusts as he fought for control.
One month, six days, and four hours…
The great hall was filled with my subjects. A typical work day. Surveying the sea of expectant faces—all of them wanting something from me—I longed to be free in the forest, climbing and jumping from branch to branch, turning my face up to the sunshine with the wind on my skin. Or to spend some time in my nest hideaway, quietly reading the new books Ryann had given me.
What I really wanted was to be alone with her somewhere—anywhere—although if I was going to have any chance of hanging onto my resolve, we really should have a chaperone night and day.
There was no denying it. I was whipped. I was absolutely at her mercy, and if she only knew how close I was to giving in to her seductive looks and touches, her plea to bond ahead of our wedding date—well… I had to do everything in my power to resist it.
I knew she had lingering doubts, fears that her being part human might somehow prevent us from being together. That wasn’t what I was worried about at all. I actually had less fear for Ryann
I knew she was three-quarters Elven. At least then, if something ever happened to me, she’d be able to get over it and move on eventually.
But now… chances were she’d be as likely to have the mark as I would. If my enemies were ever to succeed and something happened to me, she’d be left alone… possibly for eternity. I didn’t want that for her—even the idea of it made my stomach coil into sickening knots. But I also couldn’t let her go. I wasn’t that strong.
The wedding was a little over a month away. Maybe by then I’d feel safer about relations with the Dark Council. By then Ryann’s tea would have had more time to be distributed worldwide and perhaps Nox would have good news for me concerning the international fan pod situation.
There was a call for you, Your Highness,
Rikard said. As my personal assistant, he’d been given the task of monitoring my cell phone. Yep—I had a cell phone. I wanted to be accessible to Ryann during the times she wasn’t here in Altum with me.
I asked, my heart bounding to instant attention. My girl did that to me. Every time.
No, Your Highness, it’s your brother.
I rose from my chair at the head of the room, striding toward him quickly.
Nox. Excellent. I’ll call him back immediately.
He dropped the phone into my hand, and I left the royal residence, heading for the spiraling tunnel that would take me to the surface. Because no signal could reach that far underground, Rikard went outside and checked my phone messages at frequent intervals. He always let me know right away if there was a matter that needed my attention.
Emerging from the tunnel, I breathed deeply of the fresh, pine-scented air. It was good to have a break. I climbed the mammoth Magnolia tree that loomed over our subterranean kingdom. It had stood for thousands of years—its base the diameter of a water tower, its gray-barked limbs thicker than my arm span.
Reaching the upper branches, I pulled the phone from my pocket and checked the screen. Four bars. Good. I’d need all of them to have a decent connection with Nox overseas. At times when we’d talked during his trip, the signal had been less than crystal clear.
I hit the button to return his call. He picked up after three rings.
“Lad! How are you? How are things back at the old mud hole?”
I chuckled. “Things in Altum are fine. How’s your bride? Where are you two now?”
“Ireland. It’s fantastic.
fantastic. We’re headed to Scotland next. Asia and Australia will come after the break.”
“How are things?”
“Busy. There’s… a lot to do.” His jovial tone had changed to a serious one. He knew I wasn’t referring to the band’s tour with my question but to the international fan pod situation. “It’s not as out-of-control as it was in the U.S., but it’s still significant. And not all the clan leaders are eager to disband them. Many of their subjects have grown quite used to them. I had a hell of a time with that English boy band—they
didn’t want to let their girls go.”
“I bet. But you’re doing the right thing.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice. After what I saw in my own house and what Ryann went through with Reggie…”
Ryann had infiltrated the fan pod of NFL quarterback Reggie Dillon in an effort to rescue her best friend Emmy and had nearly died in the process, not to mention the humiliation and pawing she’d had to endure. Just thinking of it had me gouging the tree bark with my fingernails, picturing Reggie’s sadistic grin. The Dark Elves under Davis Hart’s rule had not been a nice bunch.
But he was gone now, and I shared joint rule with Nox. While he traveled the world, taking the temperature of Elven-human relations globally, I was supposed to be keeping an eye on things domestically. It wasn’t the easiest thing, considering I’d rarely had contact with members of the Dark Court other than during the Assemblage, when everyone was on their best behavior. I had a lot to learn.
“When am I to expect that emissary?” I asked Nox. We’d sent a representative from the Light Court to the seat of Dark Elven power in California to help foster relations between our formerly antagonistic clans. I had yet to receive word on when our exchange diplomatic guest would arrive.
“Oh—yeah. Should be this week,” Nox said. “Sorry for the delay. Apparently there was some disagreement within the Dark Council on whom to send, but they’ve finally worked it out.”
“Audun assures me of that.”
“And can you trust
?” Ryann had told me about Audun. She’d met him briefly at a gathering of the Dark Court in Los Angeles. She said he’d been rather close to Davis, was actually his second in command. Now he was head of the Dark Council. Although he’d sworn fealty to Nox, Ryann said the man had given her the creeps.
“I know—he’s a crafty old jackal
Davis’s bosom buddy,” Nox said. “But he assured me of his loyalty in the Elven way, so I know he wasn’t lying. Listen, I’d love to have chosen the ambassador myself, but it’s the Council’s job—we’re not a dictatorship you know. Too bad, I would have made a great dictator, don’t you think?” he joked.
“Well… who is he? What’s he like?” My tone was impatient. This was important information and not really a joking matter in my opinion. I’d be letting this ambassador into my kingdom, allowing him to interact with my people, my mother… with Ryann.
Nox chuckled. “You need to get above ground more, my friend, and get away from all those dusty old Light Elves. Your emissary is a
. Her name is Ava.”