SHADOW RISING – by CASSI CARVER

Julian?” When she took an involuntary step forward, he hissed and fanned his wings, adding to his menacing bulk. Kara stopped and extended her hands. “Are you all right?”

“Who are you?” His voice was low and rusty, as if he’d just woken up. “Why were those men closing in on you?”

“What men?”

He nudged the body with his foot. “The ones I’ve been swatting like flies.”

She couldn’t believe her eyes. The black-wing looked like Julian. He was Julian. And yet the creature before her didn’t have a glimmer of recognition in his hard gaze.

“What were you thinking?” She knelt by the warrior and quickly examined him.

The front of his skull had cracked where he’d hit the pavement, and he was unconscious, but at least he was still breathing. His head was going to feel like the devil had used it for league bowling when he woke up. And his wings…they were nothing but shredded stumps protruding from his shoulder blades.

She stood. “Those are your scouts, Julian, the men you and the Mercury Lords posted at the four corners of the city to watch for—” she couldn’t raise the word above a whisper, “—Aniliáre.” Maybe they’d been coming to warn her…

His eyes narrowed on her face with an expression bordering on contempt. “I don’t know you.”

“It’s me, Kara.” She swallowed past the lump in her throat. Nothing made sense. She tugged the leaf charm from the cord around her neck and held it out to him. “This is your symbol. You asked me to wear it. Don’t you remember? Gavin gave it to me after…”

He eyed the charm suspiciously but didn’t reach his hand out.

She hadn’t expected Julian to come back. Gavin and Aiden had both confirmed he was truly dead. But when she’d allowed herself to dream of seeing him again, it had never played out like this. What was wrong with him? “Take it. Please.”

The sound vibrating in his chest was like a rattler before it struck. He stepped forward, tore the charm from her grasp and cast it into a patch of straggly weeds fighting for life in the narrow seam between the building and pavement.

She tried to stand her ground when he closed in on her, but his corded muscles and towering height dwarfed her smaller frame. He pressed his nose to the side of her neck and inhaled slowly. “You smell…right.”

She couldn’t help leaning into him. His skin singed hers as he roughly cupped her chin and inspected her face. She brought her hands to his bare shoulders. “God, I’ve missed you.”

Her heart felt as if it were swelling in her chest, making it hard to breathe. She wanted to squeeze him tight and never let him go, but his muscles went rigid under her fingertips and his lips quivered with something like rage. “It’s all right, baby,” she soothed as a single tear trickled down her cheek. “You’re alive, and that’s all that matters.”

Perplexity flashed in his eyes for just an instant before they turned hard again. “I don’t know you.”

He began to back away, but Kara held firm and rose to her tiptoes. “Do you know this?”

She brushed her lips tenderly over his. His sharp fangs were still fully extended, so she licked at them with the tip of her tongue as she smoothed a hand down his back. When she got to his rump, he grasped her fingers in a tight grip and shoved her against the building.

His wings pressed against the wall to either side of her, cocooning her in. “You are a foolish woman.”
He nuzzled her neck, running his tongue along her pulsing vein before grazing her with his teeth, hard enough to draw blood.

“Ouch!” She pushed at his chest but couldn’t budge him.

He might be built like Julian and he might look like Julian, but that was where the physical similarities ended. This man was unbelievably strong. She could feel his energy swallowing up the smaller forces around them. The drying blood on her nose from his “force-field” proved he could do things that her Julian could never have done. And yet, she didn’t want to resist him. Asking herself to step away from the likeness of the man she’d loved and lost was a wasted effort.

He met her gaze and smiled for the first time. He had the same dimples in his cheeks. “Don’t struggle. You can’t win.”

He ducked his head to the small wound and lapped up the blood. Kara could feel his body trembling with dark energy. It was hard to expand her lungs with the weight of his need pressing in on her.
She might have missed the hell out of him, but there was no way she’d let him get away with manners like this. “Don’t try to scare me, Julian. Is that how you treat the woman you love after all this time?”

He laughed, and it was the same seductive sound she remembered, only hollow somehow. “I think I like this game. I love you?”

He wrapped his long fingers around her chin and pinned her head back, then cupped his lips around the cut and drew deeply. When he brought his head up, his lips were crimson with her blood. A shudder ran down his spine like he’d taken a hit of a potent drug. “Yes. I love you. The taste of you. Do you taste that good everywhere?”

Kara knew she should be scared out of her mind. She’d never heard of her people drinking blood. She knew for a fact their fangs were built for tearing and rending, not for plunging into someone’s veins like pointy little straws. Why was he doing this?

He wasn’t a thing like her bondmate. And yet, he looked like Julian. Under her fingertips, he felt like Julian. Her nipples peaked, reaching for his attention. Her body was warm and pliant, the apex of her thighs flooding with moisture. He might not know her, but her damn body knew him, and it had been denied him far too long.

“Taste me, then.” She leaned toward him, and he allowed it. The fingers holding her chin slipped behind her head and captured her nape. She kissed him harder this time, thrusting her tongue into his mouth, trying to block out the metallic flavor of her own blood.

He growled and cupped her ass, lifting her against him with one hand. Demiáre were strong, but he didn’t even seem to notice Kara’s weight as she wrapped her legs around his waist. She wondered if he could hold her there with his will alone.

He brought both hands to her rump and pressed her against his long, thick shaft. Now that was something that hadn’t changed at all. He was still as massively built, and all that perfection was just two layers away from her throbbing core.

She pressed her lips harder against his and invaded his mouth with her tongue. She couldn’t prevent her throaty sigh or her desperate grind against him.

“They said you were gone.” She tangled her fingers in his thick hair and kissed his cheeks with damp lips. “You don’t know what that did to me…thinking you weren’t coming back. It felt like a piece of me was buried alongside you.”

He lifted his head and flared his nostrils as if sampling the wind. “You should fear for your life, and yet you toy with me instead. I could have made your death quick, but now…” He ran his hands over Kara’s sides, and she shivered. “Now I think I will take my time with you.”

“Don’t say that. You’re not going to hurt me.” She felt a stab in her heart that he could be a part of her and not remember what they’d shared, but she couldn’t bring herself to move from his arms. “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I will help you figure this out. I promise.”

“Help me?”

“Yes, Julian. We can get through this. I love you.” She should have told him before the accident, but now she’d been given another chance, and she couldn’t say it enough. Her hand molded to his cheek in a tender caress. “I love you.”

His wings expanded in a powerful arc, hovering over them like a bird of prey, and claws like polished black marble extended from his fingertips. “Cunning bitch! What kind of trap are you setting, woman?”

“What are you talking about? I’m not trying to trap you.” Seeing the unrestrained fury in his obsidian eyes, Kara instinctively leaned away, bringing her hands up to shield her face.

With his top lip bunched in a snarl, his expression was all fire and fangs. “The next night our paths cross will be your last,” he spat.

And then he vanished.

He flashed out of existence, and Kara fell straight on her ass, sailing through the air and landing square on her tailbone.

She moaned and rolled to her side, bringing a hand to her rump to soothe the damage. When she was sure her tush was still attached to the top of her legs, she grasped Jaxon’s and Aiden’s pendants around her neck and sent her thoughts screaming into the night. “Code red! Get your asses over here!”

Aiden appeared within seconds, silver wings unfurled, scanning Kara’s rumpled clothing with a concerned but slightly bemused expression. He held a huge sword at the ready, and his white-blond hair was gelled into pointy spikes. Kara could smell Demiáre sex on his skin from four feet away.

“What in the hell is a ‘code red’?” he asked, but any humor left his eyes when his gaze landed on the grounded Mercury warrior.

Stuffing down her aches and pains, Kara rose to her feet. “That’s code for Julian maimed your scouts and pretty much wants to kill me.”