Grateful for the quelling blackness of the night and the glowing full moon, Serwa slipped away from the village. The melodic drums, tapping feet and clapping hands, boisterous laughter, and good cheer made her escape a surprisingly easy task.
Following the jagged line of the unimpressive, solemn lake that served as a natural and fragile border between the two warring villages, Serwa glanced behind her, the burning torches from the village enclosure growing dimmer the deeper she sank into the woods.
She turned away. There was no one tracking her, or at least no one she could see or hear. Serwa couldn’t be certain her absence hadn’t gone unnoticed. Would he send one of his guards after her? She darted another furtive glance around, nervous, brown eyes slowly searching the shadows for movement. Nothing. But he would send someone for her, she thought. The grim possibility of being dragged back against her will chilled Serwa. An unwelcome coat of cold sweat trickled from tense nape to resolute shoulders. She quickened her pace, bare feet hitting the ground with determined strides.
She broke into a sprint. Long, toned legs used to the exertion propelled her forward, the freedom awaiting her on the other side of the lake an incalculable motivator. So Serwa ran. A hint of cool mist danced down from the swaying overhanging trees, their branches rich and heavy with vibrant leaves meant to tempt. But she refused to be enticed by the intoxicating aroma or the sinfully beautiful sight of the Wawa Aba Forest in full, bountiful bloom. No, she had to get to the other side before they came for her.
Pushing the tide of black hair away from her sticky brow, Serwa slowed, hid behind a towering baobab tree, and peered across the river. The village she spied was farther in the distance, but all was quiet save for the hypnotic chirping of— Two strong hands caught her unawares, one going to her waist, the other across her mouth, effectively silencing the scream that threatened, forcing a compressed, trembling swallow.
Serwa’s heart sank to her soles, her short-lived escape plan dying with each step her captor took. He carried her deeper into the forest. The sparkle from the moon glistened off the water, a mocking reminder that an even an unimpressive river could be a prison.
While the urge to fight and flail about welled inside, she squashed the impulse, knowing she could harm no one, even if it meant sacrificing her freedom, her very beating heart. Instead, Serwa relaxed into the powerful hold, accepting her fate, already calculating her next escape plan. For there would be another, and if need be another, and another still until she was free. There was, after all, more than one mode of fighting. Blood and death weren’t the only options, just the ones men often prized, spear and shield their default.
So she closed her eyes and permitted her body to release the tension that had built into a cataclysmic fright the moment she was grabbed. Then a rush of awareness washed over her, causing Serwa’s heart to race. Her dashed hopes of only a moment ago frantically pulled itself from her feet, up her shivering thighs, settled in her lower belly, then exploded through Serwa’s suddenly moist sex.
That smell. Myrrh. Musk. Him.
That touch. Trained. Tender. Him.
That taste. Sweaty. Sensual. Him.
His low, deep voice drifted in her ear, warm honey to her senses. “Everyone is drunk on the winter solstice. They’ll be celebrating until the sun finally rises after a long day of rejuvenating slumber.”
He released her, and Serwa turned to face her captor. Issa, the eldest son of the chieftain of the village across the river, was indeed her captor. For he’d captured her heart six months ago, claimed it as his own, locking the delicate organ away for all time. It was Serwa’s finest surrender, Issa’s noblest victory.
That sight. Dignified. Dangerous. Hers.
“Maybe you guys should give the lady a little breathin’ room.” Like Moses parting the Red Sea, the double-wides turned. And stayed exactly where they were. Okay, so maybe not exactly like Moses, but it was a start.
The tallest man, Alastar guessed six foot seven, looked down at him, his brown eyes inscrutable. “Is there a reason why you’re interrupting a private conversation?”
“Well, umm, well, you see…” he said, stumbling over his words, trying to appear appropriately intimidated, relying on old memories of a scared sixth grader mumbling lunacy when Tiffany Richards had asked him to the Sadie Hawkins dance.
That dance had been the last night of his “normal” life. Everything had changed by the time Alastar had returned home. “We’re different, son, and they’ll never accept us,” were the first words his father had spoken when Alastar found him sitting on their front steps, hands bruised and bloody, house locked and unwelcoming.
“I don’t think the lady is interested in the type of company you guys are offering. So why don’t you go back to the gym or the steroid clinic, and leave her alone.”
Okay, so maybe that was going way too far in the I’m-not-afraid-of-the-big-bad-wolf department. But in truth, he wasn’t. Not when he was the big bad wolf they should all fear.
To his amazement, the two burly men began to laugh. The shorter one, by a minuscule two inches, slapped a meaty hand on Alastar’s shoulder, wrapping him between huge paws and broad shoulders, spinning the stunned Ranger around.
“It looks like you got a knight here, Zora. An old-fashioned Sir Galahad in jeans.”
The taller guy got into the act, ruffling Alastar’s hair, making him look and feel like a limp-dicked dwarf in front of the damn gorgeous woman smiling up at him with luscious, kissable lips. Shit, if he’d known she was this hot up close, Alastar would’ve what? Gotten a haircut first? Tucked in his faded Snoop Dogg T-shirt? Worn something other than washed-out jeans and old Jordans?
“Yeah, any guy who’s dumb enough to talk smack to us, Jose, gotta have balls for brains.”
Okay, so the extra-big guy was Jose, the petite knockout was Zora, and the African American who was about to lose a finger, maybe an entire hand if he touched Alastar one more time, was…?
“All right, Darnell and Jose, you can give the nice man some breathing room.”
Darnell, Jose, and Zora. Alastar locked the names and faces away for future reference, especially Zora’s. No way would he be forgetting that woman anytime soon. If ever.
The men finally parted under a woman’s command instead of his own, the Moses analogy shot to hell.
Zora smiled at him, and damn, she had the most perfect set of teeth Alastar had ever seen. In fact, the more he looked at her, the more he was glad he’d risked life and limb to come to her rescue. And, yes, Alastar knew he hadn’t rescued a soul, but he was a Ranger and that should count for something, dammit.
“So I guess these guys aren’t bothering you and I’ve just made a complete ass of myself.” It wasn’t the first time. But for reasons Alastar was unwilling to explore, he didn’t want to come off as a jerk, or worse, a loser in Zora’s captivating brown eyes.
“Why did you think we were bothering Zora? Because we’re big?” Jose asked, eyebrows arching and eyes squinting.
“Because I’m black and my man here’s Mexican?”
Okay, no, because, yeah, he might be fair, but the last Alastar looked, he was also African American. And as far as stereotypes went, he lived that shit every day, and not simply because of the color of his skin. No, he’d fought the good fight, but it didn’t matter, at least not to the one person whose opinion of him mattered the most. Everyone else could just go to the Devil.
“Look,” he tried, searching for the calm, rational part of him that knew how to deescalate a situation, “I just thought the lady—Zora—was being harassed. A pretty woman in a bar like this, well, it isn’t the safest place to be at night.”
“So you’re a sexist.” Darnell viciously frowned at him, as if Alastar wore a T-shirt that read A woman’s place, the kitchen and my bed.
“What, no! Dammit, I just thought…fuck, you guys know what in the hell I’m talking about. If she were your sister, would you want her in a place like this, surrounded by two guys who look like they could bench-press the entire Oakland Raider’s special teams?”
Jose pointed to the bar. “Amigo, that’s my baby sister over there tending bar. Do you have a problem with her working here?”
Get the fuck out of here. The busty brunette with the fake boobs was Jose’s sister? Alastar turned, and for crying out loud, Dwayne was flirting with her, making a grab for one of those no-bounce tits. Alastar groaned and turned back around.
The large assholes were laughing. At him. Again. Bellyache and tears kind of laughs.
“Damn, you’re an easy one,” Darnell said. More laughter. “And that’s a nice shade of red on you, man, much deeper than the one you sported when you first strutted over here like a prized cock.”
Yeah, he had his prized cock. A fist right in the asshole’s big, fat mouth.
“Were you tempted?”
Nathaniel’s golden eyes revealed nothing he didn’t want Anaita to know, just as her question, posed with a false casualness, hid the depth of her wondering. It had been a hundred years since Shemhazai and the Sons of God had fallen. Ten decades meant much to mortals but little to angels. Yet, in those years, Nathaniel had spoken little of the angels’ decision to abandon God and their duty and even less about what had happened when he’d gone after Shemhazai.
He turned onto his side, wide shoulders and bronzed skin a wonderous sight that drew the eye and the hand. She pressed her palm to the center of his hard, hairless chest and caressed.
Nathaniel smiled, sighed, and leaned in for a too-short kiss. “You’re the only person who tempts me,” he answered against her lips—his breath a warm wisp of magic that never failed to arouse.
Anaita wrapped long, toned arms around Nathaniel’s wide neck, pulled him closer and kissed him the way he should’ve kissed her—with tongue and heat and passion.
She wanted to talk. They needed to talk. But they were so much better for each other when they didn’t, when they chose to see themselves and each other through a lens of perfection instead of a mirror with jagged cracks.