For Sigurd, acting as guardian to the witch, Aoife, was both a blessing and curse. A blessing, because he’d never known anyone as innocent and pure, and a woman who truly didn’t know her own allure. A curse, because he had to guard her against his own lustful nature.
And again, he was thankful two other demons were assigned the protection detail, because more than anything, he wanted her kept safe. However, he was equally annoyed at having two competitors for her affection.
Of course, many more among the demons living around Bonne Nuit aspired to hear the “echo” of their bonding with a witch. Such a bonding brought power to the lucky demon—and demons were greedy about that sort of thing. They frequented Aoife’s small cabin poised on long stilts above the bayou on the flimsiest of excuses. One needed a fragrant oil to help him sleep. Another needed a healing balm to soothe a bruise. And they were constantly underfoot in her garden and her workshop, interfering more than helping—at least, to his mind.
However, Aoife appeared blissfully unaware of the males’ attempts at garnering her exclusive attention. Her radiant smile flashed indiscriminately upon her pursuers, never mind their unsuitability as possible mates. And despite the fact they’d done nothing to earn the right to call her wife.
Unlike Sigurd, who suffered her proximity and who stood ready to serve her in any way she pleased. Who quietly stood guard over her while she slept, losing his sleep and his pride because she slumbered so soundly, completely unaware of his constant state of arousal.
Sigurd wasn’t naturally a patient man, but he had withstood the torture of being close day in and out for seven months. He was nearing his breaking point. If something didn’t happen soon, he would press their leader, Ethan, to ask his pretty wife for help. Bryn liked him well enough, always turning to give him a wink when “family” dinners took place, and one of Aoife’s admirers fought for the privilege of sitting at her side. Sigurd preferred to sit across from her at the table anyway—the better to glower at his competition. And perhaps raise a lip in a menacing snarl.
Bryn seemed to be in his corner. Perhaps she would be eager to see her sister witch settled. If something didn’t change soon, he’d speak with her.
On this evening, Sigurd wore his wolfskin and lay curled on the wooden floor beside Aoife’s bed. Just before she’d begun softly snoring, she’d reached down and scratched behind his ears. Probably not an act she was even aware of doing. She was kind to all creatures and seemed especially fond of his wolf form, sometimes taking a brush to his fur or giving him a bath in the large metal tub on the porch. He lived for those moments.
He shook his head in disgust. What a sorry excuse for a wolf he was. Wolves weren’t pets. They were pack animals who needed to belong to a family and a mate. A male needed to dominate his bitch, but he didn’t think Aoife would ever agree to be his bitch.
However, the thought did stretch his wolf’s mouth into a feral grin. He laid his head atop his paws and settled with a disgruntled whine.
Minutes passed, and he was nearly drifting off to sleep when the bed creaked and feet softly lowered to the floor. He perked his ears and pushed up to peer over the mattress, just in time to see Aoife slip through her bedroom door.
He followed, freezing when her steps paused, ducking behind corners when she glanced around. Something was afoot, and his hackles rose when she reached for her cloak and a small bag from the hook beside the front door.
Was she meeting a lover? Or were the witches gathering in secret? Somehow, he doubted the latter because Bryn was very pregnant and couldn’t slide gracefully from Ethan’s bed. And Miren would have to escape three mates, and that could never happen. Which reminded him, where the hell were the other two guards?
When Aoife opened the door and crept outside, closing it behind her, he drew up short. He hadn’t considered how he would exit the house, so he quickly shook free of his wolfskin and strode onto the porch. His glance went to the steps at the side of the porch, but then a sound, a soft splash, pulled his gaze to the canal flowing past her porch. She’d taken a boat. The fact she was already on the water meant she’d been in a hurry.
What the fuck?
Footsteps sounded from inside the house. A door creaked open then slammed shut. So much for stealth. Hamdir, also a wolf, walked to his side, scratching his chest. “Where’s the witch? I was sleeping on the couch. Thought you were watching her.”
“I was.” I watched her escape. “Go back to bed. I have this handled.”
“Sure about that?” Hamdir yawned. “Don’t know how you aren’t dead on your feet. You really ought to let us have turns inside her bedroom.” His large hand patted Sigurd’s shoulder. “Driving to New Orleans in the mornin’, or I’d join you on this hunt,” he said with a waggle of his eyebrows.
His gaze followed Hamdir as he stepped back inside. Their group had grown complacent since Ethan defeated the council’s champion in battle and no retribution had been settled upon their unbanded group. Most presumed the mere presence of so many demons, concentrated in their small town, was deterrent enough to rogue demons seeking to steal a witch for a mate.
Sigurd was reminded he’d have to enlist another guard from among the bachelor demons during Hamdir’s absence.
A cool wind wafted against his skin, raising chill bumps. Early Winter in the bayou was mild, but he couldn’t easily follow Aoife on foot. Instead, Sigurd shifted again and fell to his paws. With a single quick yelp, he leapt past the stairs to the bank. Lifting his nose to the breeze, he followed Aoife’s delicious witch’s scent through the murky, shadowed bayou. If he startled a gator, the bastard better move out of his way.
Aoife drew her paddle into the pirogue and stepped out onto the bank. She hadn’t rowed far, but she worried that her guardians would notice she’d eluded their watch. And that couldn’t happen. Tonight, she needed privacy to commune with the moon, and perhaps, coax a stubborn door to open.
As she stepped into the thick forest, she drew deep, calming breaths. She crushed the carnation she’d secreted into the bag inside the pocket of her cloak and whispered a quick, ineloquent spell.
“Goddess, though I walk alone,
your moon’s rays light my way.
Let nature’s bounty, your gift to us but still your own,
do no harm or deter me along my way.”
Despite her prayer, she glanced around the deepening darkness and hoped she’d recognize the tree when she saw it. The canopy above her allowed only dapples of moonlight through to the forest floor. She’d found the oak only days ago when she’d been searching for moss for a fairy house she was constructing to sell online. No one else would have noted it. The tree was old. Its bark thick and rugged. Although shorter and squatter than the lovely old oak in the open field the witches used for their rituals, this one appeared ancient—much more suited to her task. When she’d rapped on its bark to awaken its spirit, she’d felt the old oak shiver its branches and sensed its anger at her intrusion. Only a grouchy old oak would serve her purpose.
With the picture of the squat oak in her mind, she reached into her right pocket and crushed the dried honeysuckle there, letting its sweet aroma rise around her, and sought the oak with her other sight.
When she again opened her eyes, moonlight gleamed brighter straight ahead. She plunged forward but didn’t note the vine on the forest floor. Her foot snagged and sent her toppling to the ground. As she pushed upright, she thought she heard something rustling in the bushes. Not a small animal. Suspicious, she narrowed her gaze and stared in the direction of the sound, sure a certain wolf with better night vision than she had stared right back.
She waited, listening, but when no other sounds intruded, other than the rustling of dried leaves above, she continued her way. If Sigurd were trailing her, he would already have made his presence known. He was forever standing in her path, forcing her to raise her gaze to his. In those moments, she felt as though her lungs constricted, and her voice got very small. She wasn’t exactly intimidated, because she knew he’d never harm her, but his size and steady, all-seeing gaze looked right through her. Like he could read her mind. Which was impossible. Still, she found deceiving him very hard, which was why she’d decided to sneak away in the dead of night. As soon as he’d fallen asleep, she’d crept from the house. Yes, she’d heard the slam of a door in the distance, but she’d been well around the bend in the canal. No, he couldn’t have tracked her so quickly to this part of the woods. If she was successful, he wouldn’t arrive at her destination until it was already too late.
It was well past time she should have had this conversation, and secrecy was of the utmost importance. This situation wasn’t something she could talk to her sisters about. They’d be hurt, because she’d never divulged the truth in all their long acquaintance, despite their shared travails. This secret burned a hole in her belly and made her lose sleep. Worse, it kept her from Sigurd. She could never agree to be his mate—and she knew he wanted that—not until her problem was resolved. Inside her pocket, she crossed her fingers and hoped she’d found the right tree.
The golden light beckoned, growing stronger the deeper into the woods she went, until she entered a clearing. Light from a golden gibbous moon gleamed through the branches of the canopy above. Fireflies, out of season, hovered around the trunk, blinking out and on. Something about the air had changed. It smelled sweeter, and felt…thinner…warmer.
This was the place. It had to be. She’d felt this same trembling excitement the one time her mother led her into the woods to greet an ancient oak and attempted what Aoife had to accomplish tonight.
Closing her eyes, she reached out and laid a hand against the rugged trunk.
“Come fae and fair,
No need beware,
A daughter comes to greet you.
One knock you hear,
Two draws you near,
The third opens the door to meet you.”
Taking a deep breath, she rapped three times. Then she waited.
The wind picked up, dragging back her hood. Light gleamed between the edges of the bark, up and down the tree.
She stepped backward. Her breaths came faster, and then the glowing edges formed a rectangle, wider than an arm span. The dark bark at its center melted away.
Revealed inside the doorway was a tunnel formed by intertwining gold and green vines. She swept up the edges of her cloak and bent to step inside the door. As soon as her feet touched soft moss on the other side, she heard a crackling sound from behind and a long, lonely howl.
Sigurd ran like the wind toward the disappearing opening but drew up short when the light extinguished. The clearing around the oak was empty. Darkness sank like a heavy veil. He shook off his wolfskin and stood where he’d last seen Aoife. Reaching out to the rough surface, he felt only hard, cold bark.
Chest heaving, he circled the tree. She was gone. Vanished. On his watch. Again, he flung back his head and howled.
What has she done? That was the first question that sprang to mind, because he knew she’d caused this. He’d heard her whispers. Knew she’d performed an incantation. Was she simply escaping her guard to roam free? Or was she meeting a lover?
He shook his head. That he couldn’t believe. Everything inside him said she was pure. Untouched. The few times his hands had grazed her skin, her wide-eyed response told him the truth of her virginity. The night the witches drew down the moon to smooth its magic over their warrior-guards’ bodies, she’d been shy, her gaze never meeting his. Gods, all these months he’d left her alone, never initiating so much as a kiss, because he hadn’t wanted her eyes to lose the innocence they held. Always direct and sensual toward potential lovers, he’d been as circumspect as a fucking eunuch toward her.
Sigurd dropped to his knees. Fear made his mind race. Should he return to Bonne Nuit and seek the help of Aoife’s sister witches? He was torn, not wanting to leave the place she’d disappeared in case she returned. So, he sat. He’d give her an hour…maybe two.
If she returned, he was done playing the patient suitor. He’d be her constant shadow. Under foot. In her face. She wouldn’t even be allowed to close the door on the damn bathroom. And she wouldn’t deny him her bed, because she’d sleep inside his protective embrace.
If she didn’t come back…
His shoulders slumped. If she didn’t return, he’d search for her the rest of his life, because deep inside he recognized what she was. His mate.