DARK HUNTER’S TOUCH
Steel Born #1
Harlequin Nocturne Cravings
Yearning to be free, Imogene has fled the idleness and cruelty of the phae court to hide in the sunlit realm of humans. When the Dark Hunters find her—and they will—she will face the Queen’s wrath.
But she is tired of running, and after a chance encounter with a seductively handsome stranger named Vaile, Imogene embraces the earthly passions within her, if only for one night. But has she fallen for a man—or an illusion?
Dark Hunter’s Touch
She wanted to feel it all. Her body burned. Sweat slicked down her skin, a sensuous tickle, and her chest heaved with each pounding stroke. When she gasped, the taste of salt prickled on her tongue.
Imogene needed her sunlit runs. With her body, mind, and senses so immersed in the moment, she might camouflage her presence from the Wild Hunt. The inexorable path of the sun, immune to any magics, helped keep her on her path, pretending to be a true inhabitant of this earthly realm—but for how long?
She wanted to run forever. That’s how long the Queen’s phaedrealii Hunters would search for her: forever. Creatures who stood with only one foot in the world’s time had that advantage. Though the phae could be blithe and capricious, once Hunters were loosed upon the object of their hunger, they would never falter. The black dogs and their dark masters were so dangerous that the Queen herself chained them when they prowled her inner court.
The sun fell into the streaked clouds over the Pacific Ocean like a fading ember. Its glow burned a red hole through the veil of the blue-gray sky, and the reflection in the water rippled with secrets. A chilly breeze breathed out from the pine forest rising from the rocky headlands beyond the dunes. Imogene slowed to a jog and flapped her oversized T-shirt to let the breeze tickle her belly.
A creep of awareness between her shoulder blades made her glance back.
Down the beach, a dark silhouette closed the distance, tall and menacing. Her heartbeat ramped up again and all her muscles tensed. For a confused moment, a swirl like black wings spread above the figure, and even the ceaseless churn of the ocean seemed to hush.
Then the sun flared out behind the clouds one last time, and Imogene recognized him: just a fellow jogger she had passed many times over the month since she had moved to the Oregon coast. He waved at her again—not wings, just a regular old human arm—and she chided herself for seeing monsters in every shadow.
Still wary, she let him catch up. All the other times, they had waved but never spoken.
“Hey, I think you dropped this.” Still a dozen strides away, he tossed something toward her.
Reflexively, she caught the chain that spiraled through the air. The metal tingled in her hand: steel. From a bezel at the bottom dangled an odd, blue stone¾partly clouded but transparent in places with occlusions that caught and scattered the low slanting light. The pendant gleamed like a sky changing from the clear blue of day to the darker blue of evening, a sight she had longed for when she’d been trapped in the halls of the phaedrealii.
With regret, she shook her head. “Beautiful, but it’s not mine.” She held the necklace out to him, looking up.
And her breath, which she had finally caught, escaped her again.
They had always passed each other at a distance—part of her promise to herself to stay far away from humans on this trip through the sunlit realm. She had noticed only that he was dark haired; had a smooth, gliding stride that ate up the beach miles; and didn’t usually bother with shirts despite the chill.
Shirts were overrated anyway—especially if they committed the crime of covering such a perfectly sculpted chest. The hard planes of his pectorals blurred beneath just enough dark curls to declare the undeniable presence of testosterone, and the narrowing arrow of hair over his abdomen commanded her attention down toward testosterone central.
She jerked her gaze up before she could wonder if the ripstop nylon fly of his shorts was rippling from the breeze…or from something else.
Judging by the sly smile playing around his lips, she knew he hadn’t missed her once-over, but the confident tilt of his head said he thought he could take it. No doubt he got plenty of once-overs, not to mention twice- and third-overs. Even the haughty courtiers of the phaedrealii who objected most vociferously to the idea that there might be any shared blood between humans and phae would be willing to claim this one as kissing cousin.
The wicked edge of male beauty had carved jaw and cheekbones in bold relief from his deep-set dark eyes. Salt spray and sweat had frozen his dark hair in untamed tousles. Only the fullness of his lower lip seemed out of place, as if some all-powerful fairy godmother had decided this chiseled work of unassailable masculinity needed a touch of bruised tenderness and had taken a soft bite of his mouth before breathing him into life.
Imogene caressed the smooth, blue stone¾still holding his body heat from his pocket¾and imagined running her finger over that lip. Desire pooled low in her belly, warm and glowing as the stone. She curled her hand into a fist and crimped the chain in her grip. The slide of metal links through her fingers, each coiling into the next, echoed through her body. Her skin tingled again[Au1] , not from the touch of steel, but as she pictured his big hands on her.
His jet eyes glittered. “Are you sure it isn’t yours? You seem like you want it.”
She wanted something anyway. For a heartbeat, she reveled in the sensations cascading through her. These were feelings the phae could never understand and would never allow. She would be able to summon this fantasy for months, forgetting the cold, remote, untouchable glory of the phae in this sizzling—if only imaginary—craving.
The Wild Hunt would never suspect such delicious longing in a princess of the phaedrealii. A breeze whisked past her, carrying the tang of ocean along with a hint of the man—a musk that fit perfectly with the salt and pine and coming night.
“I can’t take it.” She couldn’t keep the deep sigh out of her voice. “It’s not mine.”
He made no move to retrieve the necklace, only crossed his arms over that incredible chest. A silvery ring gleamed on his forefinger. “Well, it would look right on you.”
Yes, he would look gorgeous on her, she thought wryly. But she would never entangle a human in the dangers that followed her. She had gotten tougher since she left the hollow illusions of the court, but even a month of determined running instead of careless dancing would not put her beyond the reach of the Queen’s Hunters.
“Someone else must have lost it,” she insisted.
“Tell you what. You keep it, and I’ll let you know if that someone comes looking.”
She cocked her head. “And how will you let me know?”
“I guess you’ll have to give me your name and phone number.”
She shook her head. “I’m not in the habit of giving those to strangers.” Names had power…phone numbers, not so much, but she didn‘t own a phone anyway. The phae often amused themselves with human toys, but she wanted only the brazen sensations of the earthly world.
“We’re jogging partners, not strangers.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Partners? More like two ships in the night. And the morning.”
“But this time we didn’t pass each other. My name is Vaile, and you’re the first thing I see before coffee. There. Not strangers anymore.” He smiled in a way that she thought was probably intended to make him look harmless. Instead, she was reminded of the smug wolf in Grandma’s bed.
Despite her own best intentions, she smiled back. After all, she should know how to handle fairy tales. Besides, the phae knew the real story of that particular volken; Grandma hadn’t at all minded being eaten.
“You can call me Mo. And I can’t accept gifts with strings attached.” She waggled the necklace so the chain swung.
“Mo? Really?” Vaile held up one hand. “Okay, fine. No phone number. I see you all the time anyway, and I don’t think that necklace belongs to anyone else. High tide washed it up just to match your eyes. Pretty blue with a touch of heavy metal.”
She slanted a glance at him. “Wow. There’s a line. Too bad I’m not a fish.”
His smile widened, and his dark eyes sparked at her with amusement¾and a deeper, simmering heat. “So you won’t bite?”
Her gaze locked on his lips and she sighed to herself. “Sorry, no.”
Since her running shorts didn’t have pockets, she slipped the necklace over her head. The pendant nestled between her breasts, warm through her thin T-shirt. While they were talking, the sky out to sea had gentled to seashell pastels. But the shadows under the trees had crept farther over the dunes, emboldened by the close of day. Rising above the spires of the inland pines, a slim crescent of moon failed to hold back the darkness.
Imogene restrained a shiver. “I have to go.”
Vaile’s expression tightened. For a moment, his features were as still and hard as the rock cliffs, and then he nodded. “I’ll see you around then. Maybe I can get the ocean to find me a few strands of amber beads to match your hair, too.”
She shook her head but didn’t say anything. She couldn’t very well tell him that her freedom¾and his life¾depended on them moving in opposite directions. Her midnight fantasies might keep her grounded in the human realm, but they could never be more substantial than fairy dust in morning’s light.
She turned reluctantly to go, indulging one last look at Vaile over her shoulder.
He opened his mouth—that fine, fine mouth—as if he wanted to call her back. But whatever words he might have spoken were lost in a sudden clarion call, bright and sharp as a blade slicing through the night.
Vaile glanced back just as down the beach, from the deep shadows under the pines, the Wild Hunt burst forth.
Riding to the fore, the horned Lord of the Hunt lifted his bugle. At the klaxon, three streaks of mottled silver and black leaped ahead—the dogs, almost as tall as the Lord’s stag. The first hound lifted his middle head and cried fury. Eight other hounds’ tongues answered.
“What the hell?” Vaile stood facing the onslaught, hands on hips.
Jolted from her reverie, Imogene grabbed his elbow and whirled him around. “Run!” She took two steps, realized he wasn’t behind her. “Follow me or die.”
He glanced once more over his shoulder, and then he was pounding the sand beside her. Cold both from fear and the rising wind, still she felt the hot bulk of him as he ran.
Though slowed by the soft dunes higher up the beach, the Hunt was angling toward them.
“They’re driving us toward the cliff,” Vaile panted. “We’ll be cut off.”
Earlier, she had jogged around the headland through shallow water where a small river cut through the cliff rocks. At high tide like now, she would normally hike up into the trees to catch the road back rather than risk a scramble over the loose stone on the high cliff. But if they headed inland or tried to descend toward the mouth of the river, the Hunt would capture them.
Anyway, she would be captured. With the three-headed dogs on their scent, Vaile wouldn’t be so lucky.
“You’re faster than me,” she gasped back. “Run ahead, toward the ocean. The Hunters won’t cross the moving water of the river.”
“Won’t leave you.” His voice was grim despite the wheeze.
“I’ll lose them in the trees.” Not[Au4] likely, but at least he would have a chance.
“Won’t leave you,” he repeated.
They were closing fast on the cliff edge, chunks of rock under the sand threatening to break an ankle. The Hunt was closer yet behind them, and the breath of the hounds was an icy dread on their heels. The enraged baying eclipsed the twilight, rising to a hyena pack’s gibbering cackle and promising doom.
Still, Vaile didn’t veer off. The rock, brittle and gray, broke under their pounding feet. The scrabble of long claws hissed behind them.
Imogene sucked in a huge breath, the mist of fresh river water on her tongue.
She slowed by one step, letting Vaile draw just a heartbeat ahead. He must have sensed her hesitation because he looked back for her. The black edge of the cliff made a broken line against the evening sky just a stride beyond.
She lunged at him and caught him around the shoulders. Salt and heat exploded between them at the contact. The force of her blow knocked them in an arc over the edge.
Below, the little river glimmered moon-silver. The breeze skirled around them, as if desperately wanting to hold them aloft.
The three hounds skittered to a halt at the edge of the cliff with a howled chorus of rage. When she dropped her glamour and the illusion of humanity fell away, their nine-part harmony of preternatural wrath spiraled to the stars.
She held Vaile close and spread her wings.