BLOODSTONE


No matter how the Shadow Man terrified Mirianna, he'd helped her once. She'd been led to him again--not, her instincts told her, without reason. "Please. Help us. I--we'll do anything."

"Anything?"

His voice was a whisper that caressed flesh. Mirianna's stomach quivered. Her breasts tingled. Her mouth grew drier. Without thinking, she slid her tongue along her lips. Vaguely, she wondered what she'd done. And why time seemed suspended, as if everyone but she and the Shadow Man had been cast in stone and all sound arrested. All sound except the taut, guttural repeat of his question.

"Anything?"

BLOODSTONE

2011 Launching a Star Winner in Fantasy Romance

What if looking at the face of the man you loved meant death?

Years ago, warrior Durren Drakkonwehr was cursed by a mage. Now feared and reviled as the Shadow Man, he keeps to himself, only going to town to trade rare bloodstones--petrified dragon's blood--for supplies. Though he hides his face, he can't hide his heart from the woman who haunts his dreams...

Needing bloodstone for a jewelry commission, Mirianna and her father journey across the dreaded Wehrland where the beast-men roam. When their party is attacked, only the Shadow Man can save them. Strangely drawn to him, Mirianna offers herself in return for her father's rescue.

Living in the ruined fortress with the Shadow Man, Mirianna slowly realizes that a flesh-and-blood man--not a fiend--hides there in hoods and darkness. But are love and courage enough to lift the curse and restore the man?

Excerpt from Chapter One


            Mirianna peered through her lashes at blue sky decorated with wisps of bright clouds.

Morning? But how…?

A quick inventory of her senses told her she lay on broken plates of rock. Spikes of meadow grass leaned over her shoulder. Distant treetops speared the sky, ringing a clearing that sloped down and away from the lichen-studded stone under her fingertips.

The last she remembered, she’d been riding her horse through the night and searching for her father. Alone. Lost in the no-man’s land that was the Wehrland, while branches lashed her face and snatched at her cloak. Running from…something…

Led by…someone?

Twin glimmers of yellow-green, luminescent…eyes hovered on the edge of her consciousness—and vanished when she tried to bring them into focus. The effort awakened a torrent of complaints from every muscle and joint in her body. Mirianna groaned.

Had she fallen? She moved each of her limbs in turn. Finding them stiff but uninjured, she struggled to sit up, and a damp cloth dropped from her head into her lap. She stared at it while everything else pitched and rocked.

            “Would you like some tea? It’s willow bark. Good for aches.”

            Mirianna carefully raised her gaze. A boy about thirteen knelt beside her. He wore a cloth wrapped around his forehead, and his tunic, ripped over one shoulder, was russet with dried blood. All she could think of to say was, “You—you’re hurt.”

            Color rose on his pale cheeks. “I’m on the mend. You’re the one who fainted.” With a crooked grin, he proffered a bowl. “Drink this. It’ll make you feel better. I should know.”

            He’d coaxed a smile from her, and he looked harmless, so Mirianna held out her hand. When he made no move to pass her the tea, she leaned toward him and took the bowl from his grasp. His gaze, which ought to have followed her movement, remained fixed on a point somewhere near her chin.

            The blind boy.

            Apprehension thrilled along her nerves. The boy couldn’t possibly be alone. He hadn’t been alone before…

Memories followed in a stomach-tightening rush, tumbling over one another, strange events made even stranger by this ungodly wilderness. A voice in the night, sounding from nowhere and…everywhere, terrifying her and yet—somehow—stopping her horse from bolting. A presence haunting her room at the inn, invading her dreams with vivid, erotic suggestions. A touch—a dream!—that wasn’t so much a touch but a desire made...tangible. Mirianna quivered. Her breasts swelled, and the burgeoning nipples prickled against the fabric of her bodice.

Where was the boy’s master? Where was the Shadow Man?

            Her fingers clenched, sloshing warm liquid onto her hand. She sucked in a breath, placed the bowl on the ground, and twisted her body to find the answer.

             “So,” said the voice that made her stomach break into shards of sensation, “you do remember.”

            Mirianna forced a swallow. The Shadow Man stood so close she could smell boot leather and wool, could see black-encased thigh and calf muscles that looked as solid as the rock on which she sat. Looked solid, because underneath the black hood, gloves and all-concealing clothing had to be nothing at all but darkness.

            “I—I remember you told us the way to Ar-Deneth.” Resisting the inclination of her gaze to rise, she turned away, making a show of reaching for the tea and sipping it. Don’t look at him! Instead, she scanned the clearing for signs of her father. Be safe, Papa. Please be safe!

            “Did you make it to Ar-Deneth?” The boy leaned forward with hands on knees. “I served at the inn until a few days ago. Did you stay there?”

            “Yes.” Mirianna managed a wan smile until she remembered he couldn’t see it. She touched the back of his hand instead. “It was a very nice place.”

            “Gareth,” the Shadow Man said, “check the pack mare. See if her leg is fit.”

            A look of disappointment crossed the boy’s features, but he stood without hesitation. Staff in hand, he felt his way down the hillside toward four horses tethered below. Mirianna noticed her own gelding among them.

            She sipped the tea, swilled it, and sipped again, forcing herself to linger over the cooling liquid. The Shadow Man’s brusque order to the boy told her he stood so close, she could almost feel the imprint of his lower legs cradling her spine. She wished he would speak or leave before the brackish tea made her vomit or her strung-tight nerves made her bolt.

            “Why didn’t you stay in Ar-Deneth?” he demanded. “Why did you have to come back?”

            His voice, though low, ripped at the shreds of her control. Not because it accused. She’d expected that. Just as she’d expected anger. And menace. What set her nerve endings vibrating was something that underlay all the rest, something she should have expected because she’d heard it before, only she hadn’t recognized it then. Nor could she quite name it now, except it bore elements of frustration. And anguish.

            She set the bowl aside. “Please understand, I wouldn’t have come, but we—my father—needed more bloodstone. Ulerroth said—the innkeeper said you were the only one who—”

            “There were three men with you. Where are they?”

            His tone brought Mirianna’s chin up, but she held her gaze fixed on the empty tea bowl.  She was not going to cry. Her father was safe…somewhere. He’d been ahead of her when they escaped the ambush. “I—the clearing was full of Krad. We got separated.”

            “Krad!” The Shadow Man strode to the lip of the hillside and planted one boot on a rock.

            He stood half turned away and far enough the jangling of her nerves faded to a hum. Emboldened, Mirianna let her gaze rise. The morning sun shone full on his back, showing her the sheen of wear on the black hood, tunic and breeches that concealed every inch of his flesh but hid none of the contours. On his raised thigh she detected a tear that had been carefully mended. His gloves and boots bore the creases and scuffs of long use. Even his belt showed faintly green where the dye had faded. A sword, the broken blade extending no more than two hands’ span from the hilt, stuck out from his belt like a common thief’s dagger.

            Was this the being who had invaded her dreams and turned them so disturbingly sensual? Was this the wraith who two nights ago had spirited the blind boy from their sight? Was this the possessor of a voice that had shaken her to the core? In the full day’s sun, he looked no more than a man, taller than some, leaner and more fit than most. Chagrinned by her fears, Mirianna rocked to her knees and made ready to rise.

            He turned at the rustle of her movement. Her gaze went automatically to his face. But there was no face to be seen. Only a shapeless drape of black cloth filled his hood where eyes and nose and mouth should be.

            Mirianna sat as if turned to stone. Horror cooled her blood, and the hair rose on every part of her body. It’s his look. One look from him—at him—and men go mad. Or die. By the Dragon, let me not die!

            Somehow, she summoned the power to close her eyes. She knew she’d succeeded only when she opened them again and the Shadow Man no longer filled her vision. Every nerve, however, thrummed with his presence, and she knew he stood not more than three paces behind her and to the left. She knew, too, he faced the forest’s edge, his right hand gripping the scrolled hilt of the weapon in his belt. She knew all this, and more, because—somehow—he’d let her know it so she might never again forget who and what he was. Don’t worry. I won’t forget again.


            She turned slowly, like one waking from a dream, and saw what had captured his attention—three riders emerging from the trees. “Papa!” she choked, and stumbled to her feet to meet him.

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