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Shadow On The Sea - Chapter Two

Life indeed went on. Josh went through Awakening at five and immediately began Warrior training. His twin cousins, then two, went through the painful Unfurling process. Poor Sami had her hands full, to be sure, and she heavily relied on Kayden's help to handle both her angels. The year following, Mai and Eliana went through Awakening as well. Eliana started Wizard training, and Mai began training in both thanks to being a Shaman.

Proving yet again to be unusual, Mai developed both fire and lighting that blended together into the rare force known as Firai. It was as legendary as the Shadow Elemine itself. White fire and black lightning had blended to create an exceptionally potent force. Only one such as Mai, perfectly balanced between Light and Dark, could have ever used it. Yet, the Firai turned out to be just one of her new 'gifts.'

Malthus had taken her out to the gardens for some fresh air, and he glanced away for only one moment. It was a moment long enough for Mai to wander off on her own, and she crawled through a hole in the fence to get outside the castle grounds. She was still very tiny for her age and she fit through places even her cousin could not.

She had made it only a few feet beyond the wall before one of the local monsters found her. Instinct made her run away, but it chased her quickly. She found herself cornered against a wall, and she squeezed her eyes shut as the monster lunged for her. When it suddenly yelped, her eyes flew wide. A familiar figure was crouched in front of her, and Moon magic swirled around the sword he held. "Alex!" She grabbed the back of his tunic and held on with all her strength.

"I am going to tan your hide!" her guardian muttered. "I about had a heart attack when I felt you leave the grounds!"

She had never, ever been able to get away with anything or hide anything from her guardian. He always knew where she was and what she was doing, and she thought he either had spies or could read her mind. She didn't mind at all. She was happiest with him there. He was her favoritest person ever, more than even Josh and Eliana.

The monster lunged in again, and Alexander swung his arm up to block. Fangs sank deep into his arm, and blood welled. Molten fury ripped through Mai that the person she loved most had been hurt. "Let. GO!" Her small hands lifted, and a blast of Firai streaked from her palms. It not only blew the beast into bits, it also knocked her over onto her bottom in the process. "Owie!"

Alexander just sighed. As protective of his princess as he was, she was truly just as bad about him. He started to turn to help her, and too late he heard the snarling that was more danger. Another beast leapt out of the trees and slammed into him hard enough to knock him flat. He cursed viciously as he struggled to keep jaws from closing on his neck.

Another monster emerged and started toward Mai. Alexander's heart stopped for a moment and then determination filled him as he reached for all of his magic. His angel's life was worth more than his. Just before he could release the spell, something entirely different snarled viciously and tore out of the trees. The large gray wolf ripped the beast away from Mai and sent it running with a pained yip. The wolf then rushed over and snapped at the neck of the beast fighting Alexander. It also backed up sharply and then ran off.

Alexander painfully sat up and winced as more than one wound winced. In addition to the first bite, he had gotten clawed and bitten a few more times. Mai flung herself at him and wound her arms around his neck. "I'm sorry!" she wailed against his shoulder. "Don't die, Alex! You can't die! You can't leave me!"

"Butterfly." He smoothed his hand over her back gently. "I'm not dead. I'm not even close to it. Your friend helped me." He smiled over her head at the wolf. He knew a sentient creature when he saw it. "Thank you." He gingerly got to his feet and then bent and put Mai on the wolf's back. She was just small enough to ride. "There you go."

She leaned down and hugged the wolf around the neck and nuzzled his fur. The wolf rubbed his head against hers, and she sat up. "Tynan! He's Tynan!" She smiled up at Alexander. "Can I keep him? Please? Please? He belongs with me."

"If your parents don't object. And that's also pending your parents not grounding you until you're eighteen."

When Malthus spotted his little girl riding on the wolf's back, he could only groan. "Damn it, Maitena! I am too young to have a heart attack!" At twenty-eight, it was a legitimate concern. He picked up his daughter and settled her on his hip before eyeing the rather ragged guardian with her. "You're a mess, kid."

Alexander grimaced. "I can imagine I am. I better get my wounds cleaned up. By the way, you have a new pet."

"Wait, what?"

"Alex!" Mai threw herself forward, and Alexander hastily caught her before Malthus dropped her. "Come on, Tynan!" she said cheerfully. "You can sleep on my bed! An' we can get you a collar!"

Malthus blinked as he watched the wolf trot behind Alexander and Mai. On a sigh, he said, "Aly, your child will be the death of me yet."

Alexander was halfway toward his room when one of the ladies-in-waiting ran into him in the hall. She stared for a moment and then winced when she saw the blood on his tunic and the wounds visible beneath the tears. "Oh, my. Our Mai does keep you guessing." She smiled and tilted her head flirtatiously as she looked up at him from under her lashes. "I have healing magic. I would be happy to help you."

A familiar stormy look settled over Mai's face that meant her temper was on the rise. Alexander just smiled. "I thank you for your offer, but I can handle this. It's not very much. If anything, perhaps Mai can practice her healing magic." He continued down the hall with barely a pause.

Mai looked back over his shoulder and stuck her tongue out at the courtier. The young woman blinked and then hastily swallowed a laugh as she hurried away. Truthfully, the entire kingdom had noticed that the princess was very possessive of her guardian, and vice-versa. It went far, far beyond the normal bond of a guardian and angel and did, in fact, smack of a budding bond between destined mates. It would certainly be interesting to see what happened when she hit final maturity.

It got interesting much sooner than that. If there was any one moment most angels dreaded in their evolution, other than Unfurling, it was the time known as a Flare that they entered into when they were sixteen. It was so named since it was referred to as the first flare of final maturity. Like the match that flared when first lit, an angel's appeal went into hyper-drive so dramatically that they almost literally started to ooze sexuality. The only people ever spared from attraction to a Flaring angel were their own parents or anyone too young to feel any sort of desire.

Josh entered his Flare the year before Mai and Eliana. He proved to be more of a problem than anticipated, enough so that Kayden found himself calling upon Sami, Alexander, and Maduin alike to help keep the prince from getting a broken heart. The real problem with Flaring angels was that they were most times vulnerable to their own power. It could only be tempered by an angel finding a single target and effectively focusing all their desire on them. It was a strange and wonderful and terrifying time for the angel as much as it was for anyone else. You couldn't take anything they said or did seriously.

His Flare ended a month before Eliana's began. She Flared a bit brighter than anticipated, and Maduin found himself literally having to physically beat back some suitors. She took it with the same good humor she took the rest of life, and she didn't at all mind spending more time with her guardian. She had known for all of her life that he was the one she loved most. Final maturity would merely be a confirmation of what her wings and heart had told her all along.

She kept it mum, though. She was, after all, sixteen. He wouldn't believe her. He'd had enough trouble with his own sixteenth year. Rather than deal with the complications of being a guardian and Flaring, he had effectively locked himself inside his room at the castle for the entire year, and his sympathetic angel had kept him company. By not exposing himself to anyone old enough to either feel or cause desire, he had weathered the normally tumultuous storm. Eliana, now old enough for both, knew that her Flare would test them both. But, when it ended and the desire between them only got worse, he would see what she had all along. She was fairly sure he already knew, but his was a cautious soul. It was why he was able to keep her healthy. She liked charging in.

For all the problems Flare could bring, it was genuinely a time to be celebrated, particularly when it came to the heirs to the thrones. They flared brightest, longest, and would continue to burn the most thanks to being the most powerful. A ball was planned for the night of Mai's sixteenth birthday, and she found that she herself actually was looking forward to it. Tradition dictated that the first dance belonged to the heir's guardian. She had been looking forward to dancing with Alexander all of her life.

She woke the morning of her birthday and braced her shoulders before looking into a mirror. Her reflection greeted her, and she winced. She could see her halo even just standing in her lamplight, and that meant that she was not just Flaring, she was FLARING. Angels couldn't normally see their own halos unless in Flare, and even then, still only in the sun or moonlight. It almost seemed as if she was going to glow unless she was in absolute darkness—and that was not yet a certainty anyway. She groaned and dropped her head into her hands. It was going to be twelve months of hell.

Her door cracked open, and Eliana peeked in. She promptly winced. "Oof! Okay, yeah, you're bad." She walked over to her cousin and sighed. "Things would be so much easier if you weren't gorgeous and sexy to start with."

Ever since puberty had kicked in, Mai had begun exuding an aura of sheer sultry sensuality that was normally reserved for just the age of sixteen. She didn't just transcend gender; she seemed to transcend beauty itself. Added to that was a hauntingly gorgeous face, long blue-black hair, bright iridescent green eyes, and a body that, while not curvy, was somehow the perfect ideal of desire.

She was still tiny, though. She wasn't technically short at five-four, but she was so utterly delicate that she seemed impossibly smaller. Eliana stood a few inches taller, many pounds heavier, and she had the curves that Mai had always wistfully wished to have herself.

The cousins were near opposites in most ways, perhaps fitting to their opposite races. Eliana had pale pink hair and iridescent red eyes, the latter of which marked all pureblood Darklings. Yet, despite her own beauty, she had merely been mildly attractive from the onset of puberty, just enough to make people look at her with the start of potential desire. She had only started to ooze sexuality with the start of her Flare. She was relatively normal for a royal angel overall.

"You can't stay in here all year," she noted reasonably.

Mai winced. "You're picking up Alex's habit of reading my mind."

"No, I read your face." She shoved her cousin at the large closet taking up one side of the tower. "Dress to feel good about yourself, however much you think that may make it be worse. Let's be honest: it's not only your face or body, it's your soul and halo. You could go out in a gunny sack, Alexander's cloak, and a hood, and you'd still have people following you with their tongues lolling."

Tynan, lying on the end of Mai's bed, made a sound suspiciously like a snort of laughter. Both females ignored him. Mai grumbled a little more, mostly for form, and then went into her closet. Dressing to feel good meant her favorite gray dress and black bodice with its fat white ribbons. It meant leaving her hair down so it hung to her hips and then putting on the silver coronet that marked her as the crown princess. She felt happy enough with how she looked, but that didn't mean she was looking forward to the coming months.

Eliana left her to pull her shoes on and headed down out of the tower that Mai now called home; she had moved into the tower bedroom on her thirteenth birthday, as was the right of a princess. Eliana had a different tower all her own. She found Alexander at the bottom of the stairs and told him gravely, "You're going to need the other guardians. You may also need Josh and the entire royal guard."

He just sighed. "I had assumed, Eliana. Scoot." He gave her a little pat on the back. "Maduin is waiting to take you out for breakfast and to buy Mai's birthday gift."

"'kay!" She hurried down the hall happily.

He leaned against the wall and waited, only a tiny hint of tension to his shoulders belying that he knew his life was about to be more complicated. When his angel very carefully opened the door at the bottom and peeked out, he almost choked. He had already been carefully controlling and concealing an attraction to her that had started as a minor thing but had grown more and more powerful as she aged. The way his hunger for her leapt in that moment, he knew that the coming year would be as difficult for him as for her—if not more.

The truth was there staring him in the face. He did not merely love his princess, he was nearly wholly sure that he was in love with his princess. Only final maturity would say for sure whether he was her destined mate as he believed, or if he merely had an unrequited love that was not too terribly uncommon where angels were concerned. He would accept whichever direction it went, and continue to be happy so long as she smiled at him.

She did smile now when she saw him, but it was hesitant and fleeting. Nerves filled her green eyes as she slowly stepped into the hall. "Alex . . ."

"Of course I'm attracted to you," he told her reasonably. "Maitena, at this point, the stone statues in the grand hall may leave their posts in an effort to follow you. I'm twenty-eight, not eight, and you are in Flare. You're also gorgeous, and I love you to start with. I'm fair game for nature's idea of a practical joke on angels and the people around them alike. I was also prepared for this because of Josh and Eliana. Now come here and get the hug you want."

Her smile spread and reached her eyes. He always knew the right thing to tell her. She rushed across the hall and threw her arms around him fiercely. He was her everything. Her guardian, her best friend, and her hero. She loved no one more. Truthfully, she held more than a little suspicion that he might be her destined mate. Over the last two years, she had been noticing more and more just how ridiculously gorgeous he was, until it was a wonder she could even keep her emotions under wraps. If he wasn't her mate, then she had a hell of a case of the hots for her guardian. Which, then again, was not unusual at sixteen. A lot of angels often turned to their guardian as a target to weather the storm.

Her day got worse before it got better. She was in the grand ballroom organizing the decorations for her party when Talia came to find her. Mai eyed the guardian's visible reluctance and then winced. "Uh-oh. Why won’t I like this?"

"Your mother sent me to get you, honey." Talia put an arm around Mai's shoulders and herded her toward the grand entrance hall. "Brace yourself," she muttered.

Mai groaned softly as she saw the line outside the castle doors. It was at least fifty bodies deep of all genders and races, and they were vying for a chance to look in the windows at her. "Let me go hide," she pleaded with her parents. "Please. Have mercy for your loving child."

"Maitena." Alyenna pulled her over and firmly pushed her forward where she could be seen by the people outside. "Just get it over with. The sooner they see you, the sooner they can get back to their business. You know everyone has been anticipating this."

The mob scene didn't start to dissipate. It actually started getting worse as more and more people began crowding in. The interior guards had to hastily jump forward and bar the doors even more before they opened. The heavy, thick wooden doors still began to look strained. Talia looked at Alyenna and said only, "And I thought you were bad."

Mai gulped and whirled around to run away. She ran right into Alexander where he had silently come up behind her. She immediately ducked under his cloak and hid behind his back. "Make them go away!" came her despairing wail. "I don't want to be Ceres' sex symbol!"

Talia bit her lip, hard, before she started laughing. Even Malthus and Alyenna were hard-pressed to keep a straight face. "Take her away, Alexander," Alyenna murmured. "I suppose we shall have to play by ear. Our Mai just never does anything the easy way."

"Love you, too, Mother," came the answering mutter.

By the time evening arrived and the ball was in its starting stages, Mai had ensconced herself in her room and not emerged. Her ladies-in-waiting arrived to help her dress and discovered they were not immune to her appeal. They loved her enough to not want her to be uncomfortable, so they immediately fetched Alyenna and Eliana to help Mai instead. If this was going to be the pattern of the year, it was going to be vexing for all involved.

Alexander was in his room getting dressed in his formal uniform when someone knocked on the door. "Enter," he called. When he saw Sami walk in, he grinned. "Hey, Sami. You look a little more comfortable in that uniform than the last time I saw you."

"Practice makes perfect," Sami retorted. "Josh's ball at the least prepared me." She winced. "I understand that his Flare in no way prepared anyone for Mai however." All guardians, as close to the kingdoms as they were, were allowed the informality of using nicknames and not titles with the royal families. In many ways, guardians were considered part of the royal families. They held unofficial titles of nobility themselves.

"Not even Eliana prepared us," he confirmed. "She's bad, Sami."

She studied him for a few moments and then smiled. "Alex," she asked her best friend politely, "does someone have something of a crush on his princess even without her Flare?"

"I'm not going to answer a question with an obvious answer." He yanked at his cuffs. "I have no idea if I'm her mate or if I'm just dealing with a relatively normal unrequited love for an angel. It happens, unfortunately, and guardians are more prone to it than others."

"Fair enough." She leaned against a table. "Well, allow me to at least put your mind at ease about one thing: the betrothal between Mai and Josh will no doubt be called off within a few short years. Perhaps four, to be exact."

He lifted a brow. "Four years?"

"When the twins hit maturity. Josh and Laila are, hmm, possessive of each other, shall we say?"

He grinned. "I had begun to wonder about that. Well, they're only second cousins, and the choice of destined mates is never predictable. I got suspicious a year ago, really. Poor Laila had just started puberty when Josh entered Flare. She was affected by it significantly more than Kev." His grin turned a bit wicked. "Speaking of Kev, has Kayden yet admitted he's a bit more possessive and protective of Kev than you are?"

She snorted. "He's getting there. He's just being very careful for obvious reasons. I, however, find nothing sacred. I already spoke to Robert and Mauri. If Kayden is Kev's destined mate, and Laila is Josh's, then I will hand guardianship of Kev over to Kayden and we'll share Laila." She smiled. "Unless I happen to find another angel to guard. On a related note—and no, I'm not subtle—is Mai's other cousin going to be here?"

"Aya?" He snorted. "No, you're not subtle, and yes, she is."

Aya Revelry was Mai and Eliana's second cousin, connected through Alyenna's aunt. She had more human blood than angelic blood—she was only an eighth Lightling—but her angelic blood was royal and therefore made her more like a half-breed. She also had the Shaman gift, and it had come with the gift of Sight as well. She was a year younger than Mai and Eliana, and just angelic enough to be already catching eyes. Lucky for her, she would not go through Flare. And at least where Sami was concerned, she certainly didn’t need to!

"I could just be drawn to her as a guardian. I might also be overly possessive and protective because her Sight often makes her vulnerable." Sami smiled. "I suppose we shall have to see what happens as she gets older. They say an angel is always worth waiting for."

"You're really not subtle."

The ball was attended by hundreds of people. Maduin stayed at Eliana's side the entire time, and Alexander did not leave Mai. Flaring angels were not allowed to be unchaperoned. They either needed to be with a guardian or a parent. In the princesses' case, the only acceptable other alternative was Josh. When he walked up to where they stood, he said solemnly, "When I say you have my sympathies, you know I mean it." Even without Flare, he made a devastating figure in the white dress uniform of a royal angel. Many wistful eyes had been fixed to him the entire time.

Mai looked positively lethal in her white ball gown, and those who looked at her could nearly not look away again. Her hair had been pinned up with a few loose ringlets, and she by far looked more like an adult than a sixteen-year-old. She had looked sixteen at the age of thirteen. It was why Alexander had never felt uncomfortable with his desire for her, or why Sami was not bothered to be attracted to Aya. Accelerated angelic maturity applied both mentally and physically. It was very common that angels who had destined mates in humans could find age gaps of anywhere from five to fifteen years between them.

Josh leaned down and kissed Mai's cheek. "I get your second dance," he told her.

She grinned. "You want to make Laila jealous." He just winked and ambled away, and she looked at the others gravely. "At least Laila will have her revenge when she hits Flare." She winced as understanding hit. "Oof. Her and Kev. Same time. Yikes. So not fair."

"No," Maduin said dryly, "not fair would be you two, Josh, and the twins all being the same age."

Alexander grimaced. "Thank you for that nightmare, Maduin. I didn't need to sleep tonight." He glanced up as he heard trumpets and then looked down at Mai. He skimmed his finger over her cheek. "I will see you in a few moments for our dance."

She smiled up at him almost shyly. "Okay." She saw the floor beginning to clear as the trumpets continued to play, and she slowly walked out into the middle of the floor.

Everyone began to cheer, and the majority of the crowd also sighed happily. "Ladies and gentlemen," Talia said clearly. As the eldest guardian of the two kingdoms, she was considered the High Guardian and therefore given the duty to announce the royal heirs. "Her Royal Highness, the crown princess and heir to the throne of the Chalice Kingdom, Maitena Everbird. Her Flare has begun. In two years, she will be an adult and we will celebrate again." The cheers picked up again, and she smiled as she continued, "As is tradition, the princess' first dance belongs to her guardian, Alexander Solomon."

Alexander walked quietly across the floor to where Mai stood, and more sighing was done. He was by far as beautiful as any angel, and his utter devotion to his princess was almost as sexy as his strong guardian body. He brought her hand to his lips as he bowed, and she sank into a graceful curtsey. Music spilled into the air as he drew her into his arms and began to lead her across the floor.

Standing along the side of the room, Josh observed the dance and then murmured to Kayden, "Call me crazy, but you sure as hell didn't look at me like that when you danced with me."

Kayden just snorted softly. Sami wasn't the only one who had been prodding Alexander about his emotions for Mai. All of the guardians had said something at one time or another. His eyes drifted to where Kev stood with his parents, and he bit back a wistful sigh. An angel was well worth waiting for. At twenty-eight, he was a few months younger than Alexander and fourteen years older than Kev. He didn't mind. Destined mates knew no barrier. An angel's mate was what they needed. If an angel needed a mate that much older, then they would have one. He glanced at the floor and smiled. Sometimes stronger angels needed it more than most.

Mai, being a Shaman, channeled magic through music. Her body became an instrument that moved with a grace as magical as it was beautiful. Alexander matched her perfectly, and he handled her smaller frame with a gentleness that was nearly intimate. The soft flush to her face and the adoration in her eyes as she looked up at him only increased her appeal more. The look in his eyes spoke just as many volumes.

Bets had been laid by the end of the dance. Not a single person there doubted that the princess and her guardian were destined mates. The question was whether or not they would figure it out on her eighteenth birthday, or before.

Josh indeed got Mai's second dance—his right as her betrothed—and he was quite happy to see the stormy look of temper on Laila's face. Mai just laughed at him. She danced with Eliana as well, and Aya and Kev. She also danced with her father, and when he swung her in the air as if she was five again, her laughter rang out to make everyone smile. She was the greatest treasure of the kingdom. She brought joy to the very air around her.

She danced with others as well, though only the ones she could trust to not get fresh. Namely, those either too young or already mated. As Malthus saw her dancing with a gray-haired young man, he asked, "Who is that? I've never seen him before and yet he looks familiar."

Alyenna and Anthony looked as well, and both knew how he felt. Eliana said nothing. She had her suspicions but she wasn't going to blab them. It was up to Mai to clue everyone in, if she wanted.

By the time the halfway mark of Mai's sixteenth year approached, she was nearly at her wits' end. She couldn't leave the palace without fear of being accosted, even if she was never alone when she went out. People were blinded by her sensuality, and that meant Alexander and even Maduin had found themselves dealing out more than one black eye in her defense. She had dealt a few as well, unfortunately.

The only people she could handle being around for extended periods of time were her parents, Eliana, and Alexander. Not even Josh could really handle it without things getting uncomfortable on both sides. For the betrothed pair, it left them feeling as if a brother was attracted to his sister—another clue that the betrothal simply would not work. They were obligated to hold the betrothal until one or the other of them hit final maturity and confirmed their destined mate, but they were ready to call it off right then and there. No one could blame them; most everyone in both kingdoms knew who the heirs were destined to love.

Talia watched from a window as Alexander and Mai walked in the gardens together and said absently to Alyenna, "Spring or fall?"

"Fall, of course." Alyenna continued work on the dress she was mending. "Royal weddings are always much nicer in fall."

Another botched attempt to merely go into town to get flowers had Mai hiding herself in her tower. Eliana came up to join her and flopped down on the bed beside her cousin. "What's really eating you, hon?" she asked. "And don't tell me it's nothing. I know you best other than Alexander. You are far more bothered by this than I would have expected. What's going on?"

Mai sighed and pulled the pillow off her face. "It's silly."

"I promise not to laugh."

"I was this close to having the worst first kiss experience ever." She scowled. "Some jerk tried to plant one on me before Alex could get her away, and it spooked me. I don't want my first kiss to be the worst memory of my life! Is that petty of me in the scale of things?"

Eliana stared at her. "That is an entirely legitimate concern, and oh my god, I would be spooked too!" She huffed out a breath. "I took care of that problem for myself right after my birthday. I planted one on Maduin."

"Is that why he was glowering at you for the rest of the day?"

"I knocked his socks off, and he's trying so very hard to be noble and not 'take advantage' of my Flare. Never mind that the only reason he's succeeding is because I am choosing to be patient. It's tempting though. Really, really, really tempting."

Mai snorted softly as she sat up, and then she sighed again. "Honestly, I'm not asking to get my socks knocked off, as appealing as that sounds. I just want it to be nice. Something I can remember later fondly. A bright spot in this year of hell."

"How about me?" Eliana offered. "I'm relatively unaffected by you—and I still say we're magnetically canceling each other out—so, why not? Give us both a good memory." She grinned. "And let's face it. Another toss of the dice and we'd probably be destined mates."

"Tis true!" Mai had also known that for years. The force and fury of their love for each other had more than once perplexed outsiders. "Or twins. We could've gone either way." She scooted closer. "Alright. You may proceed to at the least make my socks slightly wiggle. They don't need to leave my feet for me to be happy."

"I love you. Just saying that again." Eliana caught her chin and leaned in with the intent of kissing her, but just before their lips touched, they both broke down in a giggling fit. "This is not going to work!" she managed to say. "Apparently, I'm not even affected enough to just kiss you!"

"Argh! That is just not fair!" Mai fell over on her back again. A clock rang in the distance, and she said, "Don't you have a luncheon with Maduin?"

"Speak of the devil! I do indeed." She leaned over and kissed Mai's forehead. "You'll figure something out." She headed out of the tower, and she shut the door behind her.

As soon as it was closed, the wolf lying near the fireplace said, "I'd offer myself, but I would have the same problem. I'm afraid I'm somewhere between Josh and Eliana, where I am not really attracted to you, but I also feel slightly awkward at the very idea."

Mai snorted as she sat up. "I appreciate the offer regardless, Tynan." She rubbed her hands over her eyes. "Is it impractical of me as an angel to wish to get through this unscathed?"

"Not so much impractical as unlikely." He lifted his head to look at her. "Though I do have to say I've been surprised by how well you're weathering this without a target. Eliana has been able to focus all her desire on Maduin, and he's taking it well in stride—socks notwithstanding. Josh about gave the guardians gray hair. I think if Laila hadn't started puberty partway through, it might have gotten far worse because he would have broken his heart rather than just bruise it. Chasing her as a target kept him somewhat sane, as well as entertained the rest of us. You, on the other hand, the one who is literally a walking embodiment of desire, are all but stunted."

She frowned. "You suppose the two are linked? Maybe I'm leaking out everything I should have inside."

He had to laugh. "It would be just like you to be that contrary."

She briefly stuck her tongue out at him. Having him in her life was like having another brother. At least she wasn't betrothed to this one. "I'm serious."

"So am I. As for your current problem, I think the answer is closer than you think. Alexander."

She blinked. "Alex." She brightened as it dawned on her. "Of course! He already admitted he was attracted to me, and I've definitely been attracted to him since even before this stupid Flare, so there shouldn't be any problem like with Eliana, or you or Josh. And, well, he's Alex. My guardian." Her voice was simple. "I don't trust anyone more than I trust him." She hopped to her feet. "Thanks, Tynan."

He watched her run out of the tower and smiled to himself. "Indeed." He put his head down again and added under his breath, "I hope she glued on her socks this morning."

Mai was an intelligent young woman who had no need to make things potentially awkward. She stopped by the drawing room where her parents were playing cards with Talia and announced, "I'm going to go kiss Alex."

Malthus choked on his water, and Talia patted him helpfully on the back. Alyenna just smiled. "Of course, dear. Ignore your father. He's been enjoying the fact that you've made it easy to keep your heart from being broken. It's such an oddity, and we both appreciate it."

Malthus glowered at her and then sighed at Mai. "You just caught me by surprise. Of course you have my blessing, sweetheart." He smiled ruefully in memory. "My sixteenth year was fairly eventful as well."

Alyenna murmured, "I've heard the stories from Anthony."

"Ignore him. He has a big mouth."

Mai rolled her eyes, and Alyenna laughed, "Maitena, you have our blessings to experiment to whatever degree you so wish, particularly if you are picking a very safe target such as Alexander. We trust him with your very life let alone your heart. Sixteen is as lethal on an angel as it is on others, darling. Enjoy it."

Mai immediately whirled and hurried down the hall. She knew she would find her guardian in the library. If he wasn't with her, he was in there writing down more of the stories bouncing around inside his head. He wrote beautiful, fantastical tales that she covetously guarded copies of in her room.

He was indeed in the library, and he was sitting at a desk with pen and paper. Her pulse happily fluttered all over the place as something hot and needy clenched inside. He wore glasses for reading, or writing, and they did delicious things to his face. With every passing day, she found more and more about him that was just too damn attractive for her sanity. Her problem, whatever it was, was absolutely not that her sexuality was all external. At least not for him.

Without looking up, he said, "I know you're there, butterfly."

The nickname, as always, fluttered her heart. She linked her hands together as she walked over to him. "Alex?"

The hesitant note had him looking up quickly. He frowned and removed his glasses as he stood. He came around the side of the desk and cupped her cheek. "What's wrong, angel? Why are you so nervous? Is there something wrong?"

"No, not really." She blew out a breath. "I want you to be my first kiss."

He paused. He didn't ask why she was asking him; he knew more about her Flare issues than she probably did, and what he didn't guess, Eliana cheerfully blabbed. He also didn't ask if she was sure. She never did anything unless she was sure. His only hesitation was because she trusted him more than he trusted himself. You couldn't take an angel seriously at sixteen, but she was not a normal angel. "Angel."

Her gaze dropped. "Please? I just . . . want it to be my choice. Something I will remember happily. With someone I love. That loves me."

Whether it was the elusive 'in love' he hoped it was for both of them or merely normal love, there was indeed love between them. He could not deny her when she asked him for something. She asked for so little. She gave instead. She gave unconditionally of love and trust. She looked at him as if he was her hero. How could he deny her? "Come here, butterfly."

She moved closer until he could wrap an arm around her waist. Her heart was already beating hard. He felt so wonderfully warm and hard and secure. Safe. She never felt safer than when he was near. "Alexander."

"Do you want to kiss me, or should I kiss you?" He rubbed his thumb over her full lower lip. She had a mouth designed for kissing. "Gentle or hard? I'm yours to command."

"You kiss me." She smiled. "I think you're probably more experienced. I'll just learn from you."

"I don't kiss and tell, angel. And someone has been rather unashamedly protecting my virtue by scaring off anyone she doesn't like. I've dated two people in my life. They were the only ones that got by you."

Her lower lip stuck out a bit in a pout. "I have better taste than you do." She refrained from mentioning her bitter jealousy that those two had gotten past her at all. "Kiss me." She tilted her face up invitingly, as naturally as a night-blooming rose sought the moon.

He cupped her cheek and leaned down to tenderly take her lips with his. She tasted of roses and incense. Felt as soft as rose petals. Need coiled hard inside his body, and he forced himself to keep the kiss light and gentle. He saw her iridescent eyes darken with the same desire he felt, and she leaned up into the kiss. Her lips parted under his.

A naturally sensual angel. He was a doomed man. He tugged her closer and deepened the kiss as she had asked. His tongue teasingly sought hers, and she returned the little caress without hesitation. Her hands settled over his heart as if staking a claim. They slowly eased apart and stared at each other. "Better?" he asked her huskily.

She stared at him with frustratingly sexy eyes and then surged up and kissed him hungrily. He dragged her closer and the embrace lost all semblance of control. The kiss deepened and deepened until he unexpectedly tasted a crackle of fire and lightning and knew he had found her soul. She took a little breath of surprise, and he almost lifted his head. Her arms swiftly banded around his neck to keep him close, and her mouth went wild under his. His arms shot around her waist and he hauled her off her feet. Her body pressed against his, and it felt nearly perfect against him. Two years, a little voice whispered in his mind. Two years, she will be an adult.

It was when she felt her wings stirring inside her soul that she realized she was in real trouble. She wanted to give him her wings. The urge alone told her that he would be her destined mate, but she was only sixteen! Either she was an early bloomer, or she was more deviant than they had always known.

He felt the sudden fear inside her and quickly lifted his head. His entire body ached painfully, and seeing the flush to her face and the way her eyes had darkened with shadowy power did nothing to help his control. Her breaths came as quickly as his did. "Good first kiss?" he asked her thickly.

She pressed trembling fingers to hers lips. So much for knocking off her socks. He had blown them to bits instead. "You win for best first and second kiss. I, uhm, am going to go. Take a shower. Cold one." She carefully backed away. It was tempting. It was really, really tempting to ask him to be her first lover. He would do it. And he would absolutely make it worth it. She just didn't trust herself to control her wings. Two years. She would know in two years.

She hastily whirled and rushed out of the library, and she didn't even see her father as she ran past him. Malthus eyed her back and then walked into the library. He took one look at Alexander and winced with wry humor and sympathy. "I believe I've said this before, but, you're a mess, kid."

Alexander didn't look up from where he had sat down. "No shit. It's still your daughter's fault. Please take this as it's meant: your daughter is absolutely lethal."

Malthus did his best not to laugh. "Alexander, I just want to tell you that Alyenna and I accept anything and everything that may or may not come to pass between you and Mai either now or in the future. Clear?"

He straightened and raked a hand through his tangled brown hair. "Clear. You can hold your blessings until she hits final maturity, however. I think she and I are both wary of her Flare. She's not . . . normal, still, for an angel." He glanced up. "I was able to kiss her soul."

Malthus blinked. "Well." It was unheard of for an angel's soul to be developed enough before maturity for his or her mate to find it via a mere kiss. He finally smiled ruefully. "That's Maitena for you. Always keeping us on our toes." He coughed. "You may want a cold shower."

"Will it work?"

"No, not really."


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