Friday, March 30, 2012

Fate's Call #1

So this is my serial that one of my Critique Partners aptly named Fate's Call.

As were the last two letters of the Alphabet Game, this story is dedicated to my bestie, Jo-Anna.

Just so you know the deal, I am going to add to this weekly. Don't have more than a rough plan, but I kinda know where it's going to go. (I am a die hard pantser...I write by the seat of my pants.) ;)

The couple should be familiar to those who read my Alphabet Game, they were featured in "Y is for Yours" and "Z is for Zethan."

Hope you enjoy their full story and will check back as it develops. Comments encouraged!

Enjoy!

            Erron ran. Tears streamed down her face, blurring her vision, but still she forced one foot in front of the other. Moving forward. Her chest heaved. She wouldn’t get away, and he would probably punish her for trying to flee him, but…she had to try. She couldn’t deal with her father anymore.

            She was done with his flippant moods, his heavy hand…and his rapes.

            Since Erron had turned thirteen or so, and started developing breasts, he had…taken what only a wife should be expected to give willingly.

            Making it into the market center, she continued on. But where would she go, really? Erron glanced over her shoulder, skittering around shops displaying their wares outside in the warm spring morning. Stalls and tables were crowded as people perused or bartered.

            A man cursed as she bolted around him, then another small group of three, making them jump apart. She ignored them, keeping her legs in motion though they burned, calves throbbing as her muscles flexed.

            Erron dashed through an alley and down an almost empty street. She was moving toward the outskirts of town now, nearing Lower Dalunas—not the best part of the Province. But the prospect of brothels and less than reputable taverns didn’t scare her more than her father did.

            She was tired. Her chest burned and her heart pounded, but she couldn’t stop now. Feet faltering, she stumbled. Her line of vision wobbled and the edge of her shoe caught her skirt. Down she went, throwing her hands out just in time so she wouldn’t land on her face. Pain shot up her wrists as they absorbed the impact of her body and her knees smarted because her dress was not padding enough on the hard ground.

            “Are you all right?” The male voice made her shudder.

            Where had he even come from? She’d not seen anyone when she’d entered the alley.

            Erron tried to nod. Had her head even moved? Her thick blonde plait fell forward. Loosened wisps against her face tickling her cheek and forehead.

            “Here, let me help you.”

            Brown hide boots entered her line of sight, then a hand. It was large and calloused, but something made her want to take it. She lifted an aching wrist off the ground and placed her shaking hand into his. Warm. His touch was warm and firm. Strong.

            She looked up as he pulled her to her feet without effort. Brown. All she saw was a dark gaze that made her stomach flip.

            “Are you hurt?” he asked. Dark brows drew together as he studied her and Erron couldn’t find her voice. His handsome face held a concerned expression. No one had ever looked at her like that before. Tears pricked her eyes.

            He was tall and lean, dark hair shaggy and in need of a trim. He wore a leather apron over his tan long sleeved linen tunic and brown breeches. Whatever his trade, he was a hard worker.

            Erron yanked her hand from his grip and looked away. “I’m fine. Thank you,” she whispered.

            She jumped as his fingertips brushed her jaw. He gripped her chin, turning her face back to him. Erron needed to get away. She didn’t know this man. But when she met the dark brown eyes, she fell into their depths. Her heart skipped a beat and she froze in place. He wasn’t hurting her. She wasn’t afraid of him. His touch sank into her, warmth spreading down her neck and into her shoulders. The gesture was casual and comforting…and wholly unfamiliar.

            “Why are you crying?” he whispered. Erron blinked. Her tears were still flowing? How had she been unaware of that? “Are you injured?” he repeated.

            “No.”

            He studied her face, those brows still tight, expression concerned.

            “Erron.” The raised voice made her tremble. Her rescuer’s hands fell from her face and his eyes pulled away, settling on what could only be her father. She didn’t turn, but she sensed him behind her. Her body shook.

            The man in front of her noticed. He said nothing, but his gaze went over her shoulder and then back to her face. Could he sense her fear? Would he act on it? Erron chided herself. No one would save her.

            “Jarek? What’s taking you so long?” Another male voiced asked. Its owner stood in the doorway to her left. Most likely, it was the back entry of a shop.

            The man was an older version of the man before her, his hair with streaks of gray, but his face just as handsome as his son standing in front of her. He was wiping his hands on a linen cloth, irritation etched in his expression.

            “Coming, Father,” her rescuer responded without looking away from her.

            Her own father stepped up to them, his fingers biting into her upper arm as he grabbed her. She took a step back because he’d pulled her off balance. Erron winced.

            “Erron, come along,” he ordered, his tone gruff.

            Her face flushed and she refused to look at him. She had the urge to swallow hard. “Thank you,” she whispered to the man who still stood by her as she shivered in her father’s grip. Her stomach roiled.

            “Is everything all right?” the older man in the doorway asked, taking a step toward them.

            Her father chuckled and Erron bit back a whimper. “Yes. My daughter and I were in the market and I sent her to look for the blacksmith, do you know of one?” The lie fell from his lips, light as always, and very convincing.

            The older man relaxed, but her rescuer did not. He continued to stare at her. Erron shifted on her feet, her face hot. It was like he could see through her.

            “Yes, you’re not far from the blacksmith. He’s the next street over, but all the storefronts are on the opposite of the alleys. This is the back end.”

            “Thank you. Let’s go Erron. It’s always like you to get lost.” The slight admonition held the promise of violence.

            “My son and I run the finest tanning shop in the Province if you’re in need of anything. Jarek here makes the best deer hide boots around. Better than any cobbler.” He slapped his son on the back and Erron’s father gave a very false smile. Jarek’s gaze still burned into her.

            “We’ll keep that in mind.”

            “Please do. Good day.” The older tanner inclined his head. Erron’s father did the same in return. She didn’t miss the glare he sent Jarek’s way. He must have noticed that the younger man had not stopped staring at her.

            “Good day,” she muttered in return. Jarek’s instance gaze never faltered, though he did return her gesture.

            Her father yanked her away from the alley, and away from Jarek. Her stomach somersaulted. She would never see him again. That…felt…wrong. Why?

            Tightening his grip, her father’s step quickened. As his stride was much longer than her own, he was dragging her, his fingers digging in even more. Tears stung her eyes, but she refused to shed them for him anymore this day.
TO BE CONTINUED...


All rights reserved; copyright © C. A. Szarek. The text within may not be reproduced in whole or in part or distributed in any form whatsoever OR SOLD without first obtaining permission from the author.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Z is for Zethan

HAPPY FRIDAY!

LAST LETTER!

I have mixed feelings. I loved doing these letters. They helped me exercise my imagination, explore my characters and meet some new ones. This game made me get in touch with my inner writer and get back on a track that was sorta derailed.

Thanx for enjoying them, and reading them, I appreciate the support, like always.

Soooo....When I  sat down to write Z, Erron, a character very recently in the letter Y told me she was not done w/ me, and she presented me with more than her story. Perhaps later I will have even more from her and Jarek.

This story is once again dedicated to my bestie Jo-Anna, and also my big sis Kerry. Both will know why they read it.  Love you both!

Hope everyone enjoys meeting Zethan!



The little boy was clutching his knee, sobbing. No one was around him, parent, child, or otherwise. As she got closer, Erron saw how tattered he was. His breeches had long since lost their hem, and they were at mid-calf, several sizes too small. His tunic wasn’t faring much better. It might have been off-white or tan once, but it was black with dirt and other things Erron had no desire to know about. His hair was shaggy, long, and dark, and he was painfully thin.
Erron set her full basket of food down on the ground and squatted in front of him. Blood ran down his slender shin but the cut wasn't bad. He shied away from her, his dark eyes wide and locked onto her wares from the market.
“Are you all right?” she whispered, shifting to block the view of what she’d bought. She wasn’t concerned about him dashing off with anything. He was obviously a street child, and hungry. Erron would make sure he was fed, but she wanted to speak with him first.
Those dark eyes darted to her and then away. He looked down, but not before she saw the tracks his tears marked through the dirt on his face.
“Hey,” she said. Instinct told her not to touch him. He would lash out in some way.
“He won’t speak,” a voice called. Erron looked up. A well rounded older woman swept the area in front of her dress shop. She tsked as she worked, frowning in Erron’s direction.
“Do you know him?”
The woman neared, but the boy started to scoot away, shooting a wary glance in the shopkeeper’s direction. She paused and he stilled. Had he been the victim of her broom? Or worse? Erron bit back a scowl.
“He used to live around here.”
“And now?” Erron asked.
“He’s got no people. They died.”
“And the boy? Who cares for him?” But the answer was obvious. No one. Her chest constricted.
            The woman rested her hands on her ample hips and glared. “Am I supposed to feed the lot of them? Street trash, all of them. The little ones never survive.”
            Erron gasped. Even in Dalunas, where she had moved from with her husband, there were places the homeless could go for a meal. Did Greenwald have none?
            “Isn’t there any place for him?” she whispered, more to herself than the woman.
            “Aye there are a few, but not for one so tiny. He’s not but four or five turns old. He never makes it in.”
            Tears clouded her eyes and Erron swallowed hard. The matter of fact tone made it hard to breathe. Why didn’t the woman help him?
            She stared at the child, but he wouldn’t look at her. “Do you know his name?” she asked without looking at the offending dressmaker.
            “Nay. He usually runs with some older boys. But I haven’t seen them of late.” She tsked again and moved on, as if she didn’t have time to continue the conversation.
The woman shooed a cat from her porch and continued to tidy it, whistling to herself. Erron bit her lip to keep from calling out an unpleasant name.
            “When is the last time you ate anything?” she asked the little boy.
            He didn’t acknowledge her. Erron’s heart ached. She reached into the basket and pulled out an apple. Holding it out to him, she held her breath. Waited. Waited some more.
            Finally those dark eyes looked up at her, tears still streaming. He snatched the fruit and attacked it, taking a bite bigger than she would have thought him capable. Tears clouded her eyes and cascaded. She swiped at her cheeks. The little boy stopped chewing.
            “Why are you crying?”
            Erron jolted. That was the last thing she would have imagined their first conversation to start with.
            “No worries,” she answered quickly. “Do you want to come home with me?”
            Wariness flashed across his gaze. Innocence should be what was staring back at her, not automatic mistrust. Erron’s stomach flipped.
            “I promise I won’t hurt you. I can clean you up. Get you some new clothes and a descent meal.”
            And then what? Was written plainly in his expression. That was a good question. What would happen next? Could she and Jarek keep him? Her heart stuttered. They could raise him. They could have a son. If he had no one…
            Erron chided herself. She was a bit much, wasn’t she?
            The boy studied her as he continued to eat the apple. “I’ll go.” His whisper was so low she almost missed it. She smiled at him.
            He stared up at her as she stood, clamoring to his feet after a moment. Tossing the apple core to the street, he offered her his small dirty hand as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She took it. Rightness settled over her.
            They walked through the market, dirty looks being thrown their way from every direction. Erron ignored them, clutching him to her and continuing on, headed to her husband’s tanning shop.
            She heard the slap of his tools against raw hide before she saw him working at the rack. Erron smiled and looked down at the child.
            “This is Jarek, my husband.”
            Jarek looked up from his work, a smile on his handsome face. He stood, his expression becoming concerned when he took in the boy.
            “Love?” he asked, wiping his hands on a linen scrap and tossing it to the workbench top before coming over to them. “Who’s this?”
            “I don’t know his—”
            “I’m Zethan,” the boy announced, cutting her off. “I’m five turns old.”
            “Hello, Zethan,” Jarek said, grinning and squatting in front of him. He thrust his large hand out. The little boy pulled away from Erron and pushed his hand into Jarek’s.
            Her heart hammered and the two males blurred before her. She was looking at her husband and child.
            “Oh. She’s crying again,” Zethan said, cocking his head to the side.
            Still holding onto Zethan, Jarek stood and reached for her hand. He leaned in to kiss her cheek.
            “Sometimes, it’s okay to cry, Zethan,” Erron explained, clearing her throat.
            “I cried when I fell.”
            “That’s fine, too. I cry when I get hurt sometimes,” Jarek answered, winking.
            Zethan’s eyes widened. “You cry? But…you’re grown up.”
            “Sure, even grown men cry occasionally.” Jarek chuckled at the little boy’s incredulous expression.
            Chatter continued and Erron could only stare. Jarek and Zethan had taken to each other like a fish to water. If she tried to talk with them, she would sob. So she watched. The little boy flashed a shy smile, then laughed. Twice.
            Jarek showed him around the shop. Zethan reached out, petting the deer hide Jarek was working on, but her husband let him explore without admonition. He did so, while they both watched and Jarek came to stand by her. He took her hand and kissed her knuckles.
            “Is this all right?” she croaked.
            He flashed a tender smile. “I told you so, my love.”
            “What?”
            “The Blessed Spirit would bring us a child when it was time.”
            Tears cascaded again and he yanked her into his arms. “I love you,” she whispered.
            “Being a girl is tough, huh?” Zethan asked, his hands on his thin hips, and facing them as he stood next to the hide rack.
            Jarek threw his head back and laughed.

All rights reserved; copyright © C. A. Szarek. The text within may not be reproduced in whole or in part or distributed in any form whatsoever OR SOLD without first obtaining permission from the author.
           

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Y is for Yours

*sniff* It's almost over. But, I love this one.

I don't have much to say, other than it's dedicated to my bestie, Jo-Anna.

Oh, and the couple is totally 100% newly made up. I don't know if they will appear again, but they might. One never knows ;)

Please enjoy!

WARNING: Yeah, I've done it again. There's some sex. Please don't check it out unless you're over 18.


Erron stared out the window of the cottage. Children shouted, playing with a brown ball Jarek had made for them. He was always so kind to everyone.
He’d given her everything. This home in Greenwald Main, love that she never imagined would be for her. Jarek never touched her with violent hands as her father had. He never forced himself into her; also as her father had, taking what should have belonged to Jarek.      
Her husband had taken Erron from her tragic past, moved them across the continent to Greenwald. He’d never faulted her for her stains. He’d showed her not all men were evil. Jarek loved her, held her, kissed her, made love her to with all that he was.
But none of the children she watched playing near the market streets were theirs. The five turns she’d been married to Jarek—the happiest turns of her life—she’d been unable to conceive.
He didn’t fault her, but Erron faulted herself. She wanted nothing more than to hold a piece of Jarek in her arms. To stare into deep brown eyes like his, brush dark hair from a little forehead, see a smile that was Jarek’s in miniature. Her heart thumped as her eyes remained trained on the boys kicking the ball back and forth.
The blanket she was knitting lay forgotten on her lap, fire crackling in the fireplace of their cottage, but it was almost too warm inside. Her husband’s magic kept the fire going.
It was a nice, early spring afternoon, but Jarek always insisted she be warm enough.
Erron should start their evening meal sooner than later. Jarek was a tanner by trade and they had been given some fresh venison by a neighbor in exchange for her husband’s services. She was planning on preparing stew. It was Jarek’s favorite.
The door opened just as she set the lid on the bubbling pot after a good stirring. It was almost ready. A clean masculine scent wafted in with the early evening chill, mixing with the pleasant scent of the food Erron was making. It tickled her nose.
She smiled at her husband as he hung his leather apron on a hook next to the door. “You bathed.”
“I did,” Jarek answered, throwing a grin over his shoulder. “I wanted to be clean for supper. Messy work today. You wouldn’t have wanted my company.”
“I always want your company.”
He came to her quickly and pulled her into his arms. She slipped hers around his neck, snuggling into his chest.
“I love you,” Jarek whispered, his warm breath on her neck sending a shiver down her spine.
Erron met his eyes, but before she could speak, his mouth settled over hers. She kissed him back, opening for him immediately. Their tongues touched, then danced. Warmth spread over her body, settling low as desire for him pooled between her legs.
He kissed her harder, melding their bodies from hip to hip, chest to breasts. Evidence that Jarek’s thoughts mirrored hers pressed into her belly.
“How long before the stew is ready?” he breathed against her mouth.
“Tubers were still a bit hard,” Erron answered, gripping him tightly so she wouldn’t fall on her bottom on liquid legs.
Jarek grinned pure mischief and swung her up into his arms. She kissed him and he groaned against her lips before taking control. He devastated her from the inside out. Erron was all need for him, and only him.
Cool sleeping furs were a pleasant feel on her naked form, but did nothing to calm her racing heart, heated body. Only her husband could do that and only after he was inside her.
He was on the bed lowering himself on top of her, then joined their bodies without breaking the seal of their mouths. Erron cried out with his first thrust, gripping his biceps and lifting her hips to take him deeper. She needed to get closer to him.
Their lovemaking was fast and frenzied but Erron didn’t care. She had Jarek moving in and out of her, touching her until her blood boiled for him.
Screaming their release at the same moment, Jarek collapsed into her arms, and Erron held him tight. He brushed a blonde curl from her heated face and flashed a smile.
“I’m sorry that didn’t have much finesse,” he whispered, pressing a tender kiss to her lips. “I needed you. I hadn’t seen you all day.”
“I love you,” Erron said quickly.
Jarek rolled onto his back, pulling her to him and chuckling. “I love you, too. So much.”
She sighed and cuddled closer. Erron laid her cheek over his heart. She could hear and feel it slowing from its frantic pace.
“Are you hungry, love?” Jarek answered sometime later, breaking what had become a companionable silence.
She lifted her head and met his dark eyes. “Yes. We should eat.”
They shared their meal at the small table in their cottage, speaking of nothing and everything. Erron smiled as Jarek talked, telling her of his day, what he’d accomplished, and what was left of his project for their neighbor and friend. His eyes lit up when he spoke of creating. He loved his work, and she loved him for it.
“How was your day?” he asked as he started to eat his third bowl of venison stew.
“Fine. It was fine.”
Jarek put his spoon down and their gazes locked. “Is something wrong?”
Erron shook her head and squeezed his forearm. “No, love. Everything is good. I’ll finish my blanket tomorrow.”
Her husband stared at her for a moment. “I’m sorry.”
“Whatever for?”
“We moved here to start a new life.”
“And we did. I love our life here, truly.” Erron’s tone was urgent. “Do you not believe me?”
Jarek nodded, but his eyes looked sad. “I know you want children—”
“The fault is mine.” Erron looked down.
“What fault?” he whispered.
“That I cannot—that we—” Tears cascaded down her cheeks.
Jarek pulled her from her chair onto his lap. His arms squeezed her against his chest and Erron buried her face in his neck.
“No.” His tone was vehement. “There is no fault.”
She didn’t know what to say, but she couldn’t look him in the eye. He held her while she cried, rubbing her back in warm circles until she calmed.
Jarek cupped her face when she lifted her head, wiping tears from her cheeks with his thumbs. “I believe the Blessed Spirit will give us a child when the time is right,” he whispered.
Erron tried to have faith and believe that, but it was difficult. Pain clenched her chest. She swallowed past the lump in her throat and forced a nod.
“You know something?” Jarek asked.
“What?”
“I’m yours, Erron. Always.”
She smiled, her heart swelling with the love she had for this man. “And I am yours, Jarek.”
He kissed her and squeezed her against him. “Are you done eating?”
“Yes.”
“Good.”
“Why’s that?” Erron asked, one corner of her mouth lifting.
“I’m not sure my…performance…earlier was the best it could be.”
“Oh.” She tried to keep her tone very serious. “Then perhaps you should try again.”
Jarek grinned and stood, swinging her up into his arms. He seared her mouth with a kiss by way of answer. Erron clung to him and kissed him back.       

All rights reserved; copyright © C. A. Szarek. The text within may not be reproduced in whole or in part or distributed in any form whatsoever OR SOLD without first obtaining permission from the author.


Monday, March 19, 2012

X is for Xander

It's Monday again. *grumble*

So I looked for a word that started with X, I DID. It's really HARD. Incidentally, I learned that most words that start w/ the letter X are related to Botany...score for learning something.

I ended up making up a character. LOVE, by the way, even tho he's not human. ;)

Ansley, the heroine of book 2, Love's Call is nine here, which makes this thirteen years before her book and twelve before Sword's Call.

Enjoy, we're only 2 more.


“Can I call him Xander?”
            Murdoch looked down at the pathetic creature in his daughter’s arms. How could she want to call it anything at all? The ugly little thing had had a rough start.
They both stared up at him, Ansley’s blue-green eyes just as wide as the yellow set of the orange furball. There was a plaintive mew and Murdoch was lost. He wouldn’t be able to tell her no. He sighed.
Marael laughed. “Oh love, there’s no harm in her keeping the kitten.”
            He glanced over his shoulder at his wife. Her brown eyes were dancing as she braided her long flaxen locks. How his daughter even found the small cat this early in the morning was a mystery. Unless she’d snuck the little beast in the night before. He’d been…distracted by her lovely mother.
            Murdoch cleared his throat as he looked back down into Ansley’s little face. “Pets require care.”
            “I know, Da. May I keep him?”
            After another heavy sigh, he sat at the table in their cottage. As the captain of the king’s personal guard, he could have had any quarters in the castle he desired. But he was a private man, and King Nathal respected that. Since he’d married Marael almost ten turns before, they resided in the largest of the crofter cabins in the main courtyard of the Castle Rowan’s grounds.
Ansley had been born here, and had never known any other home. Although, at age nine, she was already chomping at the bit to become a King’s Rider, a member of his messenger service.
            “I suppose so,” he told his daughter.
            She squealed and jumped up and down. The kitten in her arms screeched and scrambled to hold on. Ansley winced as sharp claws raked her skin.
            “Love, you have to be gentle with him, he’s a baby,” her mother admonished as she bustled about in their kitchen. She was tying an apron around her slim waist and she winked at him when he caught her eye.
Murdoch bit back a smile before turning back to their daughter. “When you’re attending your lessons, he will remain outside.”
“Aw, Da…” Ansley looked down at her kitten before locking gazes with him. “I told him he could come with me. And sleep with me, I promised Xander.”
“He doesn’t know the difference.”
“But he does.” Her lip trembled.
“Ansley,” Mara admonished.
Their daughter looked down. “Sorry, Da.”
He cupped her face and tilted it up, caressing her cheek with a thumb. “You know better, love. You mind your mother and me. No questions.”
“Aye, no questions,” Ansley answered, though her tone held disappointment.
“Your kitten will be fine without you during the day, my love,” Mara put in, pouring some cream into a bowl. “Here, set him down so he can drink this.”
Ansley beamed at her mother as she set the small bowl on the table. Murdoch winced as four small, dirty paws hit the surface. He ate at this table. But he held his tongue because both his girls wore wide grins as they watched the little beast—Xander—he corrected himself, lapping up the cream. It was probably his first descent meal in…well, ever.
Reaching out, he stroked Xander’s back. He was downy soft. The kitten didn’t stop eating, but he arched his small back into Murdoch’s large hand, purring loudly.
“He likes you, Da,” his daughter exclaimed. She bounced at the edge of the table. Murdoch chuckled.
Mara’s hands slipped onto his shoulders and he sat back in his chair. She leaned down and kissed his bearded cheek. “Thanks for letting her keep him, love,” she whispered in the vicinity of his ear.
He harrumphed. “As if I had a choice.”
 “I promise I will take care of him,” the little girl piped in. She locked eyes with Murdoch. He’d never seen his daughter so earnest. Pride swelled. Ansley already knew the value of her word.
“I know you will, love.” He gathered his daughter to him. She clambered onto his lap.
Ansley leaned into his broad chest, her small arms around his neck. She kissed him, a loud smacking noise on his cheek that had him smiling.
He slipped his arm around Mara’s waist and pulled her close. Murdoch held them both. Mara smoothed their daughter’s red hair and caressed her cheek.
“I love you, Da!”
“I love you, too, sweeting.”
The kitten mewed as he finished the bowl of cream, looking directly at Murdoch. His little purr was still going, though no one was touching him.
“Look, Da, Xander loves you, too.”
His wife’s laughter made him grin. If Marael and Ansley were happy, things were right in his world.

 All rights reserved; copyright © C. A. Szarek. The text within may not be reproduced in whole or in part or distributed in any form whatsoever OR SOLD without first obtaining permission from the author.




Friday, March 16, 2012

W is for Wail

We're nearing the end of the Game. I have had so much fun with this. It has opened my mind and stretched my imagination in ways I didn't think was possible!

I know my world, and my characters much better and that amazes me.

Please enjoy the story of Cera's birth. She is the heroine of Sword's Call.
 
HAPPY FRIDAY!
      

            Pacing, he swallowed hard. Back and forth. Back and forth. The love of his life, kicking him out of the room. Deep breath. Falor took another one for good measure and forced his feet to still.
He was stronger than this.
He was the Duke of Greenwald, for Blessed Spirit’s sake.
            Feet spread apart, Falor looked at his hands. Turned them over. Closing his eyes he called upon his magic. Artificial calm settled over him and his breath exited on a whoosh. His heart rate slowed.
            “Why didn’t I think of this before?” he whispered. Because Evie was in so much pain… But his healing magic could help her with that, too.
            The midwife glared at him when he slipped back into the bedchamber he shared with his wife. “My lord, I beg of you—”
            “I can help.” He extended his palms. “Healing magic.”
            She pursed her lips but gave a nod.
            “Falor, I hurt.” Evie’s voice was plaintive and he rushed to her side.
            Pushing damp red curls off her forehead, Falor leaned in to kiss her. She grabbed his hand, squeezing hard. “Shhh, my love, it will be all right.”
            Evie whimpered and tightened her grip.
            “Almost time to push, my lady,” the midwife announced, patting his wife’s knee as she readjusted her sleeping chemise.
            “Evie, give me your hands,” Falor whispered to wipe the panicked look off her face. Sweat beaded on her forehead as wide gray eyes met his. “I can’t take all the pain but I can help.”
            She nodded, but bit her bottom lip. Falor offered her a gentle smile.
            “Thank you, my lord,” the midwife told him. He glanced at her, and for the first time she wasn’t glaring at him. He inclined his head and refocused on Evie.
            He’d help her bring their child into the world. Falor would take her pain away if it killed him.
            Flattening his palms, he moved them toward her, and she rested hers on top. Her hands were trembling and it gave him pause. The feel replaced her normal touch and his heart skipped a beat.
            Taking a breath, he closed his eyes. He called to his magic, his skin tingling and heating. If his eyes were open he would see his skin aglow, but Falor kept them shut, concentrating on ridding the woman he loved of her birthing pains and willing her to calm.
            Now that they were touching, he felt Evie’s tension and pain and it made his stomach flip. She was tight where she needed to relax so the pains could pass, and assist their child’s journey.
            Another contraction hit and it rolled over them both. She gasped as he absorbed most of the physical hurt. Her agony receded and Falor sensed her heartbeat slowing, her muscles loosening despite the movement and tightening of her belly.
            “Breathe, love,” he whispered.
            Soon every breath she took was in time with his, their chests moving rhythmically.
            Falor opened his eyes, meeting her gaze. Evie flashed a smile and didn’t appear to be so pale. She was calm, radiant. The most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
            “Thank you,” she told him.
He was dumbstruck. His words caught in his throat and his heart stuttered.
            The midwife stared, her lips parted. “My lord,” she breathed. Awe replaced her earlier disdain and Falor smiled.
            “Magic comes in handy sometimes, does it not?” he asked.
            “Aye, thank you, my lord. The babe will enter the world without chaos.”
            “I’m ready,” Evie said, squeezing his hand. “Ready to push.”
            “Are you in pain?” Falor asked as the midwife shuffled forward, gently pushing his wife’s chemise off her knees and urging her to open wider.
            “My lady, with the next pain, please push,” she admonished before Evie could answer him.
            “Yes, love, but it’s not nearly as much as before. I feel much better.”
            “Thank the Blessed Spirit,” Falor whispered.
            “And you. Thank you.” Her smile was cut off as another contraction rippled across her swollen belly, and he gripped her hand.
            Falor sat on the edge of the bed, slipping his arm around her shoulders, helping her bear down. Evie leaned forward, pushing harder with each pain. His heart clenched. He was torn, seeing his beloved in so much pain, but for such a happy occasion. He was about to become a father.
            Joy threatened to overwhelm, even disguising the wince as Evie gripped his forearm, nails digging in. She panted, pushing hard. Her face was red, gleaming with sweat, but she was still calm, in control. She was going to succeed.
Wailing took his attention and Evie collapsed against him, her chest heaving.
            “A fine girl child. Gorgeous, like her mother,” the midwife announced, a grin splitting her wrinkled face.
            Falor whooped and kissed Evie. She was surprised, but her mouth moved under his after only seconds. He beamed as they parted, cupping her face.
            “I love you so much. You did so well. And we have a daughter.”
            His wife’s brows drew together. “You’re not upset I had a girl?” she whispered.
Falor frowned. He’d never given Evie any indication that he’d prefer a son over a daughter. From the moment she’d stolen his heart, he’d wanted his children to be hers, and that had been the only requirement.
“Are you upset that you had a girl?”
            Their daughter was squalling as the midwife cleansed her. Falor was dying to see her, hold her, but first he needed to make sure Evie was all right.
Her face flushed and she broke eye contact. “No, I love her so much already. I just wanted her to be healthy.”
“She is love, she is. I felt it through my magic.”
Evie met his gaze, tears in her eyes. “Can I see her?”
Falor nodded, his throat clogging. He wouldn’t cry in front of the midwife. He couldn’t. He was a duke. He cleared his throat.
She met him halfway. “Here is your daughter, my lord.” Her tone was pleased, as was the smile on her face.
He gathered the swaddled infant to him and the world stilled at he looked into her face. Falor was aware that the midwife was speaking to Evie in soft tones, cleaning her up and gathering supplies, but he was helpless to the child in his arms. His child.
Her weight was pleasant and warm against his chest, and he would never let her go. Staring at her, tears gathered and cascaded. He didn’t care. The baby looked up at him, pursing her tiny rosebud mouth and blinking tired smoky eyes. Her little head was covered with reddish fuzz. So, she would be like her mother. She was already just as gorgeous.
“Falor?” Evie called. “May I see her?”
            Nodding, he turned toward his wife. They were alone in the room, and he had no idea how long he’d been gazing at his little girl.
            “Are you all right?” His tone was choked, but Evie’s smile was brilliant.
            “Yes, I am. I would like to see my baby.”
            As he went to her, he transferred their daughter to her arms. She started to wail, but Evie cooed at her, opening her freshly donned chemise so she could nurse. The baby quieted and started to suckle.
Falor was dumbstruck again. The natural act was beautiful. His wife caressed the baby’s tiny cheek as she fed her, a tender smile on her lips.
            “Can we call her Ceralda after my grandmother?”
            “Haven’t I heard stories about how wild she was as a child?” he asked.
            “It’s just a name, love,” Evie answered, her tone amused.
            “I hope so.”
            “Is that a yes?” she asked, eyes wide with excitement.
            Falor laughed. “Anything you want.”
            She grinned, looking at him for a moment, then back to the baby in her arms. “Cera, it is. I’m sure she’ll grow up to be a fine lady.”
            “I’m sure she will, too.”
            He stared at his daughter for a moment. She was so innocent. Surely she would stay that way. Right?
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