(An Order of the Blade Novel)
by Stephanie Rowe
A fatal mistake stripped Zach Roderick of the powers that define him, leaving him a tormented shadow of the warrior he once was. Now, his teammate's life depends on Zach resurrecting the fire that once burned within him. As he undertakes a battle he has no way to win, he is derailed by a tempestuous beauty that awakens in him the dark desires that destroyed him once before.
The scars etched on Rhiannon Diaz's soul are so deep that she will never again be free. The once-powerful guardian is facing her last and greatest battle, and failure means a return to a sexual enslavement that is far worse than death. Her intense and passionate need for the powerful warrior who has vowed to protect her threatens the very foundation of her survival, but his refusal to abandon her drags them both into a world where wild, untamed passion rages, and surrender is their only chance.
All books in the Order of the Blade series are intended to be standalones that can be read in any order. The chronological reading order, however, is as follows: DARKNESS AWAKENED, DARKNESS SEDUCED, DARKNESS SURRENDERED, FOREVER IN DARKNESS, DARKNESS REBORN, DARKNESS ARISEN, DARKNESS UNLEASHED, INFERNO OF DARKNESS, DARKNESS POSSESSED (Available July 2014).
The jungle smelled rich with the dampness of fertile soil. The trees were alive with the chatter of birds and the rustle of animals. Rhiannon closed her eyes and breathed deeply as she let the power of her birthplace roll over her and seep into her body. The freshness of the air seemed to cleanse her of all the grime and pollution that had accumulated during her years of living in civilization. She could almost feel her cells coming back to life and embracing the deep nourishment of the land she was meant to live in.
She went down on one knee and crumbled some dirt between her fingers, watching the rich, brown loam fall back to the ground from which it had come. To her surprise, she felt her throat tighten, and tears burned in her eyes. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed being home. It had been two days since she had left Boston. After much hard traveling, she'd almost reached the region that had once given her life...and then betrayed her.
A sudden sound broke through her focus and she went utterly still, listening intently. Another sound, quiet yet heavy, came from her right, and she recognized it instantly as the footstep of a creature that was too big to be a human, but could easily be a heavily armed Calydon. Without taking time to stand, she pivoted on her knee as she swept an arrow out of her quiver and pulled her crossbow off her shoulder. In less than a millisecond she nocked an arrow and had it pointing at the cluster of bushes from which the sound had come.
She knew she was in the open more than she wanted to be, but relocating into the trees would attract more attention than staying completely still. Her mottled brown and green cargo pants and jacket would help her blend into her surroundings. Even her crossbow still retained the colors of the jungle that had once been her home.
There was silence. No movement followed the steps that she had heard, which made her tension rise even further. Whatever it was had become aware of her, and it was waiting for her to move in the same way she was anticipating its next step.
Penetrating silence prevailed, each trying to outwait the other. The muscles in her arms began to tremble, and she realized how out of shape she was. There had been a time when she had been able to hold her bow at the ready for hours, outwaiting even the most patient of enemies. Now, it had been less than a minute and already her arms were shaking. Her hamstring was cramping from the uncomfortable position she'd frozen in. A trickle of sweat was slithering down her brow, and she knew it wouldn't be long before it went into her eye. It wasn't even hot compared to what the jungle often was, but she could feel the steam rising off her body, curling her hair, and dampening her clothes.
With grim trepidation, she realized she had gone soft. She was in no condition to take on José and think she could walk away. She'd lost to him even when she'd been fit and in her prime. Now? She couldn’t even hold an arrow ready for more than a minute. Her pulse began to hammer in her throat, and she willed it to quiet, knowing that José would be able to hear her heart pounding if he was the one in the bushes.
Please don't let it be José. She wasn't ready to face him yet. If she met him now, she would have no chance. A cold fear gripped her, and her fingers tightened involuntarily around the arrow, even as she fought to stay relaxed. Physical tension would throw off her aim. She had to stay loose.
Then she caught a scent, drifting to her over the complex smells of the jungle. It was the scent of a man. Not José. A stranger. He smelled of sweat, adrenaline, and something else. A deeper scent that seemed to reach inside her and unfurl in her belly. She instantly recognized her response as attraction. Desire. Lust. Dear God, she wanted this man. Fear gripped her with sudden cruelty, freezing her muscles and obliterating all thought from her mind except for a raw terror that screamed at her to run. Run. Run!
Her instincts knew she had to stay utterly still, but the fear of her attraction to a man was so deep that she could not make herself stay. Attraction was a trap. Desire could be twisted to hurt her. Lust was a cruel lie. Wanting a man was doom, torture, and a hell she'd never survive.
Instead of staying still and hidden as she should have, panic forced her to act. She leapt to her feet, spun around, and ran blindly through the forest, her boots thudding noisily on the ground. Branches tripped her and plants seemed to spring up out of the earth to grab her ankles. She couldn't even focus enough to ask them to help her instead of hurting her. Her mind was a swirling miasma of terror and memories, screaming at her to run and escape while she still had the chance.
"Hey!" The man shouted at her, his deep voice booming through the jungle.
The rich bass of his voice plunged through her flesh and ignited a fire inside her. A fire of want, longing, and the urge to turn and charge right toward him instead of away from him. "Oh, God, no. Not again." Tears streamed down her cheeks as she sprinted through the jungle, not even paying attention to where she was going. She couldn't remember the layout exactly. Her mind was fragmented with fear and terror, just as it had been so long ago when she had run for her life through these very woods. She stumbled over a root and tumbled to the earth, barely getting her hands out in time to cushion her fall. Her crossbow jammed into her jawbone and she gasped as the pain shot through her.
She hadn't even finished falling when she was already back up on her feet, stumbling as she tried to keep going. Trees loomed above her on all sides, but the branches were too high for her to reach, and she couldn't focus enough to ask the trees to help her. Everything she had as a weapon was gone, disintegrated by the fear ripping through her.
Then she realized there were heavy footsteps thundering after her, getting closer and closer. He was chasing her! She put on another burst of speed, her breath burning her lungs as she fought for air. Her legs were trembling, shaking with exhaustion as she asked her body to do things it hadn't done in so long.
She frantically tried to focus enough to take in her surroundings and understand where she was. She couldn't keep this up. She had to find a way out. She had to—
A hand closed on her shoulder, and fingers dug into her flesh, pulling her to a stop.
With his touch, all conscious thought fled from her mind. She grabbed the dagger from where it sat on her hip and spun around, striking as she turned. Her blade hit flesh, plunging deep inside thick muscle before she'd even finished her turn to see who was after her.
The dark brands on his forearms told her all she needed to know. It was a Calydon, and her dagger was in his heart. She spun the rest of the way around, facing him as he fell.
"Shit!" The warrior's dark eyes widened in surprise as he stumbled and went down to his knees.
Rhiannon ripped her dagger out of his chest and went still, bracing her legs in a ready position as she held the dagger ready. She knew she had to keep moving, but she couldn't run anymore. Not yet. She needed time to recover. She had nothing left. Her breath heaved in her chest as she desperately tried to get air.
She saw the blood pouring from his chest, and realized she'd struck a clean blow into the heart. Instinct had shown her where to find a heart on a Calydon, taking into account his height when she'd made her blind strike. Maybe she wasn't a total loss. Maybe she still had some of her old skills. Maybe she still had a chance to survive.
She took another deep breath, trying to recover from her run. She knew the respite from his injury wouldn't last long, but the heart had been a good place to hit.
He looked up at her as he pressed his palm to the wound on his chest. "Why the hell did you do that?" His voice had the same effect on her as before. It slithered through her body like a warm, seductive caress of pure temptation. And now that she could see what he looked like, it was even stronger.
His eyes were dark brown, flecked with bits of gold. His stare was intense, sinking deep into her very soul as he gazed at her. She felt herself flush under his stare, her body pulsing in response to the heat of his attention. For a moment, the world seemed to freeze, and she was caught in his spell, in his raw masculinity and strength. His cheekbones were sculpted, giving him a regal appearance, despite the heavy growth of whiskers and the disheveled dark hair, which gave him an aura of danger and lethalness that should have terrified her…but she found herself riveted by him instead.
His shoulders were broad, but not as broad as José's. Unlike José and his men, who wore camouflage pants, lean boots, and sported bare chests as if impersonating some ancient warrior, this Calydon was wearing the garb of civilization. His blue jeans were dirty and torn. His black T-shirt was loose and ragged. He was wearing hiking boots, but they appeared to be heavily insulated as if they were meant for trekking through snow and ice instead of the brutal heat of the jungle. He didn't look like he belonged to this jungle or to José, but the twin dark brands on his forearms told her all she needed to know.
He was a Calydon, and that meant he was a threat, no matter how intense her reaction to him was. In fact, he was even more dangerous because of the way she wanted to fall under his spell. Men knew how to take advantage of a woman's attraction to them. They preyed upon it, twisting it to their advantage. She knew better than to want a man, but her fingers actually twitched with the need to lay her hand over his wound and take away his pain, to feel his flesh beneath her palm, to move closer, and lose herself in the incredible strength and power of his being.
"Yeah…" he said softly, his gaze locked onto hers, as if he were having the same intense reaction to her that she was having to him. "Who are you?" he asked. "What's your name?"
"Who am I?" The question jerked her back to the present, to the very real danger he presented. If he'd been sent to find her, his quest would have to end now. Even as she thought it, resistance pulsed through her, and she realized she didn't want to kill him.
Grimly, she took a step back as she pulled another arrow out of her quiver. She set it in the bow and aimed it right between his eyes. "What do you want?"
She needed to know whether he had stumbled across her accidentally, or if José already knew she was here. Then, once she had her answers, she would do her best to kill the man kneeling before her.
She ignored the stab of regret at the notion of killing him. Sure, he smelled incredible and had eyes that had momentarily melted right through the fear of men that she kept wrapped so tightly around her. That didn't mean she was going to make the same mistake that had once almost killed her. Never would she trust the wrong man, or any man, again.
He would have to die. There was simply no other option.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Four-time RITA® Award nominee and Golden Heart® Award winner Stephanie Rowe is the nationally bestselling author of more than forty published novels. Stephanie has received starred reviews from Booklist and high praise from Publisher's Weekly. Stephanie is the author of the bestselling Order of the Blade paranormal romance series, and she will be launching a new vampire series in Sept/Oct 2014. She also writes the intensely passionate Ever After series, and the gripping Alaska Heat romantic suspense series. She also published in teen fiction, middle grade fiction, and motivational nonfiction.