My Guardian Gryphon Excerpt
GRETCHEN“What about this one,” I asked, my voice filled with a hope he didn’t notice. He never noticed. I could choose the most romantic story in the Blackmoor’s enormous library, and he would still look at me like I was the eleven-year-old girl who’d asked him a random history question fifteen years ago.His wide brow wrinkled over amber-colored eyes that shimmered with flecks of gold. He was a man women dreamed about. At least I dreamed about him.Tall. Dark. Mysterious. Broad shoulders melted into a tapered waist and narrow hips. Muscles went on for miles, muscles that I wanted to touch and feel against my naked skin. My stomach clenched and rolled. Lower in my body, a steady hum and throb started, growing with the ache inside I felt every time we were together. It’d gotten worse with each passing year.By the gods, Gretchen, get a hold of yourself.“Antony and Cleopatra?” The inflection of his voice carried surprise, and the words were spaced out, like he’d had to stop and think between the names.I glanced up from the time-aged book. Not surprised. Even from across the expansive room he could read the embossed gold title on the cover like it was only inches from his face—he had telescopes for eyes. He never missed anything.Except what was right in front of him. I could probably wrap my naked body in a clear shower curtain and he’d still be oblivious.“It’s one of the most classical romances of that time period.” I emphasized the word romance, hoping to lead his mind in that direction. I’d never give up. Even if it took my whole life to make him notice me.“Cleopatra was a…” His voice sharpened, filled with an emotion I couldn’t quite pin down. Irritation. Annoyance. Disbelief. “She was a smart woman, but she only loved herself. Both Caesar and Marc Antony fell for her wiles. Perhaps it did look like a love story from the outside, but from the inside, the only thing you could see was her cold, calculating heart.” He sat on our favorite couch and watched me expectantly. I half-expected him to pat the seat cushion and call me over. But he didn’t. He just sat there—waiting. Frustratingly patient and oblivious as ever.Well, that didn’t work. Stupid Cleopatra. Instead of associating her with romance, he’s all bristled and annoyed. “So you’re saying Shakespeare got the story wrong?” I flipped through the worn pages of the classic. The smell of aged, stale paper had long since become a staple. My life revolved around escaping my quarters in the basement level of the castle. The library had started out a childhood fascination with history—humans—and a way to escape the mundane tasks the Sisters were constantly participating in—gardening, meditating, learning how to copulate to encourage fertilization.On and on and on.I didn’t get out of all the required studies, but I’d missed enough over the years that many of the Sisters were more than aware that I actively refused to participate in the destiny laid out for us thousands of years ago by the Lamassu—an ancient supernatural race more powerful than any other on Earth. A destiny that included giving myself to a stranger every weekend until I became pregnant. The House of Lamidae’s sole purpose was to procreate to increase the power of our collective visions—visions that would lead us to the eight Protectors. Vampire warriors who Rose—the Lamassu Sentinel who’d been protecting our House for thousands of years—would use to fulfill the prophecy.Bile rose in my throat, and I took a deep breath, willing it back down into my stomach where it belonged. I put a hand on the end of the bookshelf and exhaled. My stomach calmed, and the urge to vomit no longer waited anxiously behind my tongue.“Are you unwell, Gretchen?” The concern in his voice gave light to my flickering hope. But I wanted more. More than just the concern of a friend.“I’m fine,” I answered, trying to purposefully sound more upbeat than I felt.“You look a little green.”Seriously? I am not green. “I’m fine. Please read Cleopatra’s story.” Living in a town filled with ancient immortals had its perks. They’d experienced it. Breathed air with many of the people in the books I’d read over the years. “How well did you know her?”“Not personally, but I heard much about her from others in her employ. It was difficult to live in that time and not know about her.”“You’re better than any book in this library. You know that, right?”He blinked, raising his eyebrows. His lips parted for a moment before he closed them again. Closed off the emotion he’d let slip through the armor he permanently wore.“We’re lucky the Blackmoor’s saved what they did during the American Riots. Most of the books here are the only copies left in North America. Oral testimony will never compare with the written word.”“I know. I know. Supernaturals are the only ones who raced to save history while the American people just eradicated everything—knowledge, individuality, expression. You’ve reminded me many times.” When I’d first come across Alek Melos relaxing in a corner of Miles and Eli Blackmoor’s library, I’d desired nothing more than the truth—an answer to a single question about what had torn apart the United States. I’d gotten so much more.He’d told me which stories were real and which stories weren’t. What events had led to the downfall of one of the most powerful countries on Earth? So strange to think there were other worlds. Well—at least two. Earth and Veil.Still, my mind wondered if there could be even more. I’d asked him once and he’d shrugged, saying he hadn’t heard of any others.“If you don’t like discussing Cleopatra, I can pick something else.” The stories used to be what drew me to the library day after day to learn everything I could from the quiet man I’d grown to care so deeply for. But now the stories were just the ancillary reason I went to the library. Now I desired something else completely.I wanted to see Alek. Be next to him. Feel his touch. I wanted to belong to him. Something deep inside me sang every time we were in the same room. Joy filled me when we touched.“It is a good tale. We should still read it.”“She committed suicide by snake. Was that real?” I walked across the room, enjoying the plushness of the Persian carpets covering the floor, and sank down onto the couch cushion next to Alek. The curtains on the floor-to-ceiling window behind us were drawn back with silken cords thicker than my wrists, and the afternoon light spilled in on my shoulders.Alek’s body, hard as the stone walls of this castle, burned hotter than the sunlight against the skin of my arm, but I leaned closer anyway. My mind automatically readied to receive the vision I always saw when I touched him, but I pushed it away this time.Controlling my gift was something I’d mastered years ago. Some of the Sisters never learned to turn the switch on and off, but I had and took full advantage of not seeing things every time I touched someone or something. I pitied those of my sisters, who had to endure visions of past, present, and future any and every time they touched another being.My past, present, and future was sitting right next to me. He just didn’t know it yet, or if he did, he was doing a fine job of concealing it.I crossed my legs on the silky brocade couch cushion and let my dress pool in the gap between them. The men who came to the castle for the joinings were always telling me my legs were long and beautiful, but I wanted Alek to notice them, not strangers there to ogle my body in hopes that I’d pick them for a joining.Only Alek.Only his hands would ever touch my body. That’d been my vow from the second I’d first had the vision of us together three years ago.“She did,” Alek answered. His rich, velvety bass tone drew me out of my bouncing thoughts. “She was to be captured. Taken prisoner. She was proud and cornered.” His deep voice rumbled from the center of his chest, sending little fiery darts of joy straight to my nervous system. I loved listening to him speak.These meetings in the library were the only thing that had kept me sane in this prison of stone through the last decade. Alek was my light. My hope. I still remembered the day I’d first met him, and it made me smile.He pressed his lips together just slightly before speaking. “What are you thinking about?” His gaze bore into me, steady and strong, piercing straight through to my heart.“The day I met you.” I kept my tone soft, doing my best to hide the desire I knew would stream out of me like an overflowing bath if ever given the chance. “I remember wondering why people thought you were scary.”His eyes widened again. “You didn’t find me frightening?” His mouth remained flat, but his dark brown eyes sparkled with amusement.My destiny had been chosen for me the day I was born. I wanted to tell him how much I hated it. How much more I wanted. I wanted to throw myself into his arms and tell him about my vision of us together. The perfect picture of the future that appeared to me every time I touched him.“Never.” I shook my head. “You were big and gruff, but you were kind. You took the time to answer the questions of a child who sought the truth. And you kept answering my questions. You keep teaching me, even now.” I looked down to the carpet and breathed away the dampness in my eyes. I pressed my lips together and fought for control of my emotions. He made it look so easy, but it wasn’t for me. My emotions leaked like sieve from inside to outside where everyone could see everything.I’d forsaken all for the man who’d stolen my heart, and he didn’t even know it. He had me. My whole heart. My mind. My everything would be his if only he…asked.He cared for me. I knew he did.I could feel it every time we spoke. Every time we touched. It could be so much more.Everyone in the town watched out for me and the other Sisters of Lamidae. They protected us. Died for us. We were the chosen ones, the seers who needed to be shielded from everyone and everything. But Alek cared more. He had to. He spent so many hours with me—reading, talking, discussing things about his world I would never see. Because I would never be free from this castle.“I’m glad our time together has been good. Reading with you is very… rewarding.”His words jarred me from my thoughts. Rewarding? I wanted to scream that I loved him. Wanted to ask him how he could just sit by and let me battle Rose and the Sisters and everything around me. I wanted to ask him about that pause in his response, too. Had I missed something? Had he shown me affection in a way I’d missed?But I didn’t ask. I let it go.The Sisters of Lamidae could see the future, and that was dangerous because people would use us to further their agendas—specifically Xerxes, Rose’s brother-in-law, the only other Lamassu alive. He’d murdered his own brother and made it his mission in life to steal the Sisters from Rose. On and on the warnings rattled from the older Sisters. From Rose herself. We were too valuable to be allowed any rights, any freedom.Our only destiny.Have babies.Build the numbers to strengthen the magick.More magick meant better visions.Better visions meant the prophecy would be fulfilled sooner and everyone would be safe from Xerxes foul intentions.Fuck that. We’d been on a mission to find the eight Protectors for thousands of years and still hadn’t succeeded. Not that I could ever say any of that out loud. Everyone expected us to stay in line. Follow the rules. Fulfill our destiny.It just wasn’t working for me.“You’re going to catch a chill. Why aren’t you wearing a cloak?” His tone was matter-of-fact, not even the slightest bit suspicious or interested in why I’d worn a dress that showed ample cleavage or why I’d purposefully bared most of my legs.I spread the skirt of my dress over my legs to cover them.He took the book from my hands and met my gaze with his beautiful brown eyes. I loved the way flecks of gold danced in them when he was irritated. It was probably part of the reason I continually tried to rile him for one reason or another. Just to see the glint of the Gryphon within. The whole shifting animal sharing a soul thing was pretty damned interesting. I’d never seen him shift before, but asking him at some point had crossed my mind.I kept my voice light and fun, and I returned his invasive stare with a bright smile. “You’re my personal heater. The last thing I need when I’m with you is a cloak.” I couldn’t help the laugh that rose inside me. I loved that he called a sweater or cover-up a cloak, so old-fashioned. I’d never seen anyone in Sanctuary wear an actual cloak, but I didn’t get out much. Alek said people rarely wore them anymore.Cloaks were from the old books we read, old stories of times so different from what existed now. At least that’s what he told me. I had to take his word for it, having never set foot outside the castle walls.Alek shook his head ever so slightly, amused again, but still no show of emotion.I didn’t get him to smile or laugh often, but it was worth it to try. His laugh made my insides melt and my stomach do a somersault. And his smile…Damn. There wasn’t another man in town with a smile as perfect as Alek’s. A smile that filled the void in my soul.He opened the book and began reading the opening to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. His accent morphed after the first few lines. Listening to him read Shakespeare was heaven. The lilt of his voice as he read the words from the page was enchanting. Like a vision, it carried me away into the story, blocking out all reality. Blocking out the situation I had facing me again tonight.Suitors.Men came to the castle every weekend. Men approved and vetted and offering themselves to the Sisters of Lamidae in exchange for a night of mutual pleasure—called joinings. A night they would not remember after they left. It was all part of the contract.They knew their memories would be wiped, and yet they still agreed. We were an experience they couldn’t get anywhere else. A lot of the men came back multiple times, and the same Sister would take him to her bed week after week, month after month—a twisted way of pretending they had a relationship with their sperm donor.Even though the men didn’t remember.We did.It may have been a one-sided relationship, but it worked for many. Some Sisters didn’t care and chose a new bed partner each time they were ready to conceive again. We were asked to have at least two children during our lifespan, but many Sisters found refuge in having many children—at least the ones who could manage it. It filled their days with happiness and laughter to have baby after baby.While others viewed it as I did—cursing a new generation into exile and a lonely existence. And then there were those who were never able to conceive. Through the years, more and more of the Sisters were plagued by infertility—or the men they chose were the culprits. No one really knew for sure.Choosing a man to lie with over and over again until we had our minimum of two children was required. One might say it was ingrained in us by something so powerful that it consumed our every thought. We didn’t just need to have children. We would lose our minds if we didn’t. Several Sisters, who were never able to conceive, fell into a deep depression, ultimately taking their lives. A fine display of magick gone terribly wrong.There always had to be a new generation of Sisters. Our power would deplete if our numbers got too low. They were too low right now.It was our destiny. My destiny. One that I refused to accept, regardless of the burning agony deep in my gut that demanded I conceive.But the child I wanted…the relationship I wanted…was a dream I’d never be allowed to make reality. Playing in the dungeon of the castle was permitted with the supernatural citizens of Sanctuary as long as no penetration was involved. Many of my Sisters enjoyed a little kink—or a lot, especially the ones who were hopelessly childless. Their fascination for play was just a way to distract them from the pain and depression that haunted them every month when their cycle started yet again—reminding them of their barrenness.But playing was a pastime, not a path to children. We weren’t allowed to have children with a supernatural. It was genetically impossible.Or so Rose said.It made logical sense in a way. Most supernatural species could only have children with their species. Though there were a few that could cross the genetic barrier—Lamassu being one—it was not common. At least from what I’d overheard through the years.I leaned my cheek against Alek’s strong arm. The rise and fall in his voice carried my imagination into the lyrical lines of Shakespeare. Everything fell away. All the worry and concern about tonight. None of it mattered. I wouldn’t be forced to choose a suitor. Not today, perhaps not for many more months. I was only twenty-six, still plenty of childbearing years ahead of me, but the time was coming. I knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid making a choice much longer.A fight I would eventually lose. Depression gripped my soul, and I turned my focus back to the beautiful drama Alek was performing for me. I should be enjoying the moment, not dreading the coming night.He reached the end of the first act and closed the book.“I know this is just a story, but have you known anyone who loved the way Shakespeare describes?” I gazed up at him, and he rewarded me with a quick nod. No smile, though. Gods, I wanted a smile. Please. It’d been over a week since I’d coaxed one out of him.“Miles, Eli, and Diana love with the same fierceness Shakespeare attributes to Antony and Cleopatra. Erick and Bailey. Killían and Eira. Charlie and her two mates, Travis and Garrett. There are many who I’ve met through the millennia who love and have loved in the way the great storyteller describes.”“Have you?” I asked bravely, wanting desperately to know. A part of me needed to know if he pined for a lost love or if the man was truly oblivious to every signal I’d attempted to hurl in his direction.“No.”That’s it? That’s all he was giving me, a flat single-syllabled no? Not that I wasn’t selfishly glad. I wanted his love for myself. I didn’t want to compete with some ethereal memory of a woman who’d left him or died. “So you still have that to look forward to,” I whispered without thinking.The second the words had tumbled from my lips, terror tightened my lungs and I waited for a response that said I’d gone too far or crossed a line I shouldn’t have.He handed the book to me, then tilted his head, and kissed the top of mine. His lips were so soft and caring, perfection-embodied, but I didn’t want the you’re-a-sweet-child-who-I-like-to-tell-stories-to kiss. I wanted the kiss to be on my lips, and I wanted it to say you’re-mine-and-I-can’t-imagine-living-another-day-on-earth-without-you.Alek was that for me already.“I should go. The castle begins its rumbling for the start of the weekend’s festivities.” His tone had taken on the caretaker vibe, the one that dismissed me from his presence. But I wasn’t ready to leave. Not yet. And I didn’t give a flying fairy’s ass about the so-called festivities tonight.“We have plenty of time. I don’t have to go.” I circled my arm around his and snuggled closer to his side, reveling in the heat and hardness of his body. Thoughts of running my hand along his chest to feel the strength beneath the soft jersey t-shirt he wore flickered across the stage of my imagination, along with the vision of our bodies, naked and entwined on a bed.I wanted more from the life I’d been born into. And one day I was going to get it. Happiness waited for me each time I touched him. Eight seconds of bliss. Eight seconds of Alek and me lying in a bed together, smiling and laughing and in love. In the vision, he would kiss my stomach and whisper endearments to the child I was carrying. Our child.We would have a child. That’s why I didn’t fear the sadness and depression that typically found the childless Sisters.I would have a child. His child.He was my beast—my Gryphon warrior.He had always been mine. And I would be his.