He couldn’t take his gaze from the babe.
His son had ten tiny fingers, ten perfect toes. A mop of thick, black hair. His face was beautiful and serene. Perfect.
Why did the child not live?
Why did he not breathe?
Grinding his teeth to stave off the pain, Talon willed the child to wake. Silently demanded his son to cry out and live.
How could something so perfect not breathe? Why couldn’t the baby move and squall?
He was their son.
Their precious babe.
There was no reason why the child should not be alive and well. No reason other than the fact that Talon was a fool.
He had killed his own son.
Tears welled in his eyes. How many times had he held his hand over Nynia’s stomach and felt the strength of his son’s movements? Felt the loving pride of a father?
They had marked the days to the baby’s birth. Had shared their hopes and dreams for him.
And now he would never know the boy who had already won his heart. Never see the child smile or grow.
"I am so sorry, Speirr," Nynia murmured over and over again, weeping.
He tightened his arms around her and whispered words of comfort. He had to be strong for her. She needed him now.
Kissing her cheek, Talon forced his tears away and offered her solace. "It’s all right, my love. We’ll have more children." But in his heart, he knew the truth. The god Camulus would never permit a child of his to live, and Talon would never again put Nynia through this. He loved her too much.
He was still holding her an hour later when all the color had faded from her face. When the last of his hopes had shattered and left him bereft of anything except resounding agony.
Nynia was dying from blood loss.
The midwife had done all she could, but in the end she had left them alone to say their goodbyes.
Nynia was leaving him.
He couldn’t breathe.
He couldn’t function.
She was dying.
Talon had picked Nynia up and cradled her against him. He was covered in her blood, but he didn’t even notice. All he could think of was keeping her with him, making her well.
Live for me!
He willed his own life force into her body, but it wasn’t enough;
Silently, he bargained with the gods to take anything else-his life, his lands, his people. Anything. Just leave him his heart. He needed it too much to lose it like this.
"I love you, Speirr," she whispered softly.
"You can’t leave me, Nyn," he whispered as she shivered in his arms. "I don’t know what to do without you."
"You will take care of Ceara as you promised your mother." She swallowed as she traced his lips with her cold hand. "My brave Speirr. Always strong and giving. I shall wait for you on the other side until Bran brings us together again."
He closed his eyes as tears seeped past his control. "I can’t live without you, Nyn. I can’t."
"You must, Speirr. Our people need you. Ceara needs you."
"And I need you."
She swallowed and looked up at him, her eyes full of fear. "I’m scared, Speirr. I don’t want to die. I feel so cold. I’ve never gone anywhere without you before."
"I’ll keep you warm." He pulled more furs over her and rubbed her arms. If he could just keep her warm, she would stay with him. He knew she would…
If he could just keep her warm.
"Why is it getting dark?" she asked, her voice trembling. "I don’t want it to be dark yet. I just want to hold you for a little while longer."
"I’ll hold you, Nyn. Don’t worry, love. I have you."
She placed her hand against his cheek as a single tear fell. "I wish I had been the wife you deserved, Speirr. I wish I could have given you all the children you wanted."
Before he could speak, he felt it. The last expulsion of breath from her body before she went limp in his arms.
Enraged and heartsick, Talon threw his head back and gave his battle cry as pain tore through him. Tears fell down his face.
"Why!" he roared at the gods. "Damn you, Camulus. Why! Why couldn’t you just kill me and have left her in peace?"
As expected, no one answered. The Morrigan had abandoned him, left him alone to face this pain.
"Why would the gods ever help a whoreson like you, boy? You’re not fit for anything except licking the boots of your betters."
"Look at him, Idiag, he’s pitiful and weak like his father before him. He’ll never be anything. You might as well let us kill him now and spare the food to nurture a better child."
The voices of the past whipped through him, lacerating his aching heart.
"Are you a prince?" He heard Nynia’s childhood voice from the day he had saved her from the rooster.
"I am nothing," he had answered.
"Nae, my lord, you are a prince. Only one so noble would brave the fearsome rooster to save a peasant."
She alone had ever made him feel noble or good.
She alone had made him want to live.
How could his precious Nynia be gone?
Sobbing, he held her and the baby for hours. Held them until the sun was shining bright outside on the snow and her family begged him to let them make preparations for the burials. But he didn’t want to prepare them.
He didn’t want to let them go.
Since the day they’d met, they’d never been apart for more than a few hours.
Her love and friendship had seen him through so much. Over the years, she had been his strength.
She was the best part of him.
"What am I to do, Nyn?" he whispered against her cold cheek as he rocked her. "What am I to do…"
Alone, he had sat there with her, lost. Cold. Aching.
The next day, he’d buried her out by the loch where the two of them had first started their childhood meetings. He could still see her waiting for him, her face bright with expectation. He could imagine her running across the snow, gathering up a handful to make a ball so that she could sneak up on him and drop it down his tunic.
He would have chased her then, and she would have run away, laughing.
She had adored the snow so much. Had always loved to tilt her head back and let the white, pure flakes fall onto her beautiful face and into her golden fair hair.
It seemed somehow wrong that she would have died on a day like this. A day that would have filled her with such happiness.
Wincing in pain, he wished that he lived somewhere where it never snowed. Someplace warm so that he would never again have to see this and be reminded of all he’d lost.
Oh gods, how could she be gone?
Talon growled from grief. He was on his hands and knees in the freezing snow, his heart bereft of anything except painful misery.
All he could focus on was Nynia lying in the ground, holding their baby to her breast. Of the fact that he wasn’t there to protect her, to warm her. To take her by the hand and lead her wherever she was headed.
He felt a tiny hand on his shoulder.
Looking up, he saw the small face of his sister. Ceara had seen more than her fair share of tragedy.
"I’m still with you, Speirr. I won’t leave you alone."
Talon wrapped his arms around her waist and drew her close. He held her as he wept. She was all he had left. And he would defy the gods themselves to keep her safe.
He hadn’t been able to protect Nynia, but he would protect Ceara.
No one would harm her without dealing with him…
Talon came awake just before sunset with a sick feeling in his stomach.
He felt so alone.
His emotions were raw and tattered. He hadn’t felt like this in centuries. Hadn’t hurt like this since the night Acheron had taught him to bury his emotions.
Tonight, he truly felt the solitude of his life. The aching burn of it sliced through his chest, and he had to struggle to breathe.
Until he caught a whiff of something strange on his skin and in his bed.
Patchouli and turpentine.
His heart instantly lightened as he thought of her and the way she stumbled through her vibrant life.
Inhaling her precious scent, he rolled over and found his bed empty.
Talon frowned. "Sunshine?"
He looked around and didn’t see her anywhere.
"Would you leave me alone, you walking pair of boots!"
He cocked a brow at Sunshine’s voice on the other side of his door. Before he could get up, the door swung open to show Sunshine fussing at Beth and the alligator hissing back in protest.
The two of them struggled in the doorway.
"Let go of my easel, you refugee from a luggage factory. If you need some wood for a toothpick, there’s a bunch of it on the porch."
The side of his mouth quirked up at the sight of them battling it out, Sunshine inside his cabin and Beth on the porch.
"Beth," he snapped. "What are you doing?"
Beth opened her mouth, releasing the easel. Sunshine stumbled backward, into the cabin, with her easel in her hands. The gator hissed and snapped at him, swishing its tail and eyeballing Sunshine irritably.
"She says she was forcing you inside before it got dark and something decided to eat you," he told Sunshine.
"Tell Swamp Breath I was headed this way. Why was she…" Sunshine stopped and looked at him. "Oh jeez, am I really having a conversation with a gator?"
He grinned. "It’s all right. I do it all the time."
"Yes, but no offense, you’re kind of weird."
If that wasn’t the pot calling the kettle black…
She shooed Beth out, slammed the door, then put her art supplies in the corner.
Talon watched her with interest, especially since the denim of her jeans cupped her rear rather nicely as she leaned over.
"How long have you been up?" he asked.
"A few hours. What about you?"
"I just woke up."
"You always sleep this late?" she asked.
"Since I stay up all night, yeah."
She smiled at him. "I think you’ve taken being a night owl to a whole new level."
She moved to sit on the futon beside him and rubbed her paint-stained hands against her thighs, drawing his attention to just how perfectly shaped they were and how much he would love to run his hand up the insides of them to the center of her body…
He hardened at the thought.
"Would you like me to make you some breakfast?" she asked. "There’s not much in the kitchen that’s not guaranteed to kill or rot you, but I think I could scrounge up an egg-white omelette."
He grimaced at the thought of what an egg-white omelette would taste like. It would probably be worse than the soy cheese.
Jeez, someone needed to introduce this woman to chocolate Reddi-wip shots. And on the heel of that thought came the question of what Sunshine would taste like covered in chocolate-he’d never gotten the chance to do that with her last night.
Oblivious to his thoughts, she continued her tirade. "Haven’t you ever heard of bran flakes? Whole wheat?"
"No, I haven’t." He trailed his hand up her arm to her neck where he could tease the softness of her skin with his fingertips. Hmmm, how he loved to touch her flesh.
She continued to lecture him. "You know, eating the way you do, you’ll be lucky to live another thirty years. I swear there’s more nutrition in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory than anything I found in your kitchen."
Talon just smiled.
Why was he so fascinated by her? He listened to her voice as she lectured him, and instead of being irritated, he actually enjoyed it.
It was nice to have someone concerned enough about him that they would bother telling him what to eat.
"How about I just snack on you for a bit?" he asked.
Sunshine paused mid-sentence. Before she could think to respond, he pulled her across him and claimed her lips.
She moaned at how good he felt. How wonderful he tasted. She could feel his erection under her hip.
Her body melted against his.
The next thing she knew, he had her flat on her back on the futon and was leaning down over her, unbuttoning her sweater as her br**sts tightened in expectation of his touch.
"You’re very talented at distracting me," she said.
"Am I?" he asked, kissing the valley between her br**sts.
"Um-hmmm," she breathed.
Chills shot the length of her body as he nibbled the skin just below her jaw. His hot breath scorched her while he cupped her breast with his hand and kneaded her gently with his fingers.
She ran her hands through his tousled hair, holding him close to her while his braids brushed against her skin, tickling and teasing her. Her body throbbed and burned, craving his blistering touch.
Talon closed his eyes and inhaled the sweet scent of her skin. She was so warm and soft. So womanly. He ran his hand over the bounty of her tanned skin while he teased her neck with his tongue and teeth.
Her hands slid over him.
Oh, he liked how this woman tasted. Loved how she felt under him.
He ran his hand over the black lace of her bra, cupping her gently. She hissed in pleasure, her legs sliding against his. He’d never cared for the sensation of denim on his body before, but when Sunshine was wearing it, he didn’t mind at all.
He opened the catch on the front of her bra and released her br**sts to his questing hand. He ran his palm over the hard nubs, back and forth, delighting in the way they felt.
He kissed his way down to them.
Sunshine held his head to her and she arched her back. He teased one breast with his tongue, flicking and sucking it until she wanted to scream from pleasure. It was as if he knew some secret way of wringing every bit of sensual ecstasy from the lightest touch.