I LET GO OF HIS HAND SO I COULD CRAWL ONTO THE BED, STILL WORKING backward so I could watch him. I took the gun out of my waistband and slid it under one of the pillows, then lay back in the middle of the bed, propping myself up on my elbows. Sholto stood beside the bed looking at me. He had a strange half-smile on his face. His eyes looked uncertain, not unhappy, just uncertain.
"You look terribly pleased with yourself," he said.
"It's never a bad thing to see a handsome man naked for the first time."
His smile vanished. "Handsome? I've never had anyone who knew what lay under the shirt call me that before."
I let my gaze speak for me. I lingered over his face, the eyes, the strong, nearly perfect nose, the thin wide mouth. The rest of the body looked wonderful, but I knew at least part of what I was looking at was magically enhanced. I just didn't know how much. But I kept my gaze on the parts that I was pretty sure were real, like the slender width of his hips, the strong length of legs. Until I saw him without the pants I wasn't sure what the bulge in the pants was, so I passed that by in mind as well as by eye. The queen was right, it was a shame; he truly was magnificent.
"I've fantasized about a sidhe woman looking at me like that." He still looked too solemn.
"Like what?" I asked. I made the question low, sexual, teasing.
That made him smile. "Like I'm something to eat."
I smiled, and made it everything he wanted it to be, everything he needed it to be. "Eat, eh. Lose the coat, and the shirt, and maybe we'll get to that."
"No sex tonight remember," he said.
"How about just no orgasm?"
He threw back his head and laughed, a loud, joyous sound. He looked at me with shining eyes, and it wasn't magic that made them glitter, just laughter. He looked younger, more relaxed. I realized that with his white hair and skin, those gold eyes, that he'd be welcomed at the Seelie Court. If he could keep his shirt on they'd never suspect.
The laughter faded round the edges. "Now you look solemn," he said.
"I was just thinking that you look more Seelie Court than I do."
He frowned. "You mean the blood auburn hair?"
"And my lack of height, and the breasts are a little too plentiful for sidhe style."
He grinned then, wide and sudden. "It has to be the women who are complaining about the breasts. No man would dream of it."
That made me smile. "You're right. My mother, my aunt, my cousins."
"They're just jealous," he said.
"Pretty to think so," I said.
He let the grey overcoat fall to the floor, then undid a button of his cuff. He watched my face while he did it. He undid the other sleeve, and moved to the first shirt button, the second, fanning the cloth to expose a triangle of white, gleaming skin. A third button, and the first swell of chest muscle came into view. His fingers went to the fourth button, but he didn't undo it. "I would ask for a kiss now, before you see."
I would have asked why, but I thought I knew. He was afraid that once I saw all of him, he wouldn't get his kiss.
I crawled across the bed toward him. Sholto put his hands on the bed and lowered himself to his knees. He moved down until his chin was nearly touching the bed, his hands flat on the bedspread.
I stayed on all fours above him. He gazed up at me, and I lowered my face toward his in a sort of push-up position. I gave him his kiss. A soft brush of lips and Sholto started to pull away. I touched his face gently. "Not yet," I said.
Sholto was right, once I saw all his "extras" he might not get another kiss. If it was the only touch of sidhe hands that he would ever know, I wanted it to be memorable. A kiss couldn't make up for not having ever felt the touch of sidhe flesh, but it was all I could offer. In his own way he was as alone as Uther.
Sholto laid his chin back on the bed, rolling his eyes up at me. He waited for me patiently, totally passive, waiting for me to do whatever I was going to do. In that instant I had another question answered. If I was going to tie myself to any one person for a lifetime, we'd have to have more in common than just sidhe blood. He'd have to share my love of pain.
I lay flat on the bed so that our faces were even. "Open your mouth, just a little," I said.
He did it without question. I liked that. I kissed his upper lip, softly, gently. I used my tongue to open his mouth wider, then used lips and tongue to explore his mouth. He was completely passive at first, letting me feed softly at his mouth, then he began to kiss me back. He kissed slowly, almost hesitantly, as if it were his first time, and I knew it wasn't. Then his mouth pressed against mine harder, more demanding.
I bit his lower lip, gently, but firmly. He made a small noise in his throat, and rose to his knees, pulling me with him, hands on my arms. His kiss mashed against my lips. The kiss was hard enough it hurt, and I had to open my mouth wider, letting his lips, his tongue, his mouth inside mine completely, as deeply as he wanted to probe and lick and feed, just to keep from being bruised.
He pushed me back against the bed, and I let him, but I noticed that he kept his body above mine, using his hands to prop himself up so only our mouths touched. I drew back from the kiss enough to look down the line of his body. I could feel his body above mine like a trembling line of energy. It was as if the weight of his body was already pressed against mine, as if I could already feel the heaviness of him against me. His aura, his magic, had substance like a second body pressing outward from him. The press of power trapped my breath in my throat, brought my pulse racing. His magic drew the blood in my body like a magnet draws metal.
Even with Roane covered in Branwyn's Tears it hadn't been like this. It had been wondrous, but it hadn't been this. And this was what I wanted, needed, craved. Sholto stared down at me with a kind of soft wonder on his face. "What is that?"
I realized he could feel my power as I felt his. I could have simply said, "Magic," but the last time I'd been with another sidhe had been Griffin, and he had explained to me how my power was a lesser glow, a paltry thing. Once I'd believed him; now I didn't. I had to ask, because I might never be with another sidhe. I might never be able to answer the doubts that Griffin had put in my mind. "What does it feel like?" I asked.
"Warm, like heat rising off your body, pressing against my skin." He balanced on one arm, using his free hand to caress the air between us like he was stroking something that had shape, weight. The feel of him stroking his hand along my aura made me close my eyes, my body writhing under that not-touch.
He pushed his hand through the energy, and even with closed eyes I knew where his hand was. "It clings to my hand like it's a bowl of something that sucks against my skin as I reach into it," Sholto said, voice breathy, filled with the wonder his face had shown.
I felt his hand thrust through the power, as if my body were underwater and his hand brought cool air with it. His hand didn't just touch my side, it breeched my shields, forced his magic inside me. It brought my eyes wide open, froze my breath in my throat. It forced me to lash out with my own power, to cover it like holding a hand over a wound.
His body jerked at the touch of my magic. He looked at me with half-parted lips, his pulse thudding like a trapped thing against the fragile skin of his throat. "I had no idea what I was missing."
I nodded, staring up at him, flat on the bed, his hand like a throbbing weight over my ribs. "This is only the beginning," I said, and my voice had fallen to a hoarse whisper. I wasn't trying to sound sexy, it was all the voice left me with the press of him above me. In that moment I couldn't think of any deformity that would keep me from saying yes.
I reached for his shirt. He moved his hand off of me, so he could support his weight on both hands and I could reach the buttons of his shirt. I undid the next button; nothing popped out. I undid another button. The power wavered like heat rising from pavement. "Let go of the illusion, Sholto, let me see."
His voice was a whisper. "I'm afraid."
I stared up at him. "Do you really think I want to lose a chance at this? I want to end this exile, Sholto. I'm tired of pretending, of settling. I want it all back." I caressed a hand over the front of his throat, and the mix of our power flowed behind my hand like an invisible veil. "Sidhe flesh, pleasure to equal mine, to walk into the hollow hills and be welcome; I want to go home, Sholto. Drop your glamour and let me see what you look like."
He did what I asked. The tentacles spilled out of the shirt, and analogies like nest of snakes, or the spill of intestines when you open someone's gut, came to mind. I froze, and this time when my breath caught in my throat it wasn't from passion.
Sholto started to back away immediately, standing, turning so I couldn't see. I had to grab his arm to stop him. My reaction had shut down the magic between us, or rather his reaction to my reaction had. His arm was just an arm under my hand, warm and alive, but nothing more.
I gripped his arm tight with both my hands. I tried to turn him back toward me, but he resisted. I rose on my knees, keeping one hand on his arm, but reached across his body to grab the far side of his shirt. Nothing touched me as I reached across his body, and there should have been a lot of things touching me. He'd called the glamour back in place. I wasn't feeling what was really there.
I dragged him back around to face me. The shirt was open to mid-stomach. The chest and stomach were pale, muscular, smooth, perfect. I undid another button and the stomach that showed was cobblestone, like an ad for the after shot in a gym commercial. Sholto let me unbutton the shirt and pull it out enough that he was exposed down to the leather of his belt, but he wouldn't look at me.
"I guess if you're going to hide behind glamour, it might as well be handsome."
He did look at me then, and he looked angry. "If this was my true appearance you wouldn't turn from me."
"If this was your real appearance you'd have never become king of the Host."
Something passed through his eyes, something I couldn't read, but anything was better than the anger tinged with bitterness. "I would have been a noble of the sidhe court," he said.
"A lord, nothing better-your mother's bloodline isn't good enough for a greater title."
"I am a lord," he said.
I nodded. "Yes, on your own power, your own merit. The queen could not let such a power walk away from our court without a title."
He smiled, but it was bitter, and that anger crept back into his eyes. "Are you saying it's better to rule in hell than serve in heaven?"
I shook my head. "Never, but I am saying that you have everything your mother's blood could have given you, and you are a king."
He stared down at me, his face that arrogant mask again. The one I saw so often at court. "My mother's blood could have given me you."
"I haven't turned you down," I said.
"I saw the look on your face, felt the reluctance in your body. You don't have to say it out loud for it to be true."
I started to pull his shirt out of his pants. He grabbed my hands. "Don't."
"If you walk away now then it's finished. Drop your illusions, Sholto, let me see."
"I did that." He jerked the shirt out of my hands so hard that he almost dragged me off the bed as he moved away.
"It'd be nice if I could have embraced you without flinching. I am sorry that I couldn't, but give a girl a chance. The first look is a little overwhelming."
He shook his head. "You're right, I am king of the sluagh. I will not be humiliated."
I sat on the edge of the bed and looked at him. He looked perfect if a little sulky. But it wasn't real, and I'd spent the last few years hiding, pretending. Pretense, no matter how pretty, can grow very old. Though they rejected him, there was no one that epitomized the Unseelie Court better than Sholto did. A combination of unbelievable beauty and horror, not just side by side but entwined. One could not exist without the other. In his way Sholto was the perfect marriage of all the court stood for, and they rejected him because they feared that he was indeed the ultimate Unseelie sidhe. I doubted they thought of it that clearly, not in so many words, but that was what frightened them about Sholto - not that he was alien, but that he wasn't alien.
"I can't give my word that I won't turn away a second time, but I can give my word that I will try."
He looked at me, arrogance like a shield in his eyes. "That's not good enough."
"It's the best I have to offer. Is fear of rejection really worth losing your first touch of sidhe flesh so quickly?"
Doubt flickered in his eyes. "If you can't... stomach it," something about the phrase amused him, but not in a happy way, "then can I call glamour and..."
I finished when his voice trailed off. "Yes, we can."
He nodded. "That is the closest I have ever come to begging."
I laughed. "Lucky you."
He looked puzzled then, and it was almost a relief to see the real Sholto peeking through that careful mask. "I don't understand."
"Your magic is powerful enough that you probably don't." It was my voice that held bitterness now. I shook it off, literally shaking my head, sending my hair sliding around my face. I held my hands out to him. "Come here."
Distrust showed on his face. I guess I couldn't blame him, but I was getting tired of holding his emotional hand. I didn't want to hurt him, but I wasn't sure I wanted to tie myself to him forever. It wasn't the tentacles- it was the heavy emotions that seemed to swing back and forth so quickly. He was going to be a high-maintenance partner when it came to his feelings. Men like that are so damned exhausting that I usually avoid them, but Sholto could offer me things that the others couldn't. He could give me back my home-for that I could shovel emotional shit for a while. But truthfully, it was almost a bigger mark against him than his extras.
"Drop the shirt and come here, or don't. It's your choice."
"You sound impatient," he said.
I shrugged. "A little." I motioned him closer with my hands.
He slid the shirt off his shoulders to spill to the floor. A flurry of emotions crossed his face; he finally settled on defiance. Fine with me, because I knew that whatever was on his face wasn't how he really felt. He'd use a mask until he was sure of his welcome.
He dropped the glamour.