Rider stared at Tara’s back, watching her deeply sun-burnished skin quench its never-ending thirst for the light in the early rays of dawn. It was his wife’s private ritual, and was thus his, to watch every sunrise previously denied her for decades as though it were the very first dawn God ever made.
Golden rays caressed her bare shoulders splaying long fingers of light over her gorgeous skin. Rose-orange hues danced and coaxed out the ruddy undertones of her sun dappled flesh while she stood with her back to him, chin lifted, eyes closed, and a look of pure ecstasy spread across her face. Her engagement ring and diamond-studded wedding band sparkled against her cinnamon perfection as prisms spilled bright color flecks.
It was always within the silent heartbeat of the first moments of the day that he reaffirmed he was a lucky man. How did Heaven bear to let his Tara-angel to leave them? Standing there nude, bathed in golden sunlight, all she needed was wings… and yet she’d come back to him a mere mortal, now. He wouldn’t allow the word dead to even form in his mind. The way he saw it, she’d simply come back from another type of life. The foul night had once claimed her, but the Light had sealed her wounds and mercy had washed her slate clean. It still confounded him that the Light gave enough of a damn about him to let him go along with her for the joy ride.
But while his mind lingered on the sobering thought, Tara subtly changed the angle of her head, turning ever so slightly so that the sun kissed her cheeks and allowed him to see her regal, Native American cheekbones in profile. Without opening her eyes or speaking, she slowly signed man with a good heart. He stared at her graceful hands as they danced before her naked breasts, and he watched her long, black lashes become damp. Her bottom lip trembled and he heard her swallow unshed tears.
“I love you, too, wifey,” he said just above a whisper and forced a smile. “Good morning.”
They hadn’t talked about it, her coming back the way she did. There hadn’t been time or the inclination, and that was just fine by him. He wasn’t sure he could handle where that would take him, anyway, despite the fact that they’d been lovers for so long that they could probably finish each others’ sentences. Everything else was fair game to discuss for some strange reason; her return wasn’t. This wasn’t something they could speak on in plain words. Fear of loss was a tricky thing, just like they never mentioned old affairs—may the dead rest in peace.
Still he knew one day or night they’d have to broach the subject, regardless of their unspoken superstitions that talking about it might evaporate the gift of it all. They’d been lovers for too long, were too old to keep things from each other… and were both blunt-speaking people, each in their own way… but this he had no vocabulary to address. He knew she didn’t, either, as she stared at him with a haunting question in her eyes.
If he could have, he would have looked away, but he was trapped, held hostage by her serene gaze. He was already struggling against a frightening wave of emotion just below the surface of his skin. If she would just come back to bed, he could let it all out that way, rather than bawling like a lost toddler in a mall.
“Why would you think they wouldn’t send me to you, husband?” she finally murmured, again signing the name she’d given him decades ago, man with a good heart. “You are my heaven.”
For a moment he just stared at her. The Light had taken her fangs and everything vampire about her had apparently gone to ash, but the way she’d returned whole as a seer was still hard to comprehend. His gaze traveled over every facet of her beautiful countenance, from the deep, lush, jet velvet tresses that hung below her shoulders, to her large, dark, smoldering eyes dampened by tears—and was arrested there. Her eyes had always been his undoing. He was going to make a joke to fight back the sudden moisture blurring his vision, but couldn’t. The tears rose anyway just from watching her stand in the sun and they clung to his lashes for dear life, trying hard not to fall.
“You’re my heaven, too,” was all he could choke out as she stood before him bathed in the Tahitian sun.
She gathered her arms about herself as though suddenly pulling the sunlight on as robe. The Light had even been kind enough to not start the aging clock and to leave her as they’d found her… with small smile lines to frame her lush mouth and only delicate traces at the corners of her eyes that simply added to her presence of intelligent beauty. Her hair was still dark and rich with a fleeting strand of silver here and there… her voluptuous body was enviable for a woman her age, preserved from the date of human departure and not harmed in the least by her reassignment as a mortal. There was a power in heaven that was beyond the scope of his feeble mind, on that he was clear.
Mesmerized, although he’d seen her like this for a month, a thick lump of awe formed in his throat as he watched his new wife, his lover of many years and decades begin to sway to some internal, beautiful, ancient melody that apparently only she could hear. Even though he was now her husband, it almost seemed sacrilegious to touch her. By what right did he really have, after all that he’d done in his sinning life?
“Every right,” she murmured, still swaying in joy with her eyes closed as her body captured pools of light from the windows.
She’d done that eerie mind-to-mind thing again in what felt like almost an unconscious reflex. Then she turned to him suddenly, drew in a deep, gasping breath that nearly stopped his heart, and opened her eyes to fix her thought-stunning gaze on him.
“It feels so good to be alive, Rider. The sun is so warm,” she said in a shaky voice, placing one hand on the center of her chest. “I can feel my own heartbeat. I wanted to say these things to you before, wanted to let it all out… needed to process just how horrified I was about what I’d become, but I think I was afraid that if I said any of it, this… this heaven I have now would vanish. Does that make sense?”
He hadn’t recovered from the sound of her deep gasp. It reminded him too much of her last one, the one that she’d taken when Yonnie had accidentally flat-lined her—eyes open, glassy, reaching toward him. The flashback dredged a war-vet sensation up and out of him. His lashes couldn’t hold back the tide, nor could he move to wipe any of it away from his face.
More than thirty years of heartbreak settled in his chest like a huge boulder, and the weight of it all made him rock slightly as he nodded. It was his every intention to get up and go to her, to surround her with his arms like he had every morning she’d awakened since her return. But this morning, for some odd reason, he couldn’t move. All he could do was slowly close his eyes to her searching, beautiful expression, and to suck up the sob that was threatening to break free.
“Rider? Honey… are you all right?”
A gentle voice pierced his senses and still he couldn’t answer her. Soon a slight depression moved the bed and a smooth palm cupped his cheek.
“Husband, what’s wrong?” A wash of warm, sweet breath nuzzled his ear before her soft kiss landed there.
He tried to pet her hair, that thick profusion of velvet texture that he loved so much, but his hands were shaking like a junkie’s.
“Oh, God, Tara… I smoked, I drank, I whored, I’ve stolen, I’ve killed dem—”
“Shush,” she soothed, cutting him off. “None of that matters between us now.”
Then the unspeakable of all fears unfurled itself within him, uncoiling like a giant serpent as he hugged her close. It came out as a ragged, garbled truth against her hair while she rocked him and petted his shoulders.
“If they take you again, I’ll be no more good—and I’m not perfect. What if I slip up and they do? Every morning when you get out of bed and go stand by the window, I brace myself.”
“Oh… Rider… baby…”
“I keep waiting for this to be some colossal, cosmic mistake,” he said, his words mixing with repressed sobs as the hysteria built. “I keep waiting for whoever checks heavenly gates and registers to come back from lunch and say, ‘Hold it, this one was destined for angel status—she’s not supposed to be back down in Tahiti married to some ex-biker vamp hunter. What the hell were we thinking? Recall!’ And then when you turn into the sun, I don’t breathe while I watch the light go over your skin. Every nasal passage is open, waiting for the scent of the smolder. I don’t even fucking blink until I’m sure that today won’t be the damned day they take you back.” A deep sob choked off his words as her hands splayed across his shoulders.
“Rider, they’re not going to—”
“How do you know?” he shouted, suddenly breaking her hold on him to stand and cross the room. Pacing in front of the window he looked from her toward the sunny beach, panicked. “Back in Mexico with all of that demon energy around, I kept waiting for it to happen… one morning for you to turn to cinder in my arms. I was afraid to leave you to even go downstairs to get you a cup of coffee and some goddamned orange juice! We’d watched the entire team from Bahia go down in flames—plus a lot of Guardian brothers and sisters who lived a lot cleaner lives than me. Why should I have been spared that heartbreak of losing you, huh? Taking you is no different than killing me. I know they made a mistake, and when they figure it out they’ll come back to claim what’s theirs. The only problem is, you’re mine, too… I love you as much as they do. More!”
He was shouting, unable to control the volume of his voice. Something feral had him in its grip and wouldn’t turn him loose. The more serenely Tara stared at him, the crazier he felt.
“I just want to know where the trip wire is. I want to know where the land mines are, where the booby traps are, so I don’t fuck this up and they come for you one day while…” he paced further away from her and put his hands on the frame of the window, closing his eyes against the breeze as hot tears coursed down his face. “I keep praying—no, correction, begging them not to do a snatch and grab on my wife. I’m not worried about the dark side—them… if they come for you, babe, I will fucking go see Lucifer and kick his ass myself, if I have to. But the Light?” He laughed and it was a hollow sound. “I can’t fight the Light. Nobody can.”
“Rider, please, it’s going to be all right.”
He glanced at her over his shoulder. “You know that for sure? I’ve got questions, hon. Maybe it’s good that we just get this all out once and for final, because we’ve been dancing around a huge pink elephant in the bedroom.”
She looked down at the floor, hugging herself. “I know. I couldn’t even say it… I could only think it. I’m trying to just live in the moment and cherish each second of the gift of rebirth… but I have questions… like will this last or is there a time limit, and then…”
He nodded, snatching his gaze from hers. “Right. Exactly. Questions… No, correction again, deep, primal worries—okay? It’s so bad that if I see somebody light up a cigarette at the resort, and I really, really want one—especially like I do right now during this particular type of conversation, I turn away hoping to God that that won’t detonate the take-Tara-back bomb—because, after all, I swore that I’d stop all my sinning ways for one more chance with you. Every time I pass a bar I quietly tell them, ‘Okay, okay, I know, I messed up before, but just don’t take her back.’ I just don’t know what I might accidentally forget and do, or not do, that could change all of this.”
Her warm body spooned his as he stood at the window, agonized.
“Rider, honey, this I swear to you, the Light doesn’t work on a retribution plan like the dark side does.” She hugged him harder as her voice became softer. “They won’t.”
“How do you know?” he said quietly, raking his fingers through his hair.
“Because I was there,” she said, kissing his shoulder blades.
It was the surety in her voice and the matter of fact tone in which she delivered her statement that finally made him become still, turn, and face her. With trembling fingers he traced her eyebrows and the ridge of her high cheekbones and then cradled her face between his palms. They said nothing for a very long time, him staring at her; her staring at him until he lowered his head to brush her mouth with a gentle kiss.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she promised. “At least not like that.”
Again, all he could do for a moment was stare at her as she gazed up at him with moist, dark eyes. “But you thought about it, too, though.”
“Yeah, I was afraid, initially,” she finally confided, running a forefinger over his unshaven jaw line. “That’s part of why I would leave our bed every morning just before dawn and stand in the sun.”
Pain for her stole the air from his lungs. What must it have been like to get up every morning God sent and wait to be burned alive as the sun crested the horizon? In that instant he wanted to press her to his body, to cover every inch of her satiny skin with the shield of his own for her protection. If she would have just told him how freaked out she was… he would have done anything, said anything to reassure her, even if he was scared enough himself to shit a gold brick. But he also knew that her independent nature would have misread his intentions and would have refused his pity, the same way she didn’t want that from him now, so he chose his next words with care. That, too, was the benefit of being long time lovers; one knew where the others’ boundaries of self declaration lay.
“Then I wasn’t losing my mind by myself,” he said on a thick swallow.
She shook her head no. “The first day I thought I’d just been given a reprieve to come back to you and to stand and fight by your side in the daylight… maybe a parting gift… then the next morning at dawn as I looked out at the carnage of the battlefield from our window in la casa, and after I saw what was left, I thoroughly expected… Well. That’s why I said goodbye to you as passionately as I did.” She fit against him hard as he held her fast. “And I got up after you finally fell asleep, because I didn’t want you to wake up next to a pile of ash.”
“Oh, baby…” He felt her breath hitch with her words. Felt her swallow down the emotion as his fingers threaded through her velvety hair.
“I couldn’t do that to you, Jack Rider. Not after all you’d been through.”
“So you just stood in the sun, Samurai style? Are you crazy?” he said, crushing his mouth against her hair. “Just to have you back breathing, I don’t care if I had to travel with you in a—”
“Don’t say it,” she whispered, hugging him tighter. “There are things I’ve had to experience while not with you that make standing in the sun as a way to die a peaceful conclusion.”
He nodded quickly against her hair. They would not speak of Yonnie, or what being a Master vampire’s wife was all about… just like he’d never speak on his brief liaison with Gabby. “Duly noted,” he murmured. “I’m sorry.”
“No, honey, don’t be. Eventually, after all these years of holding this much pain in, some is bound to leak out.”
“Yeah, here we stand like two, old, battle-scarred vets, huh? PTSD in a most extreme way.”
She sniffed hard but he could feel her smile against his shoulder. That was a good thing.
“Jack Rider, I love you so much for that private brand of irreverence of yours that always makes me smile.”
“No more irreverence for me, though. Seriously.”
His statement made her lift her head and stare at him, her smile fading as she touched his face.
“But that’s who you are.” She simply looked at him without blinking.
She shook her head no. “Yes, we can all change, can all improve, can leave behind addictions and bad habits… but the core of who they sent me back to is the core of a man with a good heart.” She tenderly took his mouth, her kiss a sweet tonic to his embattled nervous system. “They aren’t sitting up there waiting to burn me to ash if you have a shot of Jack Daniels or cheat Shabazz at poker.”
A half smile tugged at Rider’s face, and that’s when she knew she’d broken through to the other side of his fear, conquering hers as well.
“So you know about my card shark skills, ‘eh?”
“Uhmm, hmmm, and I suspect it’s going to get tougher to beat him in the future.”
“Why is that?”
“He’s on to you, or maybe because Marlene went though what she did… she’s no longer inclined to remain neutral.”
“Good point,” Rider quipped, kissing her forehead. “I hadn’t thought about his wife being a seer. And to think after all these years, Mar is finally taking sides. Go figure?”
“You’ve got a wife-seer in your camp, too, though,” Tara murmured with a deliciously wicked smile. “I’ve never had scruples about protecting what’s mine versus some good of the group thing. At least not when it comes to poker. All bets are off.”
“Strategic advantage, I love you,” he said, chuckling now as she slid against him sexily.
“Just tell me what you want,” she whispered, sounding almost vamp, “and consider it done.”
He raised an eyebrow as a shudder of desire accosted him out of nowhere. Anything?”
She bit her lip holding back a smile as she nodded.
Rider glanced up toward the ceiling with a mischievous grin. “They wouldn’t happen to know about my Texas hold ‘em strategies, would they?”
“They don’t miss much, except what goes on between husband and wife.”
“Well, darlin’, that is one very good thing to know.”
“Is it, now?”
His smile broadened and it was all she could do not to laugh as merriment filled his hazel eyes and blazed across his handsome face. The subject had shape-shifted and the old Jack Rider that she knew was suddenly back in her possession. The storm had passed as quickly as it had blown through their hotel suite. Even though they were both smiling, she knew that they’d yet to explore how deep the well of fear within them had been. But for now, the topic was banished. It no longer mattered that they’d probably only scratched the surface of it. Perhaps her unspoken worries silently fueled his; just as his softening gaze had begun to warm her while he held her so gently close.
Blonde strands with muted shades of gray now flowed through her fingers like corn silk, making her remember the first time she’d felt the silken texture. She understood his terror, it had been hers—a silent horror that they’d come for her, would take her back. In truth, she’d been declared DOA in the Light and she thought that mercy had simply granted a reprieve not a permanent stay of execution. But every day that passed, just like Rider’s warm mouth against hers now, had confirmed that she was vibrantly alive and no longer in the clutches of vampiric law.
She was a being of the Light, not a creature of the darkness. A Guardian. That renewed awareness made her deepen their kiss and send her tongue to find his to dance and play with.
Life-force pounded through her with his sweeping caress down her back. The skin-against-skin seal that bound them in front of the billowing window sheers caused an immediate ache to stab her canal. A breeze off the beach roamed over their bodies. Her hands traced him blindly, moving along each sculpted brick of his chest and back and shoulders, knowing his form by heart.
With a shiver of desire she watched him break their kiss to breathe in the surf and her all at the same time. It was so subtle a gesture that she knew he was unaware that he even did it, but he did. Every time he held her… every time they made love, there would come a fragile moment when he’d stop for just a second and breathe her in. It was always at that moment that his body seemed to come alive for hers with a hard contraction as he literally rolled her scent over his palate with his eyes crossing beneath his lids.
Just seeing him do that always stole her composure, and it sent her lips to his collarbone and then his chest to capture his hardened, caramel hued nipples. His shudder made her glance up at him while his hands framed her head with his fingers dug deep into her hair. She knew what he wanted… needed… but until today, they’d both been afraid. Then sudden courage and the desire to give him every ounce of pleasure she could wring from herself overcame that fear, consequences be damned. This was her husband.
In a quick pivot from his hold, she found his neck and nipped him in the old place where he’d been marked by her forever.
The sound he released bottomed out in her womb and flooded her swollen valley. It was in the way his breath hitched and his erection jerked against her thigh that made her deepen the bite, then slowly evolve it to a sensual, punishing kiss until his splayed hands became fists at her back.
That sound, that deep, male, resonance of pure pleasure spoken between clenched teeth chiseled away her fear and did something crazy to her. If she was gonna burn in the Light, so be it. This was her husband and she was already on fire for him. They’d made love, but hadn’t been together like this since she’d come back human… not like old times. Not like when she was what she’d been then—all vamp.
In a blinding strike she bit the other side of his throat, her nails scoring his back with a delicate trail that didn’t break his skin. And just as she knew it would, it opened the lid to Pandora’s Box. He shed every fear of her torching in the sunlight within his hold, his caress now as aggressive as his kiss while he walked her backward toward the bed, his hands a hot sweep over her backside, his tongue thrust deeply into her mouth almost as deeply as his groan.
When they fell, he did the unthinkable, the absurdly erotic—he bit her over Yonnie’s old invisible mark. That dredged her gasping shriek, something else to help him lose his mind. It was that crazy, indescribably something else that made his hands race over her skin like a wild fire out of control to singe her nipples with searing pleasure, to cause her to arch her back beneath his weight, to make her claw at his shoulders as he pelted her torso with burning kisses and nips. The moment he found her femoral artery and suckled it she climaxed with tears in her eyes, whispering, “Don’t,” too late. He ignored her, regardless. Her body was his.
Under those circumstances, his tongue was a weapon of mass destruction—destruction of her sanity. Melting down to her core, her voice was foreign to even her own ears as she balled sheets in her clenched fists and begged him to stop. What they were doing had to be dangerous, reopening old erogenous zones, remembering the past… but there was no way to stop something that felt this damned good.
How could they stop, especially when he remembered how to drag his hard, hot body up hers, and to enter her on the crest of another orgasm with a punishing thrust and a severe, close-to-vamp bite?
Delirious, she came so hard and so fast as he moved against her that she could barely catch her breath before her sobs. She’d wanted to do that to him, to cherish him with her mouth, to send him to a place of mind-dissolving ecstasy, but he’d made it clear by not yielding that this morning was all for her.
And in that instance she knew what he’d given her, a piece of himself that he’d saved until he knew it was truly safe to offer it as a wedding present… complete and utter acceptance of all that she was and all that she had been. Making no exceptions or excuses, he’d loved her hard and exquisitely, holding nothing back, not even her once vampire existence. And as his own pleasure thundered through him and he threw back his head to allow it free reign, she loved him all the more… down to every bead of sweat that formed on his sun-bronzed brow.
Jerking, spasmodic shudders claimed him as she held him fast and he dropped like a heavy rock against her, gasping. A thin coating of slick, hot sweat covered him and her hands slid up his back, reveling in it as she kissed his shoulder and cheek. She wanted to tell him how much she loved him, but she was so filled with emotions that instead she just burst into tears. He nodded and simply stroked her damp hair, still breathing hard.
“I know. Me too,” was all he quietly said once his breathing had slowed.
She could feel his heart pounding hard within his chest at the same rhythms as hers; it pummeled her breast bone. Soon she could also feel it through his back where her hand rested. That alone made her too overwhelmed to speak. But by degrees he seemed to forcibly drag himself off her to pull her to lie facing him. In response, she kissed the underside of his chin knowing that he’d shifted their position so that he wouldn’t continue to crush her with his full weight. That was when she realized his palm wasn’t on her behind where it would have been in the past; it was against her back… his fingertips gently trembling, his palm flattened against her heartbeat as though his hand was listening to the most unbelievable thing in the world. She remained still, winded, as he gently nuzzled the crown of her hair with his cheek.
“You’re still here,” he whispered, allowing one large tear to roll off the end of his nose into her scalp. “Thank you, God.”
That’s when they both cried in earnest.