|Publisher:||Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Even Finn Hale, strong as he was, fire lord of Ravenstone though he was, could not withstand such bitter cold for long. If only he could sleep, just lie down and sleep. No. From somewhere deep inside, his indomitable will conjured that one word. Right now, sleep was death to him so he had to keep going. He must reach her, the beautiful snow queen. Failing that, he had to find shelter, but there was nothing, had been nothing, not for miles. He might well die, but he swore he would die fighting. He would not give up until his very last breath. Clinging to consciousness, he wrapped his heavy wool cloak about him and stumbled on.
Though it hardly seemed possible, the snow increased while the temperature decreased. Visibility dropped from slight to nil, presenting a whole other host of problems. It would be very easy for him to walk right into a tree or place one foot wrong and end in a crevice with a broken leg. Worse yet, he might even fall right off of the bloody mountain.
It focused his mind a trifle to concentrate on her, his possible future wife. The fact that she was surely aware of his presence and was clearly trying to keep him from going any farther motivated him more than a little. Well, by all the gods, he had come this far and he would not be deterred. Yet even his resolute spirit could not resist the inevitable. His sense of reality began to waver then it fractured. Then a deep shiver wracked his frame and brought him back to the whirling snow.
His flame rose higher by some small degree; he'd simply have to hope it would be enough because he'd be damned if he'd give up now. Not after weeks of traveling across half the world. Not after days spent in this frigid misery. More than once in his eventful life his obstinate, not to say stubborn, nature had done him good. When his father had died it was that and that alone which had sustained him in those first days.
Once more he was rewarded. One tiny gleam of light shone through the trees and the swirl of snow. He fixed his gaze on it, pointed himself in that direction and prayed he would make it there in time. Hoped when he did, it would be no mirage.
The swirling snow half-blinded him, but at last the reflection of the moon and stars showed him her palace. For palace it was, complete with turrets, towers and ramparts all made entirely of ice. Barely able to register this marvel, he approached and entered a sort of forecourt which offered some moderate protection from the wind.
"Hello," he called in a hoarse voice. As the echo of his words died away, icy doors creaked open to allow him inside. With a grateful prayer to the gods, he entered.
* * *
As soon as he stepped foot upon her ground, Lyssa Jennings had known. Although, truth be told, she had not at first recognized the sensation, as it had been so long since she had experienced it. No one had approached her home in years. Most knew better. This man did not. With a shrug, she conjured a storm and so did her utmost to ensure he got no farther.
Nevertheless, he made it through in spite of her, which meant he was very strong, though he did not look it as he stumbled in. Perhaps it was that strength which compelled her to open her doors to him rather than leave him to die. Or perhaps it was mere curiosity. Either way, the damage was done and since it was, she might as well speak to him, even question him. Still, she remained cautious and stayed on the stairs, out of the light so she might see but not be seen.
"Who are you? Why are you here?" When he merely stood there dazed and panting, she repeated the question in more strident tones, with the added inquiry of who did he think he was disturbing her, but got no response.
Far beyond mere curiosity now and headed straight into fury, she prepared to show herself and her power to him when a small sound stopped her.
"My lady, please help me."
Unable to utter even one word more, the stranger held out his once strong hand in entreaty then fainted dead away.
After staring at him, mouth agape, for a moment, she swung into action. For some reason unknown to her, she could not allow him to freeze as she had so many others before him. Instead, she gave orders to her self-made companions, her ice servants, for his care. She directed a chamber be made ready for him. She chose the only one with a hearth and ordered a fire lit there.
While tending him she could not help but observe his beauty. Hair black as a raven's wing, straight nose, strong jaw and full sensuous lips, her eager senses catalogued. In addition, he was tall, all muscle and sinew, with golden skin only faintly paled by his ordeal, skin which she saw more than a little of as she did what she could to revive him. Silken skin she touched as she divested him of his wet clothing then wrapped him in thick blankets in an attempt to warm him. As alluring as that all was, it was nothing to the piercing green of the eyes which had held hers for one instant before his lapse into unconsciousness. Even clouded with pain his eyes were riveting.
It was that gaze which told her she must stay well away from him no matter her attraction. She must stay far from him in the same manner she had stayed away from men all of her life. Yet if she was so very determined on this course, then why save him at all?
For the first time in years she was unsure of the motivation underlying a particular action and it unsettled if not downright terrified her. Another reason to leave him, she determined. On the thought, she started a fire in the hearth. Task complete and sure she had done all she could, Lyssa left the rest in the hands of the gods and sought her own chamber.
* * *
The first thing Finn was aware of was warmth all through him. He was no longer as deathly cold as he had been, nor terribly heated as he so often was. Instead he was comfortable, more comfortable than he had been in years. And naked. Considering his unclad state and his lack of a sword — his own was nowhere to be seen — he was, thank the gods, also alone. Since there was no one in sight and he discovered his own clothing was dry and folded neatly on a small chair nearby, he saw no reason to rise just yet. For a time he did nothing more than bask in the feeling of contentment flowing through him.
Then, unbidden, his full memory rushed back to him. Soon he recalled leaving his kingdom behind in search of the so-called snow queen. He managed to reach her, then concentrate as he might, it all went black. He must have passed out, he reasoned. Shrugging, he admitted he felt fine now and what was more, he'd completed at least part of his mission. He'd found the snow queen.
He lay there, taking in the room in which he found himself. The bed he was in was large enough to accommodate his over six-foot frame and very soft. Its large frame was made of oak, he noted. There was a wash stand to his left and a screen, behind which he assumed was a chamber pot. A fire burned in the hearth but it was not quite large enough to heat the entire room. So far he could see nothing out of the ordinary. Until he discerned that the walls and floor were made of solid ice.
He looked around in wonder. The place was cold certainly, but all things considered, it ought to have been like living inside a block of ice. It wasn't. The fire burning in the hearth made the room seem cheerful and it carried only a little chill. What was most fascinating, however, was that the fire in the hearth did not melt the ice of the walls or chimney. Amazing. Perhaps she could protect her ice from the unaccustomed warmth. Experimentally, he slid his feet to the floor. Cool but not freezing.
He also discovered he was steady enough on his feet. That being the case, he ought to greet his hostess and savior properly. Dressing, he readied himself then left to explore.
Finn soon learned that the palace he found himself in was vast. There were some few sticks of furniture, but many of the rooms were empty; the walls were all made of ice just as those in his own chamber had been. The tables, cabinets and beds had once been very fine, but though well-cared for, were now aged. In addition, the corridors held very little to distinguish them from one another. It was only his habit of committing the location of his chambers in a strange place to memory which kept him from becoming lost. Even so, he had no idea where the entrance hall he had seen before his collapse was located.
After a time, he at last stumbled upon it and what a sight to behold it was. The roof was fully one hundred feet high. The walls narrowed as they went up and were formed of beautiful panes of clear thin ice. As it rose, the dawning sun made the very chamber itself a prism. Finn suppressed a gasp, but couldn't stop himself from looking all around with wide eyes. To his left were the stairs which his vague memory informed him lead to a shadowed balcony. A noise from above made him swing about and reach for his sword.
* * *
Lyssa observed him from the upper gallery yet remained concealed. Being so near to death did not seem to have harmed him in the least. From all she could see he was more than recovered.
Sensing her presence, it was his turn to ask who was there.
"If you do not wish to see me or speak with me, I understand," he continued when she maintained her silence. "It's only I would like to thank you for saving my life."
She continued to gaze down on him unable, or perhaps unwilling, to make herself known. To observe him without being observed herself was surely the safest course. Getting a good sense of his inherent vitality and a chance to admire his good looks, to see him so open and alert was an added, if dangerous, bonus.
Yet when he spoke again, it was with the first hint of impatience. "I would like to express my gratitude face to face and I dislike talking to walls. You might do me the courtesy of revealing yourself." He gave her a few moments more then turned back the way he had come. "Well, I can see you are not at all interested in conversing, so perhaps I should take my leave."
"Wait." The word was out of Lyssa's mouth before she discerned she had any intention of speaking. She found she could not let him go, not without talking with him face-to-face. So, trembling slightly, she walked down her icy steps. "Understand this; you will leave, not just this room, but this castle at once. You are alive only because I wish it and now I wish for you to be gone." She stopped halfway down the spiral staircase and studied him.
"Of that I am well aware. If I could just —"
"You are alive only because I wish it," she repeated. "And I have told you to leave. Do not make me ask again."
"At least allow me to express my thanks —"
"Spare me your gratitude. I have no need of it. Don't you know who I am?"
* * *
The snow queen gazed down at him, imperious and regal, but at first he did not speak. In truth, he was a bit awed by her beauty and even more so by her demeanor. So haughty and proud, a cool exterior which masked he knew not what. Her long blonde hair was piled high on her head in an intricate chignon and her eyes were as light a blue as some of the ice she created. She was only an inch or two shorter than six feet, slim yet still lightly curvaceous. The long cotehardie gown she wore must have been of her own creation, for the simple garment made of what he took to be dark blue silk sparkled. The soft candlelight glinted on minute fragments of ice which clung to the silk in spiral patterns. The sleeves trailed from the elbow, the neckline was low and scooped to show off her figure. She wore a belt of silver which rested on her hips and with an end which trailed down the front of her dress.
He shook his head just a bit to clear it and tried to respond with some coherence. "I know well who you are, majesty, and I have never seen anything or anyone so beautiful. I have crossed half the world to find you."
Something very like astonishment passed over her face. "You were searching for me?" she asked, incredulous.
"Just so, highness."
Unable to contain her fascination, or so it seemed when he took in the arrested expression on her face, she made her way toward him.
Her brows rose until they all but disappeared beneath her blonde hair. "You know what I am yet you sought me? You are a fool." She turned away from him with an impatient twitch of her skirts, dismissing him, and began to pace.
He could feel the first stirrings of temper, but held it grimly in check. "I am many things, my lady, but a fool is not one of them. Even as far as Ravenstone, my country, there are tales of you. I have also sought out those who knew you long ago, before you came into your own. Believe me, I am more than aware of who you are. It is because of who you are I have come."
Her agitated pacing ceased. For the first time he sensed he had her complete and undivided attention.
"Are you one of those rash enough to wish for death at my hands? Tire me further and I may give it to you."
She could, of that he had no doubt. Her gaze told him as much. Yet somehow the knowledge did not trouble him unduly. He could not, would not, live as he was any longer. If she could not save him, surely there were far worse ways to die than at her hands.
She surveyed him for a long moment. "You're one of those then." She sighed.
"One of what?"
"One who thinks to change me. You think you're the man I'll warm to at last. How tedious." Even so, she cast him a speculative glance. "Still, you are pretty, well-mannered, and you do not lack for courage. If you go now and leave me in peace, I'll not harm you. Moreover, I'll see you safely off of my mountain and on your way."
When his response was not immediate, she continued, "Come, come, that's the best offer you'll get and more than I've offered any man in years."
Choosing his words with great care, he answered her at last. "I don't think you understand. I'm not like other men."
She laughed, just a small burst of sound, like frost-coated bells ringing. "Men. You all think you are different. Be disabused of that notion right now. No man can touch me and live."
Her challenge was clear and he could not resist it. "Really?" The word was a challenge of its own. With no more verbal sparring, he stretched out a hand and conjured fire. Set free, he let the flame build until it was mere inches away from her.
A shocked gasp escaped her then she reacted faster than he ever dreamed possible. From her raised palm, a shield of ice blocked his flame, but could not consume it or quench it. Acting on instinct, she raised her free hand in further defense, but the sound of his voice stayed her.
"Wait. I have no wish to harm you." By tiny increments, he lowered his flame until it was doused. Once he did, he hoped she would dispense with her ice, but instead she continued to regard him with complete distrust. He approached her as deliberately, as calmly as he would have some wounded creature which might strike out at any moment. "It occurred to me, all things considered, we might help each other."
"Who are you?" she demanded. "Or should I say what are you?"
"My name is Finn Hale, King of Ravenstone. I am a fire lord. A misnomer if ever there was one, for I am not its master, but its servant. I cannot fully control it any more than you can control your ice, my queen."
"Whatever makes you say that?"
"'No man can touch me and live,'" he murmured. "Your words," he reminded her.
The deep warm timbre of his voice sent a shiver down her spine, which she steadfastly ignored. With another far less controlled gesture, she transformed the ice to harmless snow which fell at his feet then she turned away once more, consistently avoiding his gaze. "What is it you want?"
"To try," he said. "To experiment. I would someday like to touch and be touched without fear. I have to believe it is possible with you. I've tried everything else."
For the first time in years, in decades, heat rushed to her cheeks. "You can't mean you actually wish to bed me? Very few are bold enough even to think of it. I could kill you."
* * *
In a deliberate move, his gaze travelled down her body, taking in every detail. "With respect, I disagree on every count, majesty. First, if there is a man who can gaze upon you and not wonder what it would be like to have you, then I would like to meet such a unique individual. Second, I don't believe you can kill me. As I think I've amply demonstrated, I'm no ordinary man. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. We need to take this one step at a time."
As he closed the distance between them, he focused his entire being on her. Gods, but she was amazing, truly brave. How could any man resist her? He would attempt this much at least. Even if he died, it would be worth it. "Take my hand." He offered her his, palm up. "I long to draw you to me, I admit, but for now just a touch will suffice."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Crystal Flame"
Copyright © 2017 Shirley McCoy.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.