The babe was three days old and had yet to cry her first tear. Her clear violet eyes peered out from under dark eyelashes, piercing her mother's heart with a wisdom that was far too ancient to reside in the body of such a small child. When her mother's fat tear plopped on the baby's forehead, she wrinkled her nose in displeasure, but did not whimper.
"She knows it is useless to cry," Aine said. "You should know this, too, Roane. Tears will get you nowhere."
Roane cuddled the baby closer to her heart and moved nearer to the fire. The old seer was right, of course. Roane had cried an ocean of tears since the death of her husband, and none of them had brought him back, or saved her infant from danger. But still, she could not stop the tears.
"Roane has suffered greatly these last months." Mara, Roane’s best friend, dropped to the stone bench beside Roane and pulled her dark head down to her shoulder. "She has lost her mate before her child was even born. The skies are darkening over Culatheed, Aine. We all feel it. Someone as sensitive as Roane, someone who has suffered so great a loss, should be permitted the luxury of tears."
The old sorceress shrugged. "Weakness will only cause her more grief. We have all suffered, and will suffer more." She picked up her staff and tapped it three times on the ground. "Bring the babe to me. It is time for the naming."
"How can we have a naming ceremony without her father?" Roane's last word became a sob. "Aeryn is gone, and my child will have no name."
"I will stand in Aeryn's stead." Mara's husband stood tall, overshadowing the tiny Aine. He held his own son easily in his hands. "I will be her guardian if you would permit me the honor, Roane."
Roane was silent for a moment before nodding sadly. "Thank you, Daoine." Daoine gave her an encouraging smile and handed his own son, Arkan, to Mara. Roane placed the girl-child in Daoine's hands and took her place on the right side of Daoine, facing Aine.
Aine's face settled into harsh lines as she placed her gnarled hands on the infant's head. Her eyes rolled back up in her skull and her body trembled violently. A blue-green glow flared from around her small frame. "This child will be the Fae Regent on the twenty-first anniversary of her birth." Daoine nodded with a smile while Roane gasped. "She will rule Culatheed, with her mate, Arkan, at her side." A small flicker of hope flared inside Roane. Her daughter would be joined to the son of her oldest and dearest friend. Even without her father, the babe would have a full family with Roane, Daoine, Mara and her mate, Arkan, to show her great love.
Roane's hope was short lived. The oracle's voice deepened and went gravel-harsh. "Donella will be her name, and she will be in grave danger. As long as the regent Gwyllion rules Culatheed, Donella will never be safe. Her blood will be on the hands of the Gwylla race." With the final pronouncement, Aine released her hold on Donella and fell like a stone to the floor.
Roane looked at Daoine, still holding her precious daughter. His entire focus was on the babe, his forehead wrinkled in concentration. The entire future of Culatheed rested with Donella. "The babe must be hidden. It is not safe for her to roam Culatheed," Daoine said. Roane fell to her knees, sobbing harder than ever. "There is a place in the grove where we can take her." Daoine's voice rose over the sound of Roane's cries. Mara was trying to comfort her, but it was no use. "My mother lives there still, away from all of Culatheed. She will raise Donella until she is of age. We cannot allow Gwyllion to find her. It would be the death of all the Fae."
Had there ever been a Fae suffer more, Roane thought. Stripped of her husband, now a killing curse was on her daughter. Suddenly, she had a flash of insight as bright as that from any sorcerer. She would not live to see Donella reach womanhood. The revelation was not painful. She would be with Aeryn soon, and her daughter would be well taken care of. The only regret is that Donella would never remember her mother. "You're right," she said. "But give her to me. I would hold her one last time."
Daoine placed Donella in Roane's thin arms and helped her to her feet. "Come quickly. We must hurry. Gwyllion undoubtedly knows that the Fae Regent has been named. As long as we remain here, the babe is not safe."
The three adults made their way down Aine's mountain under cover of night, hoping to make it to safety before morning. Roane's tears had ceased. Her silence and the hollowness of her eyes scared Daoine more than all of her crying. Her feet shuffled down the side of the mountain. The effort to pick up her legs to take proper steps was too much for her. She stumbled once, but Daoine caught Roane by the arm and pulled her upright. "Are you well, Roane?"
Roane moaned and shook her head. "So tired," she gasped. She went down on her knees and swayed as her eyes rolled back. Her arms went slack and Donella fell from her hands. Daoine dove and caught the infant before she hit the ground, but he was not fast enough to save Roane. She tumbled down the side of the mountain, her body twisting and cracking as it hit the jagged rocks. She landed against the trunk of a tree with a sickening crunch. Donella stirred in Daoine's arms and her anguished cry floated on the wind.
Mara crawled down the side of the mountain, desperate to reach her friend's body. Just as she reached her hands out to Roane, a Gwylla dove at the body from behind the tree. He picked up Roane's body, threw it over his shoulder and jumped away from Mara. "The babe is next," he sneered before bolting down the side of the mountain with Roane.
Daoine looked at the precious bundle in his arms and knew that she would never be safe in their world. She would have to be hidden, secreted away where Gwyllion and her minions couldn't touch her. The future of Culatheed and the Fae rested on the shoulders of the tiny babe.
Donna Kidwell gently fingered the thick yellowed parchment and tried to make sense of the words:
My dear Mr. and Mrs. Kidwell, I have watched you for many months and know of your longing for a child. You are good people and I know Donella will be safe with you. Please care for her and love her as if she were your own, for she is a true Queen and all of my hope lies with her. I hope to return for her soon.—Daoine
Donna sat cross-legged on the rich brown leather sofa that had belonged to her mother and re-read the adoption papers. Robert Burgess, her parents' lawyer and longtime friend, sat across from her in the chair that would always be her father’s, worry creasing his forehead. Goosebumps pimpled her flesh in spite of the flames roaring in the fireplace.
“Now you know,” Burgess said, his voice as mournful as his old gray eyes. “Now you know why Jeanne never wanted you to see the papers.”
Donna's adoption was never a secret. Even if her mother and father never told her, Donna would have figured it out. While both of her parents were tall and robust with strong features and open, good-natured faces, Donna had always been small for her age, with thin limbs, thick black hair and upturned violet eyes. As much as she loved her parents, she knew from a young age that she didn't belong. When she started searching for her birth mother at fourteen, Jeanne was hysterical.
“Why?” she cried out. “Haven't we been good parents? Why can't we be enough?” But Donna could never explain how lonely and out of place she felt when she looked in the mirror. Finally, when Donna reached her eighteenth birthday she walked into Robert Burgess' office and begged him for her adoption papers. He refused and immediately called her mother. After hours of pleading and crying, Jeanne had finally agreed that Donna could see the file, but not until after Jeanne's death. So Donna sat clutching a tissue, surrounded by memories of the only parents she ever knew. Her eyes were red-rimmed and raw, torn between grief and disbelief.
Donna gasped and bit back the sobs that threatened to break through. “No, I had a right to know. I had a right to see this.” It would have been easier to take if Jeanne was sitting next to her, supporting her, drying her tears. But even as she pictured the scene, Donna knew that she would have been comforting Jeanne, not the other way around. Jeanne was always hysterical at any mention of Donna's adoption, and now Donna knew why.
The legal papers spelled it all out, and Donna finally understood why her mother was so insistent that they remain secret. There were news clippings detailing the foundling left on the doorstep of one of Abbottsville's most prominent families. That explained why Steve had left a profitable family business behind and moved his wife and new daughter to southern Louisiana. They were running from Daoine, running from the woman who was so desperate that she left Donna in a basket just days after her birth. Jeanne, who had been so desperate for a child, would never give up her daughter.
Legal papers made up the majority of the file. The state tried to claim Donna, but the Kidwell's went to court to fight for custody of the child left in their care. A tear snaked its way down Donna's paper-white face and plopped on the note, smearing her name. “Donella,” she whispered. Her name had been Donella. The odd name reverberated inside her. It felt right and familiar.
She shuffled through the rest of the papers, cataloging the Kidwell's many, many attempts to find her birth mother, but none of them had turned up the slightest trace of Daoine.
Her parents were dead and the mysterious woman who gave birth to her was long gone.
Except for her fiancé, Ethan, Donna was alone.
She closed the file and bit her lip. It was all in the past. All Donna had now was her future with Ethan. She knew the hole in her heart would never close, but she couldn't dwell on the mother who thought so little of her that she would leave her to strangers. “It doesn't matter now.” Donna's voice was barely above a whisper. “It's over.”
Burgess leaned over and patted her knee. “That's my girl.” He gave her a small smile. “Jeanne would be so proud. She only wanted to spare you the pain and hurt. But you've handled this beautifully.”
Donna wiped her tears away and gave him a weak smile. “Well, obviously I'm a survivor. Besides, Jeanne and Steve Kidwell were my parents. This woman, this Daoine, means nothing.” But even as she said it, she felt the grief for the woman she never knew squeeze her chest until she found it difficult to draw a full breath.
Donna walked the older man to the door and accepted his departing hug gratefully. “If there is anything you need, anything at all, don't hesitate to ask.” Donna nodded, but didn't trust her voice enough to speak.
She closed the door after the lawyer left and willed herself not to cry. Crying won't do you any good. And she was tired of crying. She had cried since her parents' accident, cried through the funeral, cried over her adoption papers. All the tears in the world can't change what is, she thought. With a sigh, she pushed her body away from the door and stumbled into the living room, still expecting to see her father sitting in his easy chair. Instead, all that waited for her was the file Burgess left. On impulse, she scooped up the papers, walked to the fireplace and threw them into the flames. She would honor Jeanne's wishes and forget about her past
Donna watched in satisfaction as the fire consumed the papers, but the note from Daoine did not burn. On impulse, she reached in and snatched the letter from the flames. It was hot to the touch, but was not blackened from the heat. She folded the note and pressed it to her lips as fresh tears stung her eyes. She felt like she was betraying Jeanne to keep the note, but it was all Donna had of the woman who had given her up. A new chapter in her life was starting, one where she could build her own family with Ethan, but she had to hold onto who she was, even if she didn't quite know how.
* * * *
Arkan stood in the corner of Donella's bedroom, just far enough to keep him from reaching out and touching her cheek as she slept. He had waited long for this day, the day when his bride celebrated the 21st anniversary of her birth, the day he could finally claim what had been promised to him, but he had not envisioned the fiery crash that claimed the life of Jeanne and Steven Kidwell.
Donella tossed in her sleep and Arkan saw that she still clutched the letter his father left when he brought the future Regent to the Kidwells. Tears continued to stream down her pale cheeks, even in sleep. In his mind's eye, he wiped them from her face and watched as she stirred. He pulled back, knowing that even though he had not physically touched her, she could sense his presence. His fingertips tingled as though he had laid them against her soft skin. It was the first time he felt her flesh, had touched even briefly the woman who was bound to him from the moment of her birth.
Arkan knew it was reckless, but that one magical touch ignited a fire inside his heart that would consume him if he ignored it. He stepped back further into the shadows and strengthened the cloaking glamour around him so that even if Donella were to awaken, she would see nothing but the shadows cast by the moonlight. He separated his soul from his body and sent his spirit to her.
Arkan lowered himself to her bed and lowered his mouth to Donella. She opened her lips as he felt his soul kiss her gently. He dipped his tongue into her warm mouth, eager for just a small taste of her. His cock hardened when Donella opened her mouth wider, inviting him deeper. He ached to walk across the room and cover her with his body, but he contented himself with loving her with nothing more than his will. Carefully, he pushed up the thin t-shirt that she wore to bed. Her breasts were small and round, lovely to see. Her pink nipple was sweet on his tongue and he sighed with the pleasure of it. “Oh, Donella,” he whispered. “I've dreamed of this for so long.”
Donella arched her back as Arkan softly swirled his tongue over her nipple. Her eyelids fluttered, but she did not wake. He watched her face for any sign of awareness, but she was lost in a world of dreams, maybe dreaming of the three days she spent in Culatheed before being ripped from her home and left to live among the humans. His thumbs caught the edge of her panties and pulled them just far enough for his hand fit between her thighs. She was beautiful, his Donella, every bit the princess. Even her pussy was beautiful. His mouth watered at the thought of tasting her, but it was too risky. Yet he couldn't come so far without taking something of Donella with him.
Arkan bit his lip to stifle his own moan when a gasp escaped Donella's lips as he eased his finger inside her pussy. Even asleep, she was wet and ready for him. It would be wonderful to sink his cock deep inside her, to feel her hips buck against him as he fucked her. All in good time. He would content himself with feeling her clit beneath his fingers. He rubbed the hard nub lightly, enraptured as her face turned red and her breathing grew shallow. He gently worked two fingers inside her and continued working her clit with his thumb. His own excitement built as her legs began to tremble. A small cry shattered the silence as the shock of orgasm raced through her. Arkan slumped against the wall, his own breath coming in deep gulps.
Donella's eyes sprang open. She looked down and saw her shirt pushed up and her panties pushed down. She pulled her shirt down to cover herself and sat up quickly, her eyes scanning the room for intruders. Arkan knew that she could not see him, but he felt a twinge of panic when her eyes lingered on the corner where he sat. He sighed with relief when she slowly lowered her head back to the pillow and closed her eyes. He was reckless and had almost ruined it all. He would have to approach her soon. The circumstances were less than ideal. Her whole world had been shattered when the humans who raised her died, but Arkan could not allow her time to heal. Tears of grief and sympathy welled in Arkan's eyes. He knew what it was to lose a loved one. Donella wasn't the only orphan, but she would be the one to bring peace to Culatheed. But first would come vengeance, and it would come on the morrow, when Donella learned her true destiny.
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