She shifted in the hay, feigning boredom but feigning it poorly. She was transfixed by his every movement, he could see that now.

“I do have one more trifle. Should my lady like to hear it?” his past self said.

Roland recalled the eager tilting of his past self’s chin and burned with shame. Now he remembered why she had taken so much convincing to agree to meet him in the barn.

All he did was assault her with bad poetry.

The boy on the stool did not wait—he clearly could not wait—for Rosaline’s ladylike groan. And when Roland launched into his gruesome verse, no one would ever have guessed that this failed sonneteer had once been the Angel of Music.

“Snowy peaks are sub-sublime,

Compared to dazzling Rosaline.

Soft-eyed kittens are unkind,

In the lap of Rosaline.

As a poem’s made of lines,

So am I of Rosaline.

They that toil to sheaf and bind,

Then to cart with Rosaline.

As the nut transcends the rind,

Such a nut is Rosaline.

He that mysteries would find,

First must eyeball Rosaline.”

At the end, Roland looked up to see Rosaline’s face pinched into a frown. He remembered it now, struggled to endure it a second time, and felt the same heaviness in his stomach, like an anvil falling off a cliff.

She said: “Why do you infect me with such clumsy verse?”

This time, in his memory, Roland heard it in her voice: Of course! She was teasing him.

He should have known it when she reached for his hand and drew him down onto the hay with her. His heart had been hammering too loudly for him to hear her implication, which now, clearly, was Shut up and kiss me.

And how he had kissed her!

That first time their lips connected, something ignited within Roland, as if his soul had been electrified. His body had gone rigid with the effort of trying not to mess a single thing up. His lips were welded to hers, but limply. His hands were two claws glued to her shoulders. Rosaline writhed against his grip, but for the life of him he could not move.

At last she let out a sweet giggle and snaked free from his arms. She leaned backward in the hay, her pink lips pursed and off-limits once again. She eyed him the way a child eyes an out-of-favor toy. “That lacked grace.”

Roland lurched forward on his knees, his hands planted in the rough hay. “Shall I try again? I am certain I can do better—”

“Well, I should hope so.” Her laugh was coy and elegant. She leaned away just long enough to tease him, then lay back in the hay and closed her eyes. “You may try again.”

Roland inhaled deeply, drinking in the sweetness of every part of her. But just as he was about to bestow another awkward kiss, Rosaline pressed a hand against his chest.

She must have felt his heart race, but she didn’t let on.

“This time,” she instructed, “not so stilted. More … fluidity. Think of the flow of a poem. Well, perhaps not your poems. Perhaps your favorite poem by another. Throw yourself into my kiss.”

“Like this?” Roland all but fell on top of her, rolling to the side and finding himself facefirst in the hay. He turned toward her, flushed.

Side by side they lay, facing one another. She took his hands. Their hips were touching through their clothes. The tips of their feet kissed without embarrassment. Her face was inches away from his.

“You missed my mouth.” Her lips parted in an alluring smile. “Roland, love means not being afraid to let yourself go, trusting that I will desire everything you have to offer. Do you understand?”

“Yes, yes, I understand!” Roland breathed, shimmying closer for his next attempt. His lips and his hands and his heart were nearly bursting with expectation. Tentatively, he reached for her—

“Roland?”

What is it now?

“Hold me tight, sir, you won’t break me.”

As he kissed her, it seemed to Roland that not even the call of Lucifer himself could have forced him to let that fair maiden go.

He would follow her advice a thousand times with other ladies in the future, and sometimes he would feel something, but never for long, and never, never like this.

THREE

COUNCIL WITH DARKNESS

Roland came awake feeling queasy and lost.

The sweet memory of loving Rosaline was slipping away. He touched his throbbing head and realized that he was lying on the ground.

Slowly, he rolled to his feet. He ached something ugly, but nothing that wouldn’t repair itself given time.

He glanced back up at the balcony. He’d never have fallen from it in the old days. Probably shouldn’t have worn full armor. He was getting rusty. How many times had he climbed this very wall in anticipation of meeting her? How many times had Rosaline’s long blond hair beckoned him like Rapunzel’s locks?

Usually, when Roland reached the balcony, she would be waiting, purely elated to see him. She would cry out his name in a hushed whisper, then bound into his arms. She would feel so light, so delicate against him, her skin scented with rose water from her bath, her body almost humming with the power of their secret love—

Roland shook his head. No, their courtship had not been all joy pure and bright. One dark memory tainted the rest.

It was the last memory he had of her.

It came in the third season of their secret courtship, as the world around them turned toward fall and the greens of summer burned away in a riot of flaming oranges and reds.

Together they planned to run away, to escape her father’s rule, as well as the prejudices of a society that wouldn’t allow a nobleman’s daughter to be married to a Moor. Roland had gone away from his love for one week, under the guise of making plans for their new life.

But it had been a lie. He’d gone to seek counsel on the real problems that lay before them:

Would she still love him if she knew?

And:

Could he keep his nature secret from her and still give her a happy life?

Really, there had only been one person to turn to.

He found Cam at the southern tip of the islands that would one day be called New Zealand. Back then, both islands were completely untouched by man. The Maori wouldn’t reach the land for another half a century, so Cam had the whole place to himself.

As Roland flew, the cliffs threatened, as sharp as daggers, unlike any he had seen before. The winds bore treacherously down on his wings, tossing him among the clouds. He was shivering and soaked by the time he reached the vast, pristine sound where Cam was hiding from the universe.

The water was a mirror for the mountains, which were green with beech woods. Dipping a wing tip in the water as he passed over its surface, Roland found it icy cold. He shivered and kept on.

At the far end of the sound, he landed on a slate-gray boulder that faced an unfathomably tall waterfall, whose heights were hidden in mists. At its base lay Roland’s fallen angel brother, letting his wings be pummeled by the falling water.

What was Cam doing? And how long had he been lying there, in this water-torture chamber of his own making?

“Cam!”

Roland shouted his name three times before he gave up and waded in to pull his brother out. Feeling someone else’s touch, Cam flailed and clung to the rocks where he’d lain. But then he recognized Roland and let himself be dragged out, suspicion sharp on his face.

Roland hauled them both onto a rocky ledge behind the falls. It was hard work, and it left him panting, soaking wet, and frozen to his core. The ledge was shallow, but there was enough room for both of them to stand on the damp stone. It was eerily quiet there just behind the roar of the water.

Exhausted, Roland staggered backward until his wings met rock, then slid down and sat.

“Go home, Roland.”

Cam’s green eyes looked dazed and disoriented as he propped himself up on one elbow. His naked body was one sickly purple bruise from the waterfall’s ceaseless beating. But worst of all, his wings—

They were shot through with new gold fibers. Roland couldn’t help admiring how brilliantly they shimmered under the moonlight.

“So it’s true.” Roland had heard the rumors that Cam had crossed over to Lucifer’s side.

Neither demon seemed capable of mustering the ritual reserved for greeting new members of the fold. They were meant to embrace, thread their wing tips together as an expression of each one’s acceptance of the other, the acknowledgment that they were safe and among friends.

Cam stood, walked over, and spat in Roland’s face. “You lack the strength to haul me back into service. Have Lucifer come here himself if he feels I’ve been neglectful.”

Roland wiped his face and pulled himself to his feet. He reached for Cam, but the demon flinched away.

“Cam, I didn’t come here to—”

“I came here to be alone.” Cam moved to a dim corner of the ledge, where Roland could now see a small pile of garments and bags—Cam’s few possessions. Roland thought he recognized the parchment scroll that could have been his marriage agreement, but Cam quickly flung a shaggy sheepskin cloak around his body and tucked the parchment into a deep pocket inside. “Oh, you’re still here?”

“I need advice, Cam.”

“On what? Living the good life?” Cam’s spark had come back, but it seemed garish in this pale, shadowy specter standing before Roland. “Start by finding yourself a deserted island. This one’s taken, but there must be more out there somewhere.” He flung his hand out at the world, at Roland.

“I love a mortal woman,” Roland said very slowly. “I want to shape my life around her.”

“You don’t have a life. You’re a fallen angel on the other side. You’re a demon.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Take it from me. Love is impossible. Get out and save yourself the heartache.”

In that moment, Roland realized he’d been foolish to go to Cam for advice. And yet he’d had to come. Cam’s love story hadn’t worked out—but he still understood what Roland was going through.

“Perhaps you could tell me what … not to do?”

“All right,” Cam said, taking a deep, shuddering breath. “Fine. Do not demean yourself by living a lie. Do not ask me if she will love you if she finds out what you are—even the most lovesick fool knows the answer to that. She will not. She cannot. Do not dream that you can keep such a secret from her, either. And above all, for Lucifer’s sake, do not forget that no temple on earth will have you should you choose to wed this poor creature.”

“I believe I can make this work, Cam.”

“You believe you and your love see eye to eye, then?”

“Yes. We are devoted to one another.”

“And what is her view on eternity?”

Roland paused.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know? Fine then, I’ll tell you. Here, Roland, is the unquestionable truth about our immortality: Mortals cannot fathom it. It frightens them. The knowledge will devour her—that she will grow old and die and you will remain the young and strapping devil that you are.”

“I could change for her—I could make myself grow old, appear to wrinkle and wither and—”

“Roland.” Cam’s face soured. “That isn’t your style. Whoever she is, it will be easier on her now, when she is no doubt young and shapely and can find another mate. Don’t waste her best years.”


Tags: Lauren Kate Fallen Fantasy
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