·SERIES: The Afótama Legacy Book 1
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Contessa Dahl has spent most of her life in a haze. A rudderless orphan, most decisions involved her fists and feet: should she fight or should she run? At twenty-eight, she’s ready to clean up her act, but Tess might be a bit premature because she’s destined to be a special kind of leader.
Born into a group of desert-dwelling telepathic descendants of Vikings, Tess was meant to become a link for them all—their queen and conduit. Her kidnapping and the subsequent death of her parents meant her people, the Afótama, have had a hole in their web for too long. Now that she’s back at home, it’s Tess’s job to mend it. But, she can’t do it alone.
She needs a perfect mate to fill in her psychic gaps, and two men claim to be fated for the job. Harvey Lang, her childhood champion, and the group outsider Oliver Gilisson would fight to the death to win her. However, to gain full control of her considerable power, she must find a way to keep them both.
Contessa Spry bent to fix the fishnet stockings that had begun sagging at her ankles after six hours of wear. She didn’t know why she bothered with the things at all, really. They didn’t prevent her feet from blistering in her borrowed stilettos, nor did they provide any protection for her legs from the unseasonably cold breeze off the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe it was that they provided the illusion of coverage. Men were much more likely to keep their hands off her ass when she wore them, though she still got groped far more often than she liked. She hated being touched.
A vehicle to her left honked, and she rolled her eyes. A bad habit, for sure, but she had worse ones. She hadn’t been brought up to have manners. She’d grown up fighting for security and a sliver of personal space. There’d always been someone in her face. If not her social workers, her foster “parents.” Also, cops, court-appointed lawyers, and judges.
Whatever. None of them got it. She was just another hardheaded bitch with no respect for her elders. Not that they’d ever shown her any respect. She’d never asked to be coddled or spoiled. She’d just wanted enough trust to be left alone when she needed it, because her mind was such a tangled place. She was smart, she’d swear on a stack of Bibles that she was, but no one believed her when tests said it wasn’t ADHD or dyslexia. But she knew better. She thought of too much at once and couldn’t organize it all when people were breathing down her neck. She needed space and quiet to decompress and process it all, but she was never given it, so she ran. A lot. She didn’t even have a hometown because she ran so much.
“Not that kind of girl, buddy,” she mumbled toward the vehicle following her. She gave up on fixing the fishnets and straightened up to tighten the belt on her trench coat.
The car honked again, and she started a brisk pace. Maybe they wouldn’t follow.
“For fuck’s sake, get lost.”
All she wanted after a long night on her feet serving drinks to men who should have been taking their money home to their wives was to soak in her tiny tub and maybe finally get that pile of laundry off her bed. It’d been out of control ever since she’d picked up the second job, and she’d had to pick up the second job because she’d gotten so far behind on her bills after coming off probation.
She felt like she’d been paying off the bail bondsman forever, but really, it’d only been a year. The entire legal system was a ridiculous racket. She’d only been in jail for a couple of days on that bullshit charge, but still, she had to pay, and pay, and pay some more. There were the fees to her probation officer every two weeks. Rent. The monthly payment for the few pieces of furniture she leased. Oh, and somehow, she had to feed herself. A girl couldn’t live on bar pretzels and wasabi peas.
She rounded the corner of Bourbon Street in the opposite direction of her apartment and quickened her pace. Stealing a glance behind her, she saw the large, dark SUV creeping slowly toward her.
The only people she knew that drove like that were undercover cops, gangsters, and child abductors. At least it couldn’t be the last thing because, while she may have looked really fucking great for twenty-eight, her hips and sway should have made her adult status very clear to anyone with functioning eyeballs.
Could have been a cop, though, trying to get her to solicit him so she’d get locked up yet again for some minor crime she hadn’t actually intended on following through on.
“Nope. Nopity-nope,” she sang to herself, and turned right again. If they wanted to follow her in circles until she could sneak away—so be it. She had all night, and the only things holding her back would be her barking dogs. She’d abandon the shoes if she had to, though her coworker undoubtedly wanted them back.
The SUV honked yet again, and she shook her head. “Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want,” she shouted without turning.
“Tess, please stop.”
She knew it…or had known it once.
She turned, because it couldn’t be him. After the way they’d parted company the last time, she didn’t think she’d ever see or hear from him again.
And she would have deserved it.
Sure enough, Harvey Smith leaned out of the back right window, and grinned at her in that knowing way he always did. Of course he would. He knew way too much about her, or had up until a couple of years ago. She hadn’t changed any of her old tricks since then, though. Maybe she never would.
“Aren’t you going to say hi?” He gestured for her to approach him, but Tess couldn’t move. She was frozen in place in her painful shoes and ill-fitting fishnets.
He couldn’t have possibly changed that much between twenty-eight and thirty, so maybe she’d had her head too far up her ass to notice. They’d known each other for too long and had come up through the Texas foster care system together. She’d known him as a scrawny little boy, and later knew him as a tall, capable adult, and all the stages in between. But, she’d never really paid any attention to the fact that he’d become a man.
And holy fuck, he was a man, and of the rare please bend me over and fuck me without saying hello sort. There was something about that captivating green gaze that took her breath away and scrambled her already scattered thoughts. His dark blond hair was pulled back into a low ponytail, and he wore a dress shirt that was unbuttoned at the collar. That was all she could see, but if she had to guess, she’d say he was wearing immaculately pressed pants and shoes that weren’t scuffed.
Unlike Tess, he’d always had ambitions beyond juvenile hustles and short-term gigs. He’d even gone and gotten himself a damned good education. Brown University. He’d claimed he only picked it because it was by the sea, but Tess knew better. She knew what kind of school it was, even if she didn’t let on that she did.
She couldn’t get jealous about such a thing, and knew she wouldn’t thrive there even if she could get in. She’d never been cut out for structure. Or maybe structure wasn’t cut out for her.
“Doll, come here.” He waved her over, and her cheeks burned at hearing that old nickname reprised.
He’d always called her “doll” when they were kids because he’d always thought she’d look like a china doll with her pale skin and huge halo of curly hair. She figured one day she’d cut it, but it had become a bit of a security blanket during her adult years. It was familiar and predictable and probably the healthiest relationship she’d ever have.
She approached the curb, eying the big beast of a vehicle warily. The dark tinted windows gave her pause, but perhaps it was a hired car. Or maybe Harvey was doing far better for himself than she’d initially thought.
He opened the door. “Don’t be shy. You look like you could use a lift, so get in. I was just headed to the airport. Come on and chat with me. Let’s catch up.”
“Airport? Leaving already?” She climbed up into the vehicle and brushed past Harvey’s long legs.
He closed the door, and as she sat, the fine hairs on the back of her neck stood on end and prickled.
She turned and sighted the redheaded woman sitting at attention in one of the third row bucket seats. She wore her hair shaved up on one side, and a colorful, intricate tattoo licked up her neck from her exposed collarbones. Her tank top’s collar dipped low enough that Tess could see a boat’s square sail jutting up from a mast drawn between her breasts. The tat must have been massive if there was a ship to go along with that striped sail. It probably wrapped around her torso, and the work must have hurt like a bitch.
Tess must have been staring too long at the woman’s chest, because she cleared her throat. Tess looked up to see the woman raise her chin in what seemed to be a begrudging acknowledgement.
The redhead fixed her gaze pointedly on the window to her left.
“All right, then.”
Harvey draped his arm over her shoulders as she turned to face forward. Had anyone else touched her, she might have shrunk away. Anxiety would have had her clinging to the door handle, but Harvey had always been like a buoy for her. Not only that, but her buffer from the world.
She took his free hand and squeezed it. “Who are your friends?” she whispered, eying the men in the front seats. Like the woman, the driver had a shock of bright red hair. He wore mirrored Aviator glasses and an open smile. He caught her stare in the rearview mirror and waved. “I’m Joe.”
She let go of Harvey’s hand and gave Joe a small wave in return. “I’m Tess.”
He nodded. “I know.”
Tess looked to Harvey for an answer, but his expression gave nothing away. His fingers danced along her left cheek as he twined them in her loose hair.
Closing her eyes, she leaned into his caress and accepted his tacit offer of comfort. It had always been that way between them. It’d start with twirling of her hair or a massage of her palm. He always knew exactly what she needed based on her response, whether her need be a chaste night spent inside his arms, or just holding hands for a few minutes.
But now his touch was different. Although it still conveyed a promise of comfort, it also stirred up an unfamiliar longing. Her breath left her body in a long exhalation as he skimmed down her neck and fingered the collar of her coat. His fingers seemed to ask, “What’s in here?” and she had one mind to show him.
Her nipples jutted painfully against her bra’s lace, and a heavy warmth spread down her core and settled in low. She shifted uncomfortably, silently cursing her fishnets’ torturous chafing of her engorged clit. She’d picked a hell of a day to not wear panties.
“You all right?” his quiet voice should have conveyed concern, but the press of his right hand on her thigh suggested he knew what was wrong with Tess and that he liked being the cause of it.
She dragged her tongue across dry lips and swallowed. “Feeling a bit…claustrophobic.” She looked toward the front seat again, and this time caught the man riding shotgun looking back. One of his dark eyebrows inched up to the bottom of his knit skullcap, and his full lips pulled up ever so slightly at the corners. Whether he was suppressing a smile or a grimace, she couldn’t tell. There was no privacy barrier, no wall between them. He could see where Harvey’s hands were and guess from her surely red cheeks how she felt about them.
Given how she was dressed, they probably thought she was a prostitute.
“God.” She squirmed away from Harvey’s touch and moved as close to her door as she could.
The man raised his sunglasses onto the top of his head and studied her without a greeting.
And, as awkward as his unceasing assessment was, she couldn’t bring herself to look away. He was familiar, somehow. He stuck out in her brain. His face was like a sticky note she’d put on her calendar to remind her to do some important thing, but she couldn’t remember what the thing was or why it was important because her note had been too vague. Those silver-blue eyes had seen her before, though she couldn’t speculate on when and where. She’d gotten around a lot since aging out of foster care.
“Nan was right. She’s totally offline,” the man said. He turned around in his seat and pulled the seatbelt across his body.
“Once it gets out that she’s back, all sorts of characters are going to crawl out of the woodwork trying to edge in,” Joe said. He moved the SUV into traffic.
Tess wrapped her fingers around the door handle and gave it a pull before realizing the lock was engaged. She reached for the lock, but Harvey wrapped his hand around her wrist and pulled her back to him. “Everything’s all right.”
“I’m not taking your word for it.” She reached for the lock with her other hand, and Harvey grabbed that one, too.
“Have I ever hurt you?” He held her wrists together in front of her belly in one sure hand. “Eyes up here, Tess.”
She let her gaze track slowly from his large hand, to the powerful thighs his trim slacks hinted at, up his flat belly, past his loosened necktie, beyond the succulent lips pressed into a tight line, to his pale, narrowed eyes.
“You like making me wait, don’t you?” he asked.
Somehow, she didn’t think the question had to do with her circuitous route to eye contact, so she shook her head.
“Have I ever let you get hurt?” Gone was the familiar, teasing tone she’d known from childhood. In its place was a quiet confidence. No, dominance. He expected capitulation, and he earned it time and time again. He didn’t make demands before he’d proven he was worthy of trust. He ran his business that way and was a rich man because of his vision. It made sense he’d be the same way in his personal life. But, why hadn’t she seen that before?
Maybe she hadn’t been looking…or maybe, just maybe, he’d been hiding it.
“Answer me,” he said. Her gaze fell to his lips, and he gently nudged her chin up to put her stare back where it should be.
She swallowed again, her will weakening every second she had to stare into those hypnotizing eyes. “No, you’ve never let me get hurt.” Simple truth. He’d always stuck his neck out for her, even when she didn’t deserve it.
“That’s right. I need you to remember that, okay? And I need you to stay in this truck and come with us.”
“It’s just a ride to the airport.”
He gave his head a slow shake.
Joe had picked up enough speed that even if she could get the door open, the chances of her rolling safely to the ground were nil. There was also the minor issue of getting run over by the vehicles behind them. She’d end up in the hospital with no insurance. She didn’t need more bills.
“If not the airport, then where?” she asked.
“We’re going to the airport. I haven’t lied to you.”
She flexed her bound wrists, clenched her hands into fists, and meditated on the sharp feel of her nails against her palms. That helped her concentrate and break things down into sensible nuggets. She’d never been the kind of girl who was good at jumping to conclusions. Her brain was bogged down by too much murk for her ideas to get off the ground, but one took flight.
“You’re flying me somewhere?” She whipped her head toward the men in the front seat. “Are they bail bondsmen or Marshalls or something?” She yanked her wrists, but Harvey wouldn’t let go. Oh, God. She may have had some outstanding charges in other states she didn’t know about. Hell, the probability was actually pretty good. She’d always done what she could to get by, and worried about the legalities later.
“Tess, look at me,” Harvey said.
She didn’t take the bait this time. She couldn’t get her hands free, but she still had her feet. She leaned back as far as she could and lifted her right foot, planning to smash his shin, but the sharp prick at the left side of her neck made her stop. A burn seared her muscles, then spread up her neck and down her chest.
Her lips went numb, tongue heavy.
She turned her head in time to see the woman behind her draw back an empty syringe.
“What the fuck did you just do?”
The redhead capped the needle and dropped the spent syringe into a plastic bag without answering. She looked out the window once more.
Eyelids drooping and muddled mind fogging even more, Tess turned back to Harvey. “You said you wouldn’t let anything happen to me. You said…”
He caught her as the earth beneath her opened up and swirled, and held her head on his lap. He smoothed her hair back from her cheek and stroked her jaw. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I was outvoted. I said we should go slowly, but they didn’t think you’d agree to come.”
“Who didn’t? What’s happening?” She tried to lift her head so she could nuzzle her cheek against his hand, but gave up when the oddness of the action struck her. She shouldn’t be cuddling with someone who’d just facilitated her abduction.
“You’re finally going home, Tess.”
“I don’t have a home.” She could hardly keep her eyes open.
He chuckled. “I always thought you were the queen of every-damn-thing, but now I know for certain that it’s true.”
“What the blazing hell are you talking about?”
He stroked her face some more, softly and lovingly, and she practically purred under his touch.
So very odd.
“You’re descended from royalty, Tess. Chieftains and queens. You’ve got the most revered of the Norsemen in your blood.”
“I don’t know about revered,” Joe said. “That may be too kind a word given the circumstances.”
There must have been some good shit in that syringe, because she was having a hard time comprehending simple English.
“Norse-who?” she muttered.
“Vikings, Tess. The real deal. We’ve been here longer than anyone else can prove. We’d like to keep it that way, because there’s a reason our ancestors left Denmark and then Iceland. We’re not like normal people.”
One of the men up front chuckled at that, and her head had gone so echoey she couldn’t even tell from which side. Probably Joe, though. Not that stoic motherfucker in the beanie hat. Who the fuck wore beanies in September?
“Wha…” Her tongue was so sluggish and numb that she could hardly push back spit to swallow. “Whas tha mean?”
“You’ll learn soon enough, doll. Trust me. I won’t let anything bad happen to you. Never again.”
“You keep saying that,” she said. Vaguely, she registered that she should try a bit harder to get away.
But she couldn’t. She couldn’t do anything, except black out.