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Hearts & Wishes

By Shiloh Walker





Copyright

© 2008

Reissued 2019



This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

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Chapter One

She hadn’t ever had more than a kiss.

It was a sad, miserable fact and one that she had decided was going to have to change.

The daughter of the Claus was guarded more closely than the daughter of the President of the United States and Holly was tired of it. She was going to get away from the North Pole if it killed her.

At twenty-five, she had determined that it was time to break out of the silken prison her father had unknowingly placed her in. It had been done out of love and a need to protect her from anything ever hurting her but he had protected her and coddled her to the point that while no pain had ever touched her heart, neither had much of anything else.

Her half brother, Bryan, was being groomed as a possible successor to Nikolai, the man known to the world as Santa Claus and he’d made the yearly runs with their father from the time he was sixteen. Whether or not Bryan would decide to toss his hat in when the time came for their father to pass his title on was unknown. But Bryan actually got to go out into the world.

Holly never had.

She’d been born at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Day and it had been a hard delivery for her mother, Chelly. Chelly had nearly died. It was the only year since Nikolai had taken his position that he had passed the yearly run on to another. Rhys, Nik’s second-in-command, had made the journey out into the world and when he got back, there had been a new baby in the Northern Reach—the first child born to a titled Claus in more than eight hundred years.

Considering how close her mother had come to death and considering that no matter how hard they had tried, Holly’s parents hadn’t ever been able to have another child, part of her understood why they were so overprotective. But there was a part of her inside that was dying.

Dying of boredom.

Dying of loneliness.

Dying of nothingness.

That was her life. Nothing. Sad, simple fact. Her life stretched out before her in an endless number of years and thanks to her father being an elf, Holly’s life was going to probably be pretty damn long. Days of working the same old boring job. Nights spent either studying, riding her horse, or reading—most of the time alone.

She worked as a controller, the most monotonous job in the Reach, monitoring the children who were already under the watchful eye of the Claus. Once, she had tried to apply for a field position to locate the children in the world whom they were unaware of and her father had blocked it. It is too heartbreaking a job for you, darling. I will not see you unhappy.

Holly had wanted to go into the mortal world for college. It wasn’t unheard of. Many of the kin went out into the mortal world for a time. Some even made their lives there. But all she wanted was to escape the suffocating, watchful eye of the Claus, even if it was just for a while. With no luck. Both Mom and Da had refused and without their approval, she was out of luck.

They controlled the money. They controlled the environome. At the time, Holly hadn’t perfected the magics that would allow her to come and go at will so unless she could steal transportation, hoard enough money to survive in the mortal world and slip away unnoticed, she had been stuck.

Her magic had come to her slowly. She was only part kin and she didn’t know if that was the reason behind her late-blooming powers or if it was sheer bad luck. But finally, she had perfected them enough that she knew she could slip away. Even hide for a time. It wouldn’t last long, she knew. If she had been wise, she would have made her move in the midst of the frenzied Christmas season but Holly had known her parents had enough to deal with just getting ready for the yearly run and she hadn’t wanted to add to their stress.

But now, Christmas had come and gone. Although the coming Christmas was still more than eleven months away, the kin had already begun preparations. There was only a short period of time every year when the elves of the Northern Reach were not preparing in some way, shape or form for Christmas. That was in the weeks that followed December 25. From the December 26 to January 6, there was no work and all play for the kin. On the night of December 26, there was a ball for Holly’s birthday. Then there was the Winter Festival. For those who weren’t watched like a hawk, there was a great deal of fun to be had.

It wasn’t too far removed from the Mardi Gras festivals that Holly read about in her books and the documentaries she watched on TV. Incessant parties, lots of booze, fun for all.

Except her.

She had attempted to have a little bit of fun at the last Winter Festival, attending the parties with Daniel, one of the men in charge of the electronics division. He was handsome, had a wicked smile and his eyes made her burn inside. But when she had tried to share more than just a simple dance, he had pulled away, given her that bright, false smile and then he’d had the nerve to pat her on the head.

On the head!

Thinking back to that particular moment, she muttered, “What am I, a cocker spaniel?”

From her window, she could see the festivities. Even this far out from the town center, the streets were crowded. As one got closer to town, the worse those crowds would get, but none of the people seemed to care. The Festival would last another five days and it would be like this every single night.

Desperate to block out even the faintest sound, she turned on some music and blasted it. Itchy, edgy, restless, she turned away from the window and started to pace in circles around her room.

This year, she hadn’t even bothered going to the Festival. For the ball to celebrate her birthday, she had gone in long enough to keep her mother from coming after her—one solitary hour. She’d hated every moment and she’d slipped away as soon as possible. It hadn’t kept anybody else from having a good time and it had saved her the misery of standing on the sidelines and watching everybody else out there actually enjoy their lives.

Worse than sitting on the sidelines was when a few of her father’s men would ask her to dance—polite little dances where they kept a minimum of six inches between them and carried on empty, vacuous little conversations without hearing a damn word she said.

She hated those damn balls. But when she’d tried to convince her parents she didn’t want one, she’d been ignored. Typical.

Holly paced the wooden floors, uncaring of the soft, mellow gleam of the wood, uncaring of the sweet scents of orange, vanilla and spice and hardly even noticing the bluesy, sexy sounds that played on the high definition stereo that was built into the wall.

When it came to material goods, Holly wanted for nothing. Her parents doted on her and she was the proud owner of some equipment that wouldn’t be on the market in the mortal world for a good ten years at least. Then there were the priceless antiques— jewels from a Russian emperor, Ming vases, hand-carved pieces of furniture that had graced the halls of Buckingham Palace. She had jewelry that had belonged to Marie Antoinette. There was an entire bookshelf of priceless first editions—Shelley, Stoker, Keats. Her closet was nearly the size of her bedroom and there were one-of-a-kind designer pieces that her mother had bought in Milan, Paris, Tokyo and New York City. She had custom-fitted leather boots, more shoes than a shoe store and she had a horse that had been sired by a Kentucky Derby winner.

No. She wanted for nothing—at least, nothing material. She was honest enough to admit that she was very materialistic and she loved being able to see something and know that it could be hers.

Everything but freedom.

She would have traded nearly everything in her possession for freedom and she had begged her parents to give her even a bit of it, all to no avail. Four years ago, she’d tried to bribe her brother but he had told that she needed to talk to Da—talk to Da! As if that would work. Since then, she hadn’t asked Bryan again. But she’d tried to barter with the men and women who helped her father watch over her and nothing worked.

Over the past few years, all the jewelry, antiques and fine clothes had begun to lose their appeal. She had fallen into depression and her parents’ response had been to give her more. More to the point, they had been forced to expand her rooms at North Hall, the home of the Claus, because they were running out of places to put all the stuff they bought. Holly was well read, educated and she had received a degree in psychology through the elvish-run University here in the Reach.

But she needed none of that to know that she was depressed.

Depressed to the point that she rarely spoke with a soul. Depressed enough that she had turned in her notice on Christmas Eve. She’d been planning on doing it for the past six months and as her shift wound down, she’d gone to her supervisor and handed over the neatly typed resignation.

“You’re quitting?”

Holly had glanced at the letter and then back at Bouchard. “Yes.”

“How much notice do I have?”

She’d cocked a brow and said, “None. Everything is shut down for the next two weeks anyway and January is our slow time. You’ll have plenty of time to find a replacement.” Any idiot with half a brain could do the damn job anyway. That was what she’d wanted to say.

Instead, she had assured Bouchard that nobody in the department had done anything to upset her and then she’d cleaned out her desk and left. Holly refused to discuss her reasons with anybody. Not her father. Not her mother. Not her brother. Not even Rhys and there was little she didn’t tell Rhys.

Her father’s second was also her trainer. When her magics had finally started to come, he had been the one assigned to guide her and instruct her and that had been its own little hell. The man was a slave driver, a perfectionist and he was one of the few people in the Reach who wasn’t overly impressed with the fact that she was the Claus’ only daughter.

Two hours a day spent in his presence was enough to try the patience of a saint and Holly was far from sainthood. Of course, it wasn’t just how hard he pushed—that was actually something of a sweet release—but that somebody actually saw her as a person and not just as Nikolai’s daughter and that she was capable of working hard.

No, the biggest part of this little hell was Rhys himself. The man was fast becoming the center of her universe. She was obsessed with him and it was so hard not to let it show. Letting him know would be a recipe for humiliation and one sure way to end her lessons. He’d say something to her father and there was no way Da would let her work with a man if he knew that Holly actually saw the person as a man.

Holly wasn’t allowed to see anybody as a man. She was a sexless, emotionless, pretty, perfect doll—or at least that was how her father made her feel.

So she shoved her feelings for Rhys deep inside where nobody could see them. The only time she even let herself think about him was late at night when she had little control over it. Talk about hell—working day after day with a man she dreamed about, a man she fantasized about, a man she suspected she was in love with—and never showing him any sign of it. Knowing that there was no way he’d ever feel the same way about her.

She had persevered though and now she was damn glad she had.

Rhys had asked her if she wanted some time off for the Festival and she’d told him it was his choice. If he’d wanted the time off, she would have understood—and pouted. But he hadn’t chosen to cancel their classes and last night, while everybody else was out dancing, getting drunk, getting laid, or all of the above, Holly had been in the workroom with Rhys…and she’d teleported. Only for a few minutes—from the workroom in the basement of Headquarters to the Eiffel Tower—and all under Rhys’ watchful eye. The brief taste of freedom had been intense and far too short lived. She’d stood on one of the observation decks and breathed in the night air, stared down at the thousands and thousands of twinkling lights.

“Well done,” Rhys had said. Then he’d cupped a hand over her shoulder and said, “We cannot linger, though. Soon, the security personnel will notice that their monitors are not working and they will come investigate.”

Just a few more minutes, she’d wanted to ask. But she had kept her mouth shut. The plan to escape had been formulating for years, ever since Rhys had started working with her on the basics of teleportation. She didn’t want to give him even a moment’s doubt, even a second’s worry that he shouldn’t have trained her.

If he got suspicious and started watching her more closely—was that even possible? But if he did, she’d never be able to slip away unnoticed.

Teleporting was dangerous business. Without proper precautions, one could teleport themselves into a river, into a wall, or on top of a person. Using far-sight to assure a safe landing was essential but the use of far-sight itself required a control and precision that had escaped Holly for years. The past three years, she had worked toward that goal and hoped she had hidden her rampant desire to escape from her too-intuitive instructor.

It had been Rhys who had ratted her out when she had tried to escape at age twenty-one and she had no doubt that he would do it again if he knew what she planned. Perhaps she could have mastered the skills sooner if she hadn’t had to split her focus between hiding her innermost thoughts and learning from the grueling taskmaster.

“Don’t worry about that now. It’s over and done,” she muttered to herself. Walking to the ornate French doors, she opened them up and stared outside. The environance dome, or environome for short, was a manmade, transparent dome-shaped, climate-controlled barrier.

The environome provided protection against the brutal cold of the North Pole. Before they had perfected the technology for the dome, they had wasted precious magic to keep warm and had lived huddled together in cramped homes while they went about the task that had been set for them sixteen centuries past.

In addition to protection from the elements, the environome also protected them from the prying eyes of mortal man. No magic used there, although Holly imagined they could have used magic. It would be draining, though. No, the environome relied on good old-fashioned technology. Generations ahead of the mortals in terms of tech, the elves had designed a way to cloak their presence using highly advanced meta materials before mortals had even conceived of such a possibility.

Beyond the dome gleamed the harsh white of the frozen world. Outside the environome was the frozen, bleak, barren world of the Arctic. Though native tribes had inhabited the Arctic Circle for millennia, none had settled in this particular area. It was why it had been chosen so long ago—the remoteness, the extreme cold—it wasn’t exactly prime real estate.

With the frigid weather and lack of sunlight during the winter months, it wasn’t the easiest of lives. Elves were made of stern stuff but their way of life had gotten so much easier with the advances in science and technology.

The environome also maintained a more regular day cycle, casting off a soft golden glow during the day and darkening at night. This time of year, the sun never shone in the North Pole and the glow of the environome cast golden shadows onto the snowy world outside the protective barrier. Come night, she would be able to see the mysterious glow of the Northern Lights.

When she left, Holly knew she would miss seeing them.

But Holly wasn’t foolish enough to think that when she fled the Northern Reach, it would be for good. Her parents would find her and when they brought her back, she wouldn’t have another chance to escape. She wasn’t skilled enough magically to believe she could evade them—or more specifically, her father—forever. He would send out his best men and women and she would be found. Worse, when they brought her back, she feared they would find a way to either strip her powers away or bind them inside her to prevent her from ever escaping again.

To protect her.

She knew in her heart that was exactly how they would see it. Or at least how her father would see it. Sometimes, Holly suspected her mother knew how miserable Holly was but her mother never asked and Holly never mentioned it to her.

Lately, Holly spent less and less time with her family, even with her brother, though she adored Bryan with the same near-blind devotion of her childhood. Often, she caught him looking at her with something akin to sympathy but he never said anything and her own pride wouldn’t let her go wailing on his shoulder as she had when she was a child. She’d asked for his help once and he hadn’t understood. She wouldn’t do it again.

Besides, what could Bryan do? None would dare go against their father and for all Holly knew, everybody else would share Nik’s viewpoint. Holly was still far too young in the eyes of most and they treated her as little more than a child. As though they feared she might do something or say something that could cause grief to all of them.

It wasn’t safe in the mortal world for their kind anymore. She understood that and she’d never do anything that could threaten their lives here. However, Holly doubted most people realized she was capable of such logical, rational thought.

Many of her kind eschewed the mortal world. They wouldn’t understand her desire to join the mortal world. Not one bit. They would see it as the action of a reckless, wild youth. Yet Holly did have that fear inside her, a gnawing, nagging worry that she shouldn’t follow through on her plans. The mortal world was harsh, unforgiving. She could be making a mistake.

But was fear of discovery any worse than this slow, miserable death of depression? Depression might not cause a physical death on its own, but on an emotional level? She was dying inside. She’d slipped past boredom and loneliness into depression a long time ago and with each passing year, it got worse. Suffocating and fading away until it was a chore just to get out of bed in the morning.

She could have even dealt with all the stifling overprotectiveness, if she was treated as a normal woman by the rest of the Reach. Her father intimidated the hell out of most of the men. Holly’s natural reticence had most of the women convinced she was stuckup, which was so damn far from the truth, it was almost pathetic. She’d heard some of the women she worked with whispering once. She thinks she’s so damn special because of her father. Thinks that makes her better than anybody else.

No. She didn’t think that at all. It was her father who seemed to feel that way. Putting her up on some damn pedestal. And because of her reserved nature, because of the way her father scrutinized anybody and everybody who made an attempt to befriend her, Holly found herself isolated. More and more isolated with every passing year.

She’d tried standing up to him before over it. When she had put in for the job of field operative and he’d blocked it, Holly had stormed into his office at headquarters and demanded to know why. His patronizing response had only enraged her further and she’d demanded he stop treating her as if she were a child.

His response?

Then you must stop acting the child, Holly. An adult would understand that this is for the best.

Controlling my life? How can that be for the best?

She’d tried to make him see but he hadn’t. It was almost as if he couldn’t. Nearly an hour spent arguing with him, cajoling, even attempting to compromise and it had all been a waste of her breath. She would remain a controller and that was the end of it.

So sayeth the Claus, she thought mockingly as she remembered that day. For nearly a month after, she hadn’t spoken to her father and she’d given in only because her mother had intervened. She remembered that night with crystal clarity, because that was the night she’d seen her way out of this silken prison.

Her parents had arrived at her doorstep. Da had his normal brooding silence going on, though she could feel the intensity of his thoughts pounding at her. She’d felt his regret over the argument, his confusion over why she just didn’t understand and his dismay that she was still unhappy with him. She could have ignored all of that, though knowing he was unhappy did hurt.

Holly adored her father but he couldn’t keep smothering her like this. She’d been on the verge of saying that when her mom had spoken up. Rhys tells me that you’re mastering far-sight. I guess that means you’re about ready to start working on teleporting. Oh, you must be so excited.

Excited. That didn’t even cover it. Teleporting. At first, mastering the skills of far-sight had seemed as if it were just another exercise in control, though technically she understood that far-sight was the last step before attempting the magics needed to teleport.

Far-sight wasn’t unusual among the elves but most had a limited range. They could teleport only as far as their far-sight let them look ahead. Using it over great distances was a bit rarer. The strength to teleport over great distances even more rare.

Holly had learned that not all elves required far-sight to teleport but they needed some other focus to follow. Since they couldn’t “see” where they were going without far-sight, another focus, such as a person, was needed. Now that was one of the rarer gifts—teleporting successfully, going only by some uncertain focus. Holly knew of nobody who could do it.

As to teleporting, she hadn’t thought she’d be able to learn. Not all the elves could, though it wasn’t exactly rare. It was a little more unusual among elf-kin and for years Holly had figured she had gotten the short end of the stick yet again because most elves and elf-kin started showing the signs of the gift by age fifteen or so. By nineteen, she still hadn’t shown signs of any real magics and she had resigned herself to living out a long, non-magical existence.

Her twenty-first birthday had changed all of that. She’d come late to her powers but they were there, as real and as solid as any other elf’s. They’d come on her so strong, she’d required a private tutor to help her and they’d enlisted Rhys. Because naturally, only the Claus’ closest friend could be expected to treat Holly with the care and consideration she deserved. Holly couldn’t be trained at the University where other elves were trained. That just wasn’t fitting.

The Claus hadn’t been happy that Holly was learning that particular magic but for once, it was something he had next to no control over. Active magics had to be trained. There was no way around it.

Finally, God and fate had decided to cut Holly a break. The magic that her father hadn’t wanted her to learn was going to provide her with a way out. At least for a while.

“I’m going to live,” she whispered, her voice shaking with passion.

For once in her life, she was actually going to feel as if it were her life.





Chapter Two

“Good…good…”

Rhys circled Holly’s hovering body, watched as she maintained her body weight in midair as she started to slowly rotate. It seemed a pointless exercise to some, Rhys knew, but with magic, self-control was everything.

Holding one’s body weight in midair with the power of magic alone required a finely-honed skill. Doing that, then moving, required even more. When they had placed Holly under his care for her magic craft, he’d warned her parents that he wouldn’t coddle her simply because she was the daughter of the Claus.

Many of her teachers had done just that. Holly was bloody brilliant but even if she’d had a brain the size of a penguin’s, they still would have passed her on through school and praised her abilities. She would have none of that with Rhys. In truth, he’d wanted to bang his head against some hard, flat surface when he’d first been assigned to teach her.

She was a spoiled, pampered little princess.

Or so he’d thought.

Although she was the daughter of his closest friend, his job and his own life kept his contact with Holly at a minimum, a dinner on occasion at North Hall, or the infrequent times they’d bumped into each other in town. Hardly enough to actually get to know the quiet girl.

A rather flighty quiet girl, Rhys had assumed. When she was twenty, he’d caught her sneaking into the transport hub. Her plans had been written all over her guilty face and he’d had no qualms about physically dragging her out of there and turning her over to Nik and Chelly.

But he’d been wrong. Holly wasn’t flighty. She wasn’t spoiled or pampered. She wasn’t afraid of hard work. He’d learned that the very first night he’d worked with her. She often left the workroom soaked with sweat and shaking with exhaustion and she never complained. She rarely spoke and it had been that reserved nature that had fueled his belief that she was indeed spoiled and stuck-up.

A few more weeks had convinced him otherwise, though.

Holly might be a bit spoiled, but considering who her parents were, it was little surprise. One wouldn’t expect much else for the only daughter of Santa Claus. From her very first breath, the world had been hers for the taking. Holly had been the answer to their prayers and Rhys knew that Nik and Chelly adored their little golden-haired angel—knew they adored showering her with everything she could ever hope for. But Holly wasn’t afraid of working for what she wanted. She didn’t expect the magic to come easily and when the lessons got difficult, she simply dealt with it.

He couldn’t describe her as shy, because she had no problems speaking her mind, quite vocally, when needed. But she was very reserved. Very contained.

And lonely.

Over the past four years, Rhys had gotten a good idea of just how lonely she was. Five nights a week, she worked with him. Even now, while most elves were out there enjoying a little bit of downtime, Holly was inside the workroom, working with that patient, intense resolve.

Never once did she request a night off and never once did she arrive late. After the first six months of nonstop training, he’d told her that she should take a night off and go have fun with some friends. The Northern Reach was a self-contained little world, complete with shopping, schools, movie theaters, restaurants. No reason she couldn’t have a little bit of fun.

There had been disappointment in her eyes but she’d forced a smile. The next day when he asked if she’d enjoyed herself, she’d only shrugged. A little more prying revealed that she’d spent the night at home. Alone. Reading.

From then on, he’d spent a great deal of time watching her, probably too much. It wasn’t until later that Rhys realized he’d developed an obsession over Holly and it had nothing to do with the fact that she was his student, his friend’s daughter.

Rhys found himself thinking about her all too often, going out of his way to learn as much as he could about her, what she liked to eat, what she liked to read, what she had enjoyed about school, the movies she watched. Anything. Obsessed to the point that he was almost uncomfortable with it. Then that obsession had started to bleed over into his subconscious thoughts and he’d found himself dreaming about her. Thinking of her during the day, or on the weekend when he didn’t see her.

Laughable—having sweaty dreams over a twenty-five-year-old blonde with sad eyes. Rhys had walked the world for centuries and he’d wined and dined some of the world’s most renowned beauties. Yet it was a young woman, the daughter of his best friend, who kept him awake at night. But of late, it was worry as much as lust that kept him from sleeping.

It had been a gradual change but she was becoming more and more despondent. Six months ago, it had gotten worse. Time had started to crawl when she wasn’t with him and he’d found himself searching her out even when they had no lessons planned, dropping by North Hall just to see if she was well.

Then she had up and quit her job right after Christmas. Her parents had no clue why and Rhys had wasted a good hour trying to explain to Nik that Holly felt smothered.

He was a good man, Nikolai. One of the best people Rhys had ever known and he’d been on this earth long enough to have met many, many people. As befitting for the beloved Santa Claus, Nik was good with kids and he understood them. Contrary to human misconception, the Claus wasn’t a jolly round elf. Indeed, he wasn’t even just one man. Each Claus reigned for a period of three hundred years and Nik, the sixth Claus, wasn’t even halfway into the first century of his term.

This particular Claus was nearly six feet tall with a pair of blue eyes that had been inherited by his daughter, black hair, a wicked temper and a mean right hook. Nik was one of Rhys’ best friends and he was also a damn fool. An overprotective damn fool, at that.

Most of the elves Holly’s age were too intimidated by her father to even approach her. It had been like that much of her life, Rhys figured, each year passing with her growing more and more isolated. By the time she had reached full maturity—several years later than the typical full-blooded elf—most of the people her age had already made up their minds about her. Decided she was too uptight, too much a snob, too much trouble once they threw her father into the mix.

The older elves, who might not have been so impressed with Nikolai, expressed little interest in the quiet, sedate woman she appeared to be. She was a beautiful woman but it was a cool beauty and apparently none of them were pressed to see if there was heat lurking under the exterior.

Granted, her age was something of a concern.

By mortal standards, she was a woman grown. Even by elf standards, she was an adult. But a mere twenty-five years old, considering many of the people in the reach had seen centuries pass, was daunting.

“Upside down,” Rhys ordered. Slowly, the rotation stopped and Holly’s body inverted in the air until her head was pointed at the floor. Her hair fell, the ends brushing the floor. A muscle in his jaw jerked as her shirt fell away, revealing a toned belly. She had on a sport bra under the looser tank top and although Rhys couldn’t see much more than the restrained swell of her breasts, his mouth went dry.

Sweat glistened on her skin and Rhys had to take a moment and practice his own self-control. Otherwise, he might have gone to Holly, pulled her out of the air and started licking the sweat away. The image of him doing just that hit him with a force that was almost painful.

“Upright,” he said, his voice harsh.

She flinched, startled by his abrupt change of tone and only Rhys’ speed kept her from dropping down on the floor, headfirst.

His arms full of a hot, damp Holly, Rhys swore silently. Her back was pressed to his front, upside down, so that the back of her head was dangerously close to his aching dick and her sweetly rounded butt was pressed against his shoulders. Self-preservation had him dumping her body onto the couch and then he strode away, staring out the window.

“Your control is off today,” Rhys said, wincing as he heard how short and irritated his voice sounded. Yes, her control was off, but he hadn’t helped.

“Sorry, Rhys,” she said quietly.

Her soft little sigh drove a dagger into his belly. Guilt reared its ugly head and he looked back at her. He’d been the one to break her concentration. Her control was decent, considering she’d only spent four years working on it. Rhys had centuries of practice behind him. An angry voice wasn’t going to shake his control but it had been unexpected and unusual enough that he could understand why Holly had faltered.

But she didn’t place any blame on his shoulders. She just politely said, Sorry, Rhys. It made him feel even more of an ass.

Abruptly, he grabbed the bag that held her clothes. “Here. Go wash up. We’re calling it quits early.”

He tossed the bag to her and she caught it, held it in her arms. “Okay,” she murmured and he would have had to be blind not to see the sadness enter her eyes.

It was damn pitiful that the highlight of her day was coming to the workshop so he could push her until she dropped, Rhys thought, more than a little disgusted. He wasn’t an easy instructor and he knew his moods were often mercurial. Yet calling the class off an hour early made her shoulders slump and her mouth turn down in a pout that was most likely unconscious.

Rhys wanted to grab her, pull her against him and suck that full lower lip into his mouth. Bite her, just a little, gently, until he heard her gasp and then he’d push his tongue inside and see if she tasted as sweet as she smelled. Instead, he turned back to the window and stared outside.

But when he heard her emerge from the bathroom in less than twenty minutes, he turned around. The sight of her was like getting punched in the throat—breath-stealing. Her hair was still damp and she’d pulled it back from her face in a loose braid. Her workout clothes had been replaced by the jeans and sweater she’d arrived in and her face was still flushed.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Holly said quietly, slinging her bag over her shoulder. Her other hand was jammed deep into her pocket.

“We’re going to get something to eat,” Rhys said.

Holly lifted a brow. “Something to eat…right now.”

“You do eat, right?”

She gave him a dour look. “Sure, I eat. But it’s the middle of the Festival and I really don’t feel like fighting crowds.”

Crossing the polished wooden floor and taking the bag from her, he said, “So we’ll go someplace that won’t be as crowded.” Through the soft sweater she wore, he imagined he could feel the warmth of her skin as he slid the bag off her shoulder. “You deserve a night off from time to time, Holly and you should do more with it than go home and read.” He softened his words with a smile and murmured, “It’s hard to believe that there are any books left in the Reach that you haven’t read.”

“Oh, Da is always happy to get me books,” she said. There was a faint, bitter edge to her voice and he glanced at her, curious. But her face was smooth, her eyes politely blank. She gave him a smile that looked more forced than usual. “But you needn’t bother yourself, Rhys. You deserve a night off far more than I do. Go ahead and take it.”

“I am. With you.” Since she still didn’t seem in any hurry to move, he shifted her bag to his other hand and then cupped her elbow. As they neared the workroom door, there was a faint humming sound and then a blue light scanned each of them, reading DNA signatures. Security in the workrooms was tight, nearly as tight as it was in the shops. An outsider might look upon the Reach and not understand how closely the elves must guard their secrets. After all, mortals weren’t even aware of them.

But it wasn’t the mortals who were the concern.

The mortal world no longer saw magic, save for the children and a few precious others.

Nobody believed in the world of magic any longer and while that disbelief wasn’t deadly to them, mortal curiosity could be. But even mortal curiosity wasn’t the biggest threat to their way of life.

That threat came from within their own ranks. Not all the elves were happy with the lives that had been laid before them. Some felt as though it was time the elves reclaimed the world for their own and the first step in their plans was the eradication of Santa Claus and his yearly trek into the world.

They saw that as a child’s fairy tale, something too far beneath them.

There had been attempts to destroy their database, attempts to destroy the shops and, though few knew, there had even been attempts on Nik’s life.

Nik alone, not Chelly or their children. Elves were as capable of savagery as their mortal cousins but they were notoriously more efficient. Chelly’s death, the death of their children, would accomplish nothing, so nothing was done to the Claus’ family.

But the children and Chelly could become vulnerable. The past few years had seen an increase in violence, an increased desperation that concerned all of them. The North Council feared that if the renegade elves weren’t caught soon, they would grow frustrated. Frustrated people rarely thought well and they might set their sights on a different target—on Nik’s family.

Rhys knew, though Holly did not, that those threats were part of the reason Nik was so terrified of letting his daughter venture out into the mortal world.

Bryan, Chelly’s son through her first marriage, was luckier than Holly. An injury early in his life had landed him in the Reach, an injury that could have killed him, an injury that might have killed him if Nik hadn’t intervened and brought the boy to the Reach. That injury was healed through a blood bond with the elvish healer Ganessa, a bond known as elf-kin. It had saved Bryan’s life and changed it. Over the years, the bond had worked a strange magic that the elves didn’t completely understand, altering his DNA from that of a mortal. Scientifically speaking, Bryan was caught between elf and mortal, a completely human appearance but gifted with the long life, the enhanced speed and strength of the elves…and magic. Bryan was raised as all elvish children were, going into training for his magics when they began to appear just before puberty. By the time he was twenty, Bryan has shown a skill with magic that many natural-born elves couldn’t claim.

Although Nik loved his adopted son, Bryan, as though the boy were his own, he didn’t freeze with fear when he thought of somebody trying to harm Bryan. Sexist, Rhys supposed but most of the elves came from a time when women were valued, coddled and protected.

Much as Nik was doing with his daughter.

“You look awful serious. Is there something wrong? Have I…”

Rhys looked up to find Holly watching him with worried eyes. He realized that they were standing in front of the elevator and he had been brooding, off in his own little world. “No, precious. You’ve done nothing wrong. I was just thinking.”

“Some serious, heavy thinking,” she murmured as the elevator doors slid open. Once more, the security drones scanned the two of them and then the elevator made its rapid descent down to the main level. The Reach had grown a great deal over the past century. Once, it had been possible to get from one side of the Reach to the other in a matter of minutes but now, it was more like a booming, mortal city instead of the simple village it had been for so long.

More and more elves were traveling north to dwell within the Reach, safe from prying mortal eyes. It led to a need for more room, more houses, more jobs…and more to do. The elves of the Reach spent their days and nights working hard and when they had down time, they wanted to play hard.

Which is where the Axis came in. The Axis was in the center of town, an entertainment complex complete with easily a dozen restaurants, half a dozen bars and a twelve screen movie theater.

Normally one of the bars closest to the town’s center was where Rhys would have preferred to go. Even in the middle of the Festival, Rhys could find a table, no matter how crowded whatever bar or club he chose. Being the Claus’ second came with benefits but even before he’d taken this position, Rhys rarely had to wait in line, rarely had to wait for a table and rarely dined alone unless it was his personal choice.

Most nights, he would have chosen someplace where the music was loudest, the women dressed in sexy little bits of nothing and the crush of bodies kept talking to an absolute minimum. But Rhys didn’t want to go someplace so loud and chaotic, not with Holly.

So instead, he chose a place that had been styled after an Irish pub—lots of dark wood, lots of Irish whiskey and Guinness and music that played on quietly in the background instead of blasting through the night air. Taking a booth back in the corner, as far away from prying eyes and the front door as he could get, he waited until the dark-haired waitress had brought them their drinks before saying anything.

“You know your parents are worried about you,” he said softly. It wasn’t what he wanted to talk with her about—actually, Rhys didn’t want to talk with Holly at all. At least not right now. What he wanted to do was hold her. Kiss her. Then strip her naked and fuck her until she cried out his name, until her face was glowing and flushed and all the sadness left her pretty blue eyes.

Instead, he drank his Guinness and leaned back to study her face. She had ordered a half-pint of Harp and she stared into the pale liquid as though the answer to the universe lay just beyond the surface. “They don’t need to worry about me,” she said, glancing at him and then looking back at her drink.

Cocking a brow at her, Rhys said, “Shouldn’t they? You’ve quit your job—didn’t even give any notice.” He grinned faintly. “You know, Bouchard came to see me. He was terrified that somebody had done something to upset you. Terrified that he was going to get a visit from your father over it.”

Holly scowled. “I told him that wasn’t the case. Hell, everybody seems to think I’m going to go running to Da any time I get upset. What am I…seven years old?”

“I don’t think that,” Rhys said.

She shot him a sidelong look and then grinned faintly. “The way you push me, if anybody would have me running to Da in tears, it would be you.” Restless, she shifted on the long, thick cushion and said, “They don’t need to worry about me, Rhys.”

“Are you so certain? It’s more than just your job, precious. You look sadder and sadder every time I see you. You’ve lost weight. You hardly eat. You look like you haven’t slept well in weeks…or months.”

“I hardly ever sleep very well, Rhys. That’s nothing new. As to my job…” Her mouth twisted in a grimace. “It was boring me to tears.”

“Then find a new one.”

Now she snorted. Tucking a loose strand of hair behind one delicately pointed ear, she said, “Oh, if it were only that easy. Every time I’ve attempted to transfer to a new division, somebody runs and tells Da.” Then her eyes widened and she winced. “Forget I said that.”

“Why? You’re allowed to complain from time to time, Holly.”

Her shoulders lifted in a sigh, fell. Once more, she glanced at him. “Allowed, maybe. But it won’t change anything. Da wants me kept in headquarters where it’s nice and safe. I’m stuck there.”

“Not so stuck. You did quit.”

Finally, a faint smile appeared on her face, curving her pretty mouth upward. The sight hit Rhys like a fist, square in the solar plexus, and it took him a second to realize she’d said something else. “Yeah, I did.”

An awkward silence fell. Rhys wanted to touch her. She looked so sad, so alone. Slowly, he slid his hand along the surface of the table and caught one of hers. Holding it in his, he rubbed his thumb along the back of her hand. “He means well, Holly. He just loves you so much.”

But it wasn’t what Holly needed to hear, apparently. She jerked her hand back and slid out of the booth, grabbing her bag from under the table. “Yeah I know he loves me. But his love is killing me, Rhys.”

“Are we ready to order, then?” a cheery voice asked.

Holly glanced up as the waitress appeared. “Nothing for me, thanks.” Shaking her head, she looked at Rhys and said, “I’m sorry, Rhys. I’m afraid I’m not good company right now. I gotta go.”

Turning on her heel, she headed for the door, striding away on long, sexy legs. Rhys caught up with her a few doors down. Panic swelled inside him as he realized Holly was crying.

Crying. Huge, diamond bright tears shone in her soft blue eyes and then trickled down her porcelain cheeks. Swearing, he grabbed her elbow and led her into the alley just ahead, off the main road, down between two huge buildings currently in the middle of redecoration. Rhys, being the head of security in the Northern Reach, had master codes to get into every building and he punched the code into the first door he reached.

Tugging against his hold, Holly sniffled and tried to pull away. “Rhys…”

He shook his head. “Precious, do us both a favor and be quiet. You want to run back home, lock yourself in your rooms and cry. You’re in a bad place and I can’t blame you for a bit of self-pity. But you spend too much time alone. If you’ve a need to cry this time, you’ll damn well do it with me.”

She sniffed. Wiped away a tear. “I’m not crying.”

Taking her hand, he led her inside and shut the door behind them. The long hallway was still in the midst of being painted but off to the right was a huge room with lots of fat, comfy chairs, low couches and four different TVs. A big sign on the far wall advertised—Affordable Luxury. Reserve your space today at High Reach, the premier home for the modern elf. A few pamphlets and brochures were scattered throughout the room.

“Fine. You can not cry all you want, right here with me.” He led her to one of the low-slung couches and sat down, tugging on her wrist until she sank down beside him. Taking her bag, he tossed it onto the table nearest them and then he wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

To his surprise, she only resisted for a moment and then she cuddled into him. Cupping the back of her head, he murmured, “Go ahead and cry if you want to, precious. Being lonely hurts. The tears might help a little.”

The humiliation was now complete, Holly decided as she leaned against Rhys’ side and sniffed, trying to blink away the tears before any more fell. He was wrong. Crying didn’t help. All it did was give her a headache and make her feel like a weak, whiny moron. This, though—leaning against his long, hard body, breathing in the dark, seductive scent of his skin—helped.

The past four years, she’d been secretly drooling over Rhys.

Drooling and dreaming.

Maybe this is a dream, she thought as he slid his hand soothingly up and down her back. Made more sense than anything else. Especially when the strokes on her back started to drift—an occasional brush of his fingers across her nape, then down lower on her back, brushing the skin left bare between her sweater and her jeans.

It was…nice.

Very nice. It got even nicer when he started to fiddle with her hair, tugging out the band holding her braid, combing through the long locks in a lazy, almost absent manner. His voice, when he spoke, was rough and low.

“You’ve got such lovely hair, Holly.”

Blood rushed to her cheeks. Keeping her eyes fastened on his chest, she didn’t respond. Holly was almost afraid to speak. This was the most contact she’d had from anybody, well, other than her parents, in years—ever. She saw people touching all the time—casual touches, friendly touches, intimate ones like the way a man would stroke a hand down his woman’s back, a possessive, loving gesture, a quick kiss shared before they parted ways, or sometimes, something a little hotter, a little more intense.

Once, she’d gone to take her break a little early and had ended up walking in on a couple of coworkers. They’d pulled apart as though the Claus himself had interrupted them, moving with blurring speed to readjust clothing and then ducking out with muttered excuses.

It all filled her with a sense of jealousy and a sense of curiosity. She wanted to be touched like that. She wanted somebody to touch her, somebody who didn’t care about anything other than her—just her. Somebody who could make her forget about anything but the pleasure, everything but the need.

But she hadn’t gambled on it being possible. Rhys, once more, had proved her wrong. Under the slow, gentle movements of his hand, she forgot about everything but him. Everything but the way he smelled, the way he felt, the way it felt when he combed his fingers through her hair.

Rhys’ own hair was a dark gold, shot through with strands of deep brown, black and red. It was long, every bit as long as her own. More often than not, he kept it pulled back in a braided queue but today it hung free around his shoulders. Unable to stop, she reached out and slid her fingers through the silky, straight strands. Rhys didn’t move but something changed—she felt the tension in the air spike. Nervous, embarrassed, she tried to tug away but the arm around her shoulder tightened.

“Look at me, precious.”

She didn’t want to. But that low, compelling voice didn’t give her much of a choice. Swallowing, she eased back, looked up to meet Rhys’ eyes. They were a vivid, brilliant green rimmed by a band of gold. Usually those eyes were as unreadable as a closed book but today they all but glowed with some unnamed emotion. The green of his eyes darkened and his pupils expanded as he stared down at her. Without speaking, he straightened up on the couch and rearranged her body so that she was no longer sitting tucked against him, but on him. His gaze lowered, fastened on her mouth and abruptly Holly realized something.

Rhys was going to kiss her.

Rhys was going to kiss her. Her. Oh shit. Her heartbeat picked up, slamming away inside her chest as he slid his hands up over her arms, her shoulders, one sliding through her hair to curve around the base of her skull, the other stroking down until he could cup her hip.

This is a bad fucking idea, Rhys’ common sense shouted.

But Rhys rarely listened to anybody’s advice—including his own. Instead of letting her go, taking her home and leaving her be, he pulled her closer, staring into her eyes as he covered her mouth with his.

She was sweet. Sweet, hot…and untouched. He felt the hungry pleasure as it blasted through her body and he could sense the stunned, surprised reaction as she arched and squirmed against him, trying to get closer.

Innocence was something he had little use for. Innocence too often came with a cost he wasn’t willing to pay. And with Holly…there were would be an even bigger cost.

No woman had ever had a hold on his heart and he preferred it that way.

Nice, easy, casual—that was how Rhys liked it. But as Holly’s mouth moved against his, he knew that he was about to take a serious departure from his standard operating procedure. Because he wasn’t going to pull away. He wasn’t going to send her off to her lonely bed and retreat to his own where he’d have another night of hot, sweaty dreams about his best friend’s daughter.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true.

Fisting a hand in the tight, silky curls cascading down her back, he eased her away just a little.

There was one chance that he would let go of her. Just a slight one. If she showed some sign that she didn’t want this, he’d pull back. Walk away and find somebody else to take over her training because he wouldn’t be able to get near her after this, not for a good long while.

Already his cock ached with an intensity that nearly had him doubled over. Already his hands itched to strip her naked and explore the soft, sweet body currently pressed against him. But Rhys hadn’t ever taken what wasn’t freely and knowingly given. He wouldn’t start now.

He held her gaze with his as he reached for the buttons that held her sweater closed, undoing them slowly, one at a time, when all he wanted to do was tear every shred of clothing from her body.

“Should I let you go?” he asked quietly as he released the last button.

“Go?” she repeated, her voice confused.

He trailed one finger down her torso, stroked it along the lace that edged her black bra. “Yes. Go. You can stand up now and walk away from this.”

Her teeth, small and white, caught her lower lip. Rhys had to resist leaning in and catching that soft, plump lip with his own teeth. Instead of doing that, instead of pushing her sweater off her shoulders and down her arms, he curved a hand over the back of her neck. “Do you want me to stop?”

Thick, golden-tipped lashes drooped low over her eyes, shielding her gaze from his.

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

A shy, nervous smile curved her lips upward. But instead of saying anything, she reached up and tugged at the open edges of her sweater, rolling her shoulders so that the soft chenille slid down her arms. Then she reached for the clasp between her breasts, releasing the bra. Her breasts swung free as she tugged the bra off and tossed it onto the couch beside them.


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