Once Upon a Kiss
Love, passion, and desire. It all begins with a kiss...
A World Apart
#1 New York Times bestselling author Nora Roberts
A ravishing medieval Demon Slayer arrives in 20th century New York to brave a strange new world—and a man who will be her destiny.
The battle between two warring families becomes a battle of the sexes when a bewitching beauty finds herself kidnapped by her sworn enemy.
Sealed With a Kiss
Ruth Ryan Langan
Her father may have given her hand in marriage to a fearsome warlord, but it’s his trusted warrior who captures her heart...
Kiss Me, Kate
A lovely American inherits an English manor and her dreams of romance come true when she meets an enchanted prince. But is he her one true love?
In the sweltering jungle, under the blood-red sun, Kadra hunted. Her steps were silent, her eyes--green as the trio of stones that encrusted the hilt of her sword--were alert, watchful, merciless.
For four days and four nights she had tracked her prey, over the Stone Mountains, beyond the Singing River, and into the verdant heat of the Land of Tulle.
What she stalked rarely ventured to these borders, and she herself had never traveled so far in the south of A'Dair.
There were villages here, small enclaves of lesser hunters, settlements of farmers and weavers with their young and their animals. The young were as much food to what she hunted as the cattle and mounts were.
She trod on the mad red flowers that were strewn on the path, ignored the sly silver slide of a snake down the trunk of a tree. She saw, sensed, scented both, but they were of no interest to her.
The Bok demons were her only interest now, and destroying them her only goal.
It was what she had been born for.
Other scents came to her--the beasts, large and small, that inhabited the jungle, and the thick, wet fragrance of vine and blossom. The blood--no longer fresh--of one that had been caught and consumed by what she hunted.
She passed a great fall of water that raged over the cliffs to pound its drumbeat into the river below. Though she had never walked upon this ground, this she knew by its light and music as a sacred place. One that no demon could enter. So she stopped to drink of its purifying waters, to fill her water bag for the journey yet to come.
And poured drops from her hand to the ground in thanks to the powers of life.
Beyond the falls, the busier scents of people--sweat, flesh, cooking, springwater from a village well--reached her keen senses.
It was her duty to protect them, and her fate that none among them could ever be her companion, her friend, her lifemate. These were truths she had never questioned.
At last she caught the overripe stench that was Bok.
The sword streaked out of its sheath, a bright battle sound as she pivoted on the heels of her soft leather boots. The dagger, its point a diamond in the sun, flipped from its wrist mount to her hand.
The dark blue claws of the Bok that had leaped from a branch overhead whizzed past her face, missing their mark. She set into a fighting stance and waited for his next charge.
It looked oddly normal. Other than those lethal retractable claws, the scent, the needle-sharp fangs that snapped out when the lips were peeled back for battle, the Bok looked no different from the people they devoured at every opportunity.
This one was small for his species, no more than six feet, which put him on a level with her. He was naked but for the thin skin of his traveling armor. Except for claws and teeth, he was unarmed. The vicious gouges across his chest and arms were stained from his pale green blood. And told her he had run afoul of his companions and had been forced out of the pack.
A distraction for her, she imagined, and didn't intend to spend much time dispatching him.
``They sacrificed you,'' she said as she circled. ``What was your crime?''
He only hissed, flicking his long tongue through those sharp teeth. She taunted him with a happy grin, muscles ready. Above all else, she lived for combat.
When he leaped, she spun her sword up, down, and severed his head with one smooth stroke. Though the ease of the job was a bit of a disappointment, she grunted in satisfaction as the green blood sizzled and smoked. And the body of the Bok melted away to nothing but an ugly smear on the ground.
``Not much of a challenge,'' she muttered and sheathed her sword. ``Still, the day is young, so there is hope for better.''
Her hand was still on the hilt when she heard the scream.
She ran, her dark hair flying behind her, the band of her rank that encircled her head glinting like vengeance. When she burst into the small clearing with its tidy line of huts, she saw that the single Bok had been but a brief distraction, delaying her just long enough.
Bodies of animals and a few men who had tried to defend their homes lay torn and bleeding on the ground. Others were running in panic, some holding their young clutched to them as they scattered. And she knew they would be hunted down and rent to pieces if a single demon escaped her duty.
Sorrow for the dead and the thrill of upcoming battle warred inside her.
Three of the Bok were crouched in the dirt, still feeding. Their eyes glowed red, their vicious teeth snapped as she charged. They sprang, mad enough with blood to choose fight over flight.
She cleaved the arm from one, leaped into a flying kick to knock another out of her way as she plunged her ready dagger into the heart of the third.
``I am Kadra,'' she shouted, ``Slayer of Demons. Guardian of the red sun.''
``You are too late,'' the remaining Bok hissed at her. ``You are outnumbered. Our king will tear out your heart, and we will share in the feast.''
``Today you go hungry.''
He was faster than the others, and fueled by his grisly meal. This, she knew, would be an opponent more worthy of her skill.
He chose not his claws but the long hooked blade he drew from the sheath at his side.
Steel rang to steel as the screams and the stench rose around her. She knew there were at least three others and she knew now that the demon king, the one called Sorak, was among them.
His death was her life's work.
The Bok fought well with his sickle sword, and swiped out with those blue claws. She felt the pain, an absent annoyance, as they dug furrows over her bare shoulder. Instead of retreating, she pushed into the attack, into the flashing blue and silver to run him through with a fierce thrust.
``I am Kadra,'' she murmured as the Bok smoked to the ground. ``I am your death.''
She wheeled to aim her weapon and her gaze on the demon king and the three warriors that flanked him outside the open doorway of a hut.
At last, she thought. Praise the powers of life, at last.
``I am your death, Sorak,'' she said. ``As I was death for Clud, your father. On this day, in this hour, I will rid my world of you.''
``Keep your world.'' The king of demons, regal in his red tunic and bands of gold, lifted a small, clear globe. ``I go to another. There I will conquer and feed. There I will rule.''
His handsome face was sheened with sweat and blood. His dark hair coiled, sleek and twisted, like snakes over his elegant shoulders. Then he bared his teeth, and the illusion of rough beauty vanished into horror.
``Where I go, the food is plentiful. There, I will be a god. Keep your world, Kadra, Demon Slayer. Or come with me.'' He beckoned with a voice seductive as a caress. ``I will give you the Demon Kiss. I will make you my queen and plant my young inside you. We will rule this new world together.''
``You want to kiss me? To join with me?''
``You have shed the blood of my sire. I have drunk the blood of a slayer. We are well matched. Together we will have power beyond all imagining.''
His three warriors were armed. And a demon king's strength knew no equal among his kind. Four against one, Kadra thought with a leap of her heart. It would be her greatest battle.
``Come, then.'' She all but purred it. ``Come embrace me.''
She pursed her own lips, then charged.
To her shock, the demon swirled his cloak, and with his warriors, vanished in a sudden flash of light.
``Wherehow?'' She spun in a circle, sword raised, dagger ready, and her blood still singing a war song. She could smell them, a lingering stench. It was all that was left of them.
Women were weeping. Children wailing. And she had failed. Three Bok, and their hellborn king, had escaped her. Their eyes had met, and yet Sorak had defeated her without landing a blow.
``You have not lost them yet.''
Kadra looked toward the hut where a woman stood in the doorway. She was pale and beautiful, her hair a midnight rain, her face like something carved from delicate glass. But her eyes, green as Kadra's own, were ancient, and in them it seemed worlds could live.
In them, Kadra saw pain.
``Lady,'' she said respectfully as she stepped toward her. ``You are injured.''
``I will heal. I know my fate, and it is not time for me to pass.''
``Call the healer,'' Kadra told her. ``I must hunt.''
``Yes, you must hunt. Come inside, I will show you how.''
Now Kadra's eyebrows raised. The woman was beautiful, true, and there was an air of magic about her. But she was still only a female.
``I'm a demon slayer. Hunting is what I know.''
``In this world,'' the woman agreed. ``But not in the one where you must go. The demon king has stolen one of the keys. But there are others.''
She swayed, and Kadra leaped forward, cursing, to catch her. Frail bones, she thought. Such delicate bones would shatter easily.
``Why did they let you live?'' Kadra demanded as she helped the woman inside.
``It is not in their power to destroy me. To harm, but not to vanquish. I did not know they were coming.'' She shook her head as she lowered herself into a chair by a hearth left cold in the heat of day. ``My own complacency blinded me to them. But not to you.'' She smiled then, and those eyes were brilliant. ``Not to you, Kadra, Slayer of Demons. I've waited for you.''
``You call me lady, and once I was. Once I was a young girl of rank who took a brave warrior into her heart, and gave him her body in love. He was killed in the Battle of the Singing River.
``It was a great battle against the Bok and the demon tribes who joined them.'' Impressed, Kadra tilted her head. She had been weaned on battle stories, and this was the greatest of all. ``Many were destroyed on all sides. Many brave warriors perished, as did three slayers. The numbers of Bok were halved, but still Clud escaped and since increased those numbers again to plague our world.
``I watched the battle in my fire, and in the moment my love was struck down, in that moment of grief, I bore a girl child. She who was born to take up a sword as her father had done. She who would be more than those who made her. You are she. You are my blood and flesh and bone. I am she who bore you. I am your mother.''
Kadra retreated one step. Where there had been pity was now anger. ``I have no mother.''
``You know I speak true. You have vision enough to see.''
She felt the truth like a burn in the heart, but wanted only to deny it. ``Humans who are not slayers keep their young. They tend and guard and protect them even at the risk of death.''
``So it should be.'' The woman's voice thickened with regret. ``I could not keep you with me. My duty was here, holding the keys, and yours was your training. I could not give you a mother's comfort, a mother's care, or a father's pride. Parting with you was another death for me.''
``I need no mother,'' Kadra said flatly. ``Nor father. I am a slayer.''
``Yes. This is your fate, and even I could not turn your life's wheel away from it. As I cannot turn it now from where you must go, from what you must do.''
``I must hunt.''
``And you will. Our world and another are at stake. I could not keep you then,'' she stated. ``I cannot keep you now. Though I have never let you go.''
Kadra shook her head. She was accustomed to physical pain, but not to this hurt inside the heart. ``The one who bore me was a warrior, as I am. She died at demon claws when I was but a child.''
``Your foster mother. A good and brave warrior. At her side you learned what you needed to learn. When she was taken from you, you learned more. Now, you will learn the rest. I am Rhee.''
``Rhee.'' Kadra, fearless in battle, went pale. ``Rhee is a legend, a sorceress of unspeakable power. She is closed in a crystal mountain, of her own making, and will free herself when the world has need.''
``Stories and tales, with only some truths.'' For the first time, Rhee's lips curved in a smile lovely in humor. ``The green of Tulle is my home. No mountain of glass. You have my magic in you, and it is you who must free herself. There is great need. In this world, and the other.''
``What other?'' Kadra snapped. ``This is the world. The only world.''
``There are more, countless others. The world from which the demons sprang. Worlds of fire, worlds of ice. And a world not so different from this--yet so different. Sorak has gone to this world, through the portal opened by the glass key. He has gone to plunder and kill, to gather power until he is immortal. He wants your blood, wants your death to avenge his father. More, even more, he wants the power he believes he will gain by making you his mate.''
``He will not have me, in this world or any. He would have slain his own father in time if I had not destroyed Clud before him.''
``You see the truth. This is vision.''
``This is sense.''
``Whatever you choose to name it,'' Rhee said with a wave of her hand. ``But a king cannot rule without vanquishing his most feared foe. Or changing her. He will not rest until you are destroyed by death or by his kiss. He goes through the portal to begin his own hunt. With every death from demon hands in that place, another here will die. This is the balance. This is the price.''
``You speak in riddles. I will fetch the healer before I hunt.''
``If you turn away,'' Rhee said as Kadra got to her feet, ``if you choose the wrong path, all is lost. The world you know, the one you need to know. There is more than one key.'' Rhee breathed raggedly as her pain grew, took another clear globe from the folds of her skirt. ``And more than one mirror.''
She waved a hand toward the empty hearth. Fire, bright as gold, leaped into the cold shadow.
In it, Kadra saw another jungle. One of silver and black. MountainsNo, structures of great height--surely they could not be huts--rivers of black and white that had no current. Over them great armies of people marched. Over them battalions of animals on four round legs raced.
``What is this place?''
``A great village. They call it a city. A place where people live and work, where they eat and sleep. Where they live and die. This is called New York, and it is there you'll find them. The demons you must stop, and the man who will help you.''
Though fascinated, and just a bit frightened of the images in the flames, Kadra smirked. ``I need no man in battle.''
``So you have been taught,'' Rhee said with a smile. ``Perhaps you needed to believe you needed no one, no man, to become what you have become. Now you will become more. To do so, you will need this man. He is called Doyle, Harper Doyle.''
``What good is a harper to a warrior?'' Kadra demanded. ``A fine warrior he'll make with his song and story as sword and shield.''
``He is what you need. You will fail without him. Even with him there is great risk.''
``Why should I believe any of this? Any witch might conjure pictures in a fire. Any woman might spin a tale as easily as thread.''
``The stone in your crown of rank, those in your sword, I gave to you. For strength, for clear vision, for valor, and last, for love. They were my tears when I gave you to your fate. In my eyes you see your own. In your heart, you see the truth. Now we must prepare.''
Kadra set her hand on the hilt of her sword. ``I am prepared.''
With a heavy sigh, Rhee got to her feet. She walked to a wooden cupboard, took out a metal box. ``Take this.'' She offered a bag of stones. ``Where you go,'' she explained, ``they have great value.''
Kadra looked into the bag of shining stones. ``Then where I go is a very foolish place.''
``In some ways. In others, fantastic.'' Rhee's expression was soft. ``You have much to see. I will give you what knowledge I can, but there are limits. Even for me.'' She held out her hands, gripped Kadra's before Kadra could draw back.
``The rest,'' she said, and glinting tears scored down her cheeks, ``is up to you, and the man called Doyle.''
A great roar, like rushing water over cliffs, filled Kadra's head. In it were words, a hundred thousand words, spoken in countless tongues. A pressure, as a boulder laid on her heart, filled her chest.
The light was blinding.
``Valor and strength you have, my child. Use them on this journey wild. But open yourself to vision, to love, before it's too late. Gather them close and face your fate. Would I could keep you safe with me,'' she murmured, and her lips brushed a kiss over Kadra's. ``But once again I set you free.''
The world whirled and spun. The air sucked her in, tumbled her, then spat her rudely out.
--“A World Apart” by Nora Roberts, reprinted from Once Upon a Kiss by Nora Roberts, Jill Gregory, Ruth Ryan Langan, and Marianne Willman by permission of Jove Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Collection copyright © 2002, Penguin Putnam Inc. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
“Four of america’s most beloved romance authors.”—Publishers Weekly
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