Chapter One: The official and final rewrite before publication.
Amy removed her protective mask and breathed cautiously in the clean forest air. It was a risk for anyone suffering allergies as extreme as her own, but her grandmother's organic farm was far enough away from any large cities that she could not sense any pollution. The thinly settled borders of Cottage Grove held few dangers for her lungs compared to the center of the town, so she decided to take a chance.
She felt normal for a few minutes, free from the hated device that marked her as strange. The filter set her apart from healthy people, earned her suspicious looks from store security, and hid her facial expressions behind a veil of mystery.
The mask's gray cotton shell formed a perfect shield between her and the world when medicine just didn't work anymore. It kept her alive by hiding her beauty. She hooked the mask on her belt and approached the bright meadow at the end of the trail, alert for any plants that might trigger a deadly asthma attack.
"Generations of Sessions have found healing in that meadow," her grandmother said. "It is a magic place, where wishes come true. Some say there is a spirit in the meadow that blesses our family."
Amy simply nodded and sighed, her hope so torn and mangled by any number of doctors and spiritual vortexes, organic pills, and Chinese healers, that it was a fragile thing. She wanted to stride confidently forward into the light, breathing deeply and free, and roll around in the grass and flowers in a rebirth of health. She wanted a miracle, some magic to keep as her own forever. Amy timidly crept closer to the meadow.
One year had passed since she moved into her grandmother's house in order to get away from the city. For health reasons, the doctor insisted. Her parents missed her terribly, but they visited often from Portland. Now that she had graduated high school, the visits slowed down, but she looked forward to her mother's weekly email. Amy suffered from chemical sensitivity syndrome, an easy way to say that while she couldn't breathe around modern pollutants of any kind, nobody knew why. If having a chronic illness wasn't bad enough, the filter ensured that everyone she met knew she was sick.
Her first mask, something a surgeon might wear, actually frightened people. They backed away, certain that she carried a contagious disease, eyes fixed on the white cotton. The painter mask was uncomfortably hot and impossible to wear for any length of time, so she upgraded. Her stylish black neoprene mask had a more interesting design with plastic one-way valves and a small fastener. It was wearable, long lasting, caught in her hair at the back of her neck, and made security guards think she was going to rob the place or start a massacre. She learned how to speak emotions through her eyes, since smiling didn't help, and tried to act normally toward people. Some of the things that helped surprised her. Tight jeans and knit shirts, for example, allowed people to read her body language more easily. If she wore lighter colors like pastels and creams, people talked to her more than if she wore darker colors. Mask or not, no mass murderer ever born wore skinny gray jeans and a tight pink sweater to the mall. She always held her breath, lowered the filter, and looked pointedly into the security camera before entering a store.
The mask Amy wore today, designed by a woman who also suffers from chemical sensitivities, was the best one yet. The soft green lace wasn't hot like the black mask and didn't scare people. The over ear loops fit the filter tightly to her face without pulling her hair. The pretty design hid the exhale valves behind the lace so they were less intimidating. In fact, this mask attracted a different kind of attention from people who wanted one of their own. There were far more people who should wear a mask than actually did, and many of them didn't know it was an option.
Her nostrils flared while her unusually keen senses gathered information about the meadow. The family curse, she called it. Just one more thing to make her different, the nose of a greyhound and the lungs of a small parrot. The few times she'd had a boyfriend, they were almost as strange as she was. It was difficult for her to be interested in a boy while holding her breath and just unfair that most attractive males felt the need to fumigate themselves with all sorts of toxic body sprays and colognes.
The moment was too precious to waste in regret. Far from pollution, hairspray, perfume, and a thousand unnatural things that triggered Amy's chemical sensitivities, she enjoyed the meadow's beauty. Dozens of flowers bobbed in the light breeze. "Grandmother was right," she whispered. "Magic has a place here." Amy wondered why she had not found this meadow by herself while wandering the property. She could not remember even seeing this path before Grandma told her about it; as though the meadow was a hidden and secret place she saved for the right moment.
Blossoms mingled with the green smell of moss, the brown musk of damp earth after a rain, and the rich taste of bark aging on pine trees. She savored them like a moment of triumph, pure pleasure unwinding the stress from the bottom of her feet to the top of her head. An electric sensation bubbled inside her, crawling along the inside of her belly and the outside of her legs, making all the hairs on her body stand on end.
Amy set up her large camera on a tripod and began framing shots for her next gallery exhibit. She had no hopes of ever working a regular job when she broke out in a red rash if her coworkers used fabric softener or if someone used scented hand lotion before walking by her desk. Her limited employment options included freelance artistic photographer and apprentice professional cheese taster at the local dairy, where management forbade perfume of any kind.
Even though this hike was mostly for pleasure, she never passed up a chance for good camera work. It could mean a missed opportunity for the perfect photograph, the difference between the cover of fiction literature's Fairy Magazine or buried in the center of travel and tourism's Oregon Byways. Amy felt giddy with energy igniting her imagination, seeing brownies in the ferns and sprites in the dust motes. She often added costumed models to the landscape after taking photos in the field, but this meadow inspired her. The lighting and flowers set the perfect mood for a fantasy photo shoot filled with deep green shadows and dappled sunspots. She looked around once more, assured that her grandmother had no visitors, and smoothly changed her clothes.
Luc felt the touch of magic coming closer to his prison. One hundred years ago, when he still had hope that some friend might have pity on him and come to free him from the foul circle of toadstools, or even fifty years ago when his magic was still strong, not just barely keeping him alive, he would have snapped his head around to determine the source of the energy. His eyes wandered over the pile of stones nearby that once was a cottage. The thatched roof caved in a while ago and the whole structure sagged a little more every year.
A cloud of yellow butterflies landed on the flowering vines that covered his head. It had been so long since Luc had last bothered to move that the vines wound around the fine strands of his glass pale hair. Chains of purple flowers and dark green leaves hung down his back and shaded the features of his face, tempting the insects with sweet nectar. The yellow wings slowly opened and closed as the butterflies feasted, blocking and revealing his view of the meadow beyond with a dozen blinking shapes.
He felt happiness in the other fae's aura because energy bubbled into the air around it. The soft cloud of magic that approached from behind dewed upon his skin, where he swiftly absorbed each intoxicating drop. If the stranger became very happy, there was a chance he might gather enough magic to survive the rest of his sentence in comfort rather than suffering. Luc quirked the ghost of a smile as he began running plans through his head.
Luc had many years to think about his crime and the resulting punishment. Three hundred years in a magic circle, with over half the time remaining; it was a lenient sentence for his hideous error, the murder of a younger fairy in the heat of the moment, and he served it willingly.
The other half of his punishment was completely unreasonable. Even if this visitor took pity on him enough to break the circle, he would still need to replace the noble he had killed before all his magic would be restored to him. Creating a new light fae was not easy, but he had options.
He could swear fealty to King Moreau, making himself the replacement, and binding himself to unpleasant conditions like rules and subservient behavior. He could choose a mate and sire a child, if he absorbed a great deal more magic. Fae females were not attracted to powerless convicts as a rule. He would be extremely lucky if one of his former companions bothered looking at him, much less agreed to create a child together.
The lazy wings stretched over his eyes for a long moment, then folded up to reveal the intruder in his own personal misery. He watched her graceful steps as she floated from one patch of flowers to the next, posing and setting off flashes of light as if she were deliberately teasing him. She must be very young, barely a hundred years, the way her magic swirled so freely around her. Too young to be above on her own. She flirted with the plants, curled playfully around rocks and tree trunks, and peeked through the long grass of the meadow. Her power crawled on every inch of his skin and dissolved like sugar on his tongue, lifting his spirits as surely as her provocative posing among the flowers was lifting something more physical.
She possessed hair as brown as pine bark with red highlights, skin as smooth and pale as dogwood blossoms, and lips as pink as a rose. The wood sprite leaned against a tree, pressing her sheer yellow dress into the bark, and smiled dreamily. After a moment, she frowned, and then moved forward to pick up a small box he had not noticed before. A lesser man might have fainted from the desire and longing that rushed through him. Fifteen decades of waiting, only to end up faced by the luscious, heart-shaped behind of this temptress. Her short costume revealed shapely legs, wrapped in thin striped socks. The mint green and white contrast reminded him of candy, something he hadn't tasted in a lifetime. His mouth watered. She had yet to step one dainty toe into the circle of mushrooms that trapped him, but once she did, he vowed to make the vixen pay in full for her teasing.
Amy frowned again at the camera's battery meter and realized it was completely empty. She couldn't even check the pictures for closed eyes and bad cross light until she got them home to her computer. She glanced back at the amazingly perfect fairy ring and realized she had not taken a single picture there. She couldn't pass up this moment to come again another day. The light might not be perfect, or a herd of deer might run through and scatter the mushrooms destroying the look of the circle.
It was simply too good to last, too beautifully magical, with a pile of purple blossoms and golden butterflies basking in the sunbeams. She bent over to search for more batteries in the satchel, and then heard a sharp intake of air behind her.
Amy whirled, afraid she was no longer alone in the meadow, but saw nothing but bees and nodding seed heads swaying blissfully in the light. Wind caressed the clearing like a giant hand making waves on a lake, making the trees whisper secrets to each other where branch and leaf met, and chilled her skin into goose bumps. She shivered once, then positioned her camera precisely, determined to get a few more pictures. If they turned out as good as she hoped a shot of this ring without her in it could make the cover of National Geographic. A shot with her in it could be the feature photo of the year in Fairy Magazine. This meadow could make her budding career a success. She captured a few stills before setting the timer and stepping over the mushroom line for some posed shots, feeling better than she had in years, wishing she could keep some of the magic of this place with her forever.
An intense spasm of pain clenched her left foot. She looked down helplessly to see her foot kick a large gap in the ring, scattering mushroom caps and stems over a patch of moss. Amy fell forward onto her knees, startling the butterflies into flight. They fluttered anxiously around her head as the pile of vines shuddered. It rocked once, twice, and then surged up, raining leaves and petals as it rose. Amy barely noticed the camera clicking shot after shot until the remote slipped from her nerveless fingers.
He was tall, lean, and regarding her with the most piercing ice chips any creature could ever call a pair of eyes. The pupils were narrow slits. Vines continued to unwind themselves gently from his hair and sharply pointed ears.
"My sweet Lord," Amy looked down and shook her long hair like a cape around her shoulders to hide her shaking. This thing in front of her wasn't human. He was a predator. Although her mind told her to run, her body knew a more ancient wisdom. That to run would trigger a chase she could not possibly win, to show fear would seal her fate. She tried to remain silent and still while her body flooded with enough adrenaline to fight off a bear. It was not helping her think, so she kept her face blank and looked up at the beautiful stranger waiting for her.
He was astonishingly beautiful, dressed in a butter cream silk shirt and a light brown ray skin vest. Soft pearl buttons closed his shirt front, the top three left undone. They showed off a large gold medallion resting just under the most delicious set of collarbones Amy had ever laid eyes on. She wanted to lick them, knew that she could enjoy getting close to him. This thing, this elf, smelled like moonbeams and sea breeze and a dozen other natural things. She licked her lips and glanced down at his boots, a magnificent pair of matching ray skins that looked worth over a thousand dollars.
Since he hadn't killed her yet, Amy wracked her brain for faerie lore, thinking back to everything she'd ever read or learned of blond fae men wearing pearls and smelling of the sea. Rule number one, don't make a water faerie jealous. Undines loved deep emotions, mysteries, treasures, riddles, and drowning unfaithful lovers.
Her friends in the local faerie role-playing guild talked often about the darker, older tales of the fairy, reminding new members of the group why humans once feared the realms of magic. Many members of the guild created fantastic costumes to recreate their favorite type of legendary creature in every way, like the sprite costume she now wore. Serious role-players chose fairy names and built character studies for performances at festivals. Sean, the guild leader, held a master's degree in folklore and literature. He most often dressed as a barbaric member of the dark court, complete with fake teeth and a bloodstained cap. It was one thing to play dress up games and talk about myths and legends over caramel machiattos in the library room of the Hobgoblin Coffeehouse in order to improve her art, but this blond standing before her was no woodcut in a rare manuscript.
This male seemed as clean and pure as the ocean, complete with dangerous icebergs in his gaze, waiting for her to crash into them.
Luc waited for the young one to make demands of him in exchange for his freedom. His lands, title by marriage, or even a pledge of servitude for the remainder of his sentence were all within bounds. She simply had to wish it. He examined her critically, not entirely opposed to the idea of a contracted relationship. Wood sprites and dryads were usually more graceful than this one, but he had cheated with a tripping spell. He saw her gaze linger on the exposed skin of his chest, felt the pressure of her wild magic heating the air between them with desire. He wanted more.
His thoughts reached a conclusion at last, and the coldness vanished from his face. "I am Prince Luc Laurentius, of the Undines. I owe you my thanks for breaking this prison." He smiled briefly, revealing perfectly white and pointed teeth that seemed normal on him, blending into the overall wildness of his bearing. He crouched next to her with a glint of deviltry in his eyes. "I can think of a lovely way to...show my gratitude, my dear forest child," he purred.
Amy's eyes widened when she realized he thought she, too, was a magical creature. She just barely kept from blushing when her eyes looked straight ahead to the soft fabric clinging to his legs. The fitted breeches pulled graphically tight over some areas. The view tempted her to take the offer as it was, payment for service between two equals; a carefree good time with an indecently sexy man who set her senses wild with longing to get closer, as if the only air worth breathing was perfumed by his skin. Her fear was not entirely gone, because he had not said if he was affiliated with the light or dark court of the fae. He didn't look dark, no puddle of stagnant water by his feet or red, blood-dyed scarf on his head, so she relaxed.
Didn't she deserve a hot, personal fairytale once in her life to make up for being pawed by a skinny, bad-breathed asthmatic in a back room at the Serenity Healing Retreat? She most certainly did, and Luc clearly agreed because his gloved hands were sliding up her bare arms. His strong fingers parted the hair covering her and pushed the offending locks behind her shoulders.
"What is your name?" Luc had the best bedroom voice, she decided. The hint of French accent and a heavy helping of sin deserved a large, brass, bedroom voice trophy. She almost forgot to answer when he knelt beside her.
"Amaryllis." She blurted out her fairy name without thinking, and then blushed high on her cheeks. Only her best friends knew her as Amaryllis, the masked flower fairy that liked to trade yarn bracelets for jokes and secrets at the Oregon Fairy Festival each year. He touched a finger to her lips.
"I've been waiting too long, Amaryllis," he murmured, moving his lips against the pulse of her throat, "so if you don't mind, we can get to know each other after...we get to know each other." Amy felt his voice surround her in soothing heat as though she had plunged into a hot spring. She felt his silken lips rain kisses on her neck. She gasped when his pointed teeth nipped at her ear, expertly driving her heartbeat higher.
Luc shrugged off his vest to allow her hands free access to his broad chest. She boldly pulled his shirt and unbuttoned the entire front, so the light silk hung like icing from his shoulders, ready to melt off at the slightest breeze. Her hands pulsed with energy that sparked into his back, when he kissed her collarbones or ran his tongue thoroughly over the soft skin behind her ears. Her body surrendered in every way to his touch, flowing toward him and begging for more. He took her earlobe into his mouth and sucked when she arched her back. Her soft gasps and cries of pleasure filled his amazed ears as he scraped his teeth on one while grasping the hair on the back of her neck with his left hand.
"So responsive, my pet. So noisy. You make me want so much more than I am going to take." He paused, because her uncontrolled reactions told him that she was no young member of the light court that stole power from her parents to play with. Amaryllis was nothing but a human that produced natural creative power at an astonishing rate. From what he knew of mortal girls, she would not be letting him gain firsthand contact with the root of her delicious magic. Such a pity that he had to keep the gloves, as well as some other magical protections, on for this encounter. He wanted to taste her, drink in her richness and her power, and then leave her behind as just another pleasant memory.
Luc folded his legs and sat directly on the mossy ground, where he had long since placed spells to make that ground as comfortable as a feather bed for himself. He propped his head on one hand in against his knee, then trailed his other hand back down her girlish little dress. She shyly pressed her knees together when he stroked the curve of her thigh, slowly tracing the bottom edge where yellow lace met green stripes.
She didn't understand the puzzled look on his face when he muttered, "Did you dress like a dryad to trick me, or tempt me?" He casually slipped his fingers under the lace, regretting the fact that he could not feel her bare skin on his fingertips. She froze in place, whether to encourage him or stop him, Luc couldn't tell.
"No!" She exclaimed. Amy stopped his hand with her own. "I didn't know you were here. Please believe me." Her eyes begged for more. She craved his touch, his lips, and his scent.
"I do believe you, mia karo floreto." He moved forward, using their linked hands to bring her closer, and kissed her. Everything about Luc was timeless and unhurried, especially his kisses. She wasn't familiar with all of his words, but she could guess the meaning. His lips moved on hers as soft as a whisper one moment and deepened into breath stealing, moaning heat. He kissed like a boy kisses his virgin love, as if the only goal of lovemaking was the kiss, even while his thumb stroked circles on her tingling hand. She came apart in front of him; her entire body betrayed her impatient mortal libido. A wave of power poured into his waiting hand, as sweet as cotton candy and just as dizzying.
She sighed in frustration when he ended the kiss, pulling her back up onto her knees, the shock of cool forest air replacing the sweet burn of his body on hers. Her fingers rubbed the velvet fairy skin of his shoulders and brushed the soft gold of his hair. "Don't go, please," Amy begged.
"I'm not leaving until my freedom has been paid for in kisses," he laughed. It was a sound that defined happiness itself. Light, simple, in the moment joy that caused her heart an ache of jealousy because she had never been that happy. She noticed that his gloves were still on. He circled her wrists with the fingers of one hand and held her arms prisoner behind her back. Amy felt the warmth of his body and the firm muscles of his chest straight through her dress when he pulled her into his lap. She stiffened at the shear strength of him. She was at his mercy, helpless to escape, but she knew he would stop if she asked him. She felt safe. He splayed his other hand low on her back, caressing the column of her spine, and nipped her ear. "Hands to yourself, just to be safe. Now try to relax. You are as shy as the morning glory."
Just the tone of his voice caused her body to melt and slump forward, erasing what little space remained between them. Luc's deep purr promised much compensation for following his instructions, so her body complied without consulting her brain. His lips began the dance again, the most passionate kisses she had ever felt. His hands fit perfectly around the delicate bones of her wrists, teasing her with the promise of touches that never came. She felt the subtle difference that meant their tryst was coming to an end, and she wondered if all her future lovers would be required to wear gloves in her fantasies. As if any man could compare to Luc. As if she could ever, for the rest of her life, allow the touch of another man on her skin.
Some words have so many meanings it is impossible to know them all. Happiness. She felt happiness when the vending machine gave her the correct flavor of iced tea. Joy. Lust. Pleasure. She felt her definition of several words change completely from the taste of Luc on her lips.
Too soon, Luc patted her back affectionately and pulled away. He rose easily to his feet, ice chip eyes melted into lively rain forest pools, all sparkling blue. He stretched up, as far as most men she'd ever met and then some, tall enough to bend her head back just to see the lazy wave of one hand above his hair. Luc was buttoned up before his arms came down. Clothes perfectly wrinkle free and hair styled in what Amy thought of as hot mess fae, he raised one goldenrod eyebrow at her. "I must say, if all humans are as fun as you, it was worth the wait." Luc winked and disappeared.
Amy laughed. Her laugh almost sounded as happy and perfect as Luc's magnificent eyes. For the first time in years, she felt healthy and alive and glad to be so. Amy dressed to leave the meadow, eager to see the pictures on a larger screen. She wasn't sure if Luc would show up on film, but if he did, she just shot herself the souvenir of a lifetime.