Impatient for the dancers, the drummers took over for the next song. Hands slapped stretched kidskin bound tight in circles while their players raised high, shrill cries to the sky. Women circled round and round the fire with bells chiming at wrist and ankle, bodies undulating and bare skin gleaming. The fire grew as warm as the hot blood of those who’d soon pair off two by two or sometimes in threes. They’d finish this night with their limbs tangled together, bodies straining against one another. Already, the smell of sex was as strong as that of the crackling logs.
Delaney pushed his awareness of them away and focused on his guitar. Though he couldn’t hear the chords as he tested them, he could tell from the way they trembled and thrummed if they were right or wrong. So far, they were mostly wrong. He swore and shook his hand to cool his fingertips.
Tam glanced sideways at him as if to ask, Problems?
Delaney shook his head. He’d get this right on his own or die trying. The drummers had stopped to catch their breath. Maybe now that he could hear, he’d—
A ground-jarring crash of a man’s full body weight falling to earth beside him almost startled Delaney into dropping his guitar. “I’d should have known I’d find you in the wallflowers’ corner.”
Delaney played a mocking chord. “You expected something else?”
“Nope.” Hugh pulled the woman he’d brought with him into his lap. A pixieish slip of a thing clad in more bare brown skin than faded sundress, she had sloe eyes, honey brown hair full of static, and a chain of wilting daisies looped around her neck that hung all the way to the middle of her back. She had whiskey on her breath and eyes only for Hugh.
No matter where he went, Hugh always found someone warm and willing. He’d charm them with a few pretty words, give them a night to remember, and forget her name before the sun went down again. The woman, whoever she was, pressed her cheek to Hugh’s and giggled. “I heard you playing earlier,” she told Delaney. “Never heard anyone like you before.”
“He’s one of a kind, all right.” Hugh drew her attention back to him with a hand skimmed up beneath her skirt. Hugh
, on the other hand, could do two things at once and nodded at Delaney’s guitar. “Not again? Still?”
“Always,” Delaney said simply. “Until I get it right.”
The woman on Hugh’s lap swayed about to look at him. “I could play with you if you want help.” Her tipsy grin left nothing to the imagination about what she’d like to play with. “You’re pretty.” She reached out to touch him and missed, not that it seemed to bother her.
Hugh came to his rescue. Thank God. “I’d rather you played with me,” Hugh said as he moved under her skirt. “Delaney takes care of himself. He doesn’t need us lesser mortals. Do you, Delaney?”
A strange tingling sensation centered itself on the back of Delaney’s neck, uncannily like the pressure of someone watching. Delaney refused to glance over his shoulder to see who it was or to hope that it was the blond man. “I need you more when you’re sober,” he said absently.
“Too bad. That’s not going to be for hours, if I have anything to say about it.” Hugh lifted his fly-by-night higher and held her to him. Her almost bare legs wrapped around his waist signaled the end of any kind of conversation.
Delaney shared a rueful grin with Tam and shook his head. He ran through the tune again on his guitar and then again. Almost there, close enough to taste it, but every time he thought he had it, the music slipped away from him, too wild to be bound. He needed a fiddler
, damn it, one good enough to make angels weep. A guitar wasn’t right for this, and though he could fend for himself on any other instrument Celtic fusion might call for, the fiddle was the one that defeated him every time.
The worst of it was that he could hear
the fiddle in his head, slip-sliding through the notes with a life of its own and matching the score that ran endlessly behind his eyes. Could hear
it but couldn’t play it for himself. Could—
Delaney held as still as a mouse except for his fingers on the strings. He kept his ears open and his eyes shut. He could
hear. The fiddler he’d hunted for so long had found him instead. The pure, mellow tune flowed around him, found his tune, and matched it. It fell into place as if it’d always been there, everything Delaney had dreamed this reel could be.
If Delaney spoke, he knew it’d break the spell. He opened his eyes and saw, across the way with the fire between them, a man with yellow-gold hair shrouding his face, fiddling like a fallen angel.
The man startled but didn’t stop. He sped up, rather, his bow drawing the music around and around, circling ever tighter in on itself. Soon, there’d be nothing left but the one clear note, and then the end, and a man like this didn’t stay.
Delaney couldn’t let him get away. Wouldn’t. Not when it could be like this. He improvised a bridge that brought him back around to the beginning of the reel—and the fiddler followed him, note for note.
Around them, the fusion-rock musicians stilled, their voices dying away one by one. The drummers ceased their thumps on skin stretched over wood. The dancers’ feet stilled, the jingle of their bells and finger cymbals faded away in echoes that were not strong enough to overcome the reel.
Delaney couldn’t stop and didn’t want to. As fast as the fiddler played—and it was impossibly fast, his bow a blur and the strings throwing sparks—Delaney matched his pace and dared him to go faster still.
“Jesus,” he heard someone mutter. He thought it might be Hugh and shrugged away sharp and impatient before the nearing, distracting touch of Hugh’s hand risked breaking the song.
The fiddler’s clothes, black and thin, clung to his body, soaked through with the sweat of his body. Tendons stood out as strong and hard as cords in his neck, his face set in a grimace like that of a man on the verge of orgasm. Bliss, pain, pleasure, inability to stop. Delaney knew he looked the same, or more so. He shook his glasses off to keep the all-suffusing heat of his skin from fogging the lenses.
His hands ached. His fingers burned, blisters risen anew beneath long-hardened calluses.
“Stop,” Hugh said, stronger than before. The woman he’d had on his lap tumbled aside without protest, her breathing as fast as a rabbit’s. “Delaney—”
Delaney chanced only a slit-eyed glare at him. No
. Something more had seeped in beneath the strain and the all-consuming music. A wildness, a feral beast within that snapped and snarled and gave him orders he didn’t yet understand. He wanted to run and didn’t know why, only that he had to. Wanted to chase, to fight, to fuck, to claim. He knew it wasn’t him, that this was something out of a song that’d seized control of his body.
Knew it wasn’t him, and didn’t care. The fiddler, opposite him and too far away to touch even if Delaney had been able to stop playing, drove him higher with darkly glittering lust in his eye and a knowing temptation in the not-a-smile that stretched his mouth wide.
“Delaney,” he heard someone calling him from somewhere far away, the sound as thick and muffled as if he were underwater. It was the last thing he heard besides the music. Not even the fire crackled; if anyone gathered there breathed, it didn’t reach Delaney’s ears.
The reel made its last turn, the final round before it had to stop or go on beyond the perfection they made of it together. Closer and closer came the end, the fiddler’s bow lit with flame that didn’t burn him on either end.
Delaney hadn’t the air to speak but did anyway. Whoever this was, whatever he was, he would disappear when the song ended. Nothing gold could stay, right? Was that how the poem went? He couldn’t let that happen. “Stay with me.”
One last, flawless note, one sharp scream of melody, and the fiddler dropped both instrument and bow. Firelight cast strange shadows across him that nothing could penetrate. Delaney counted the time in his head: one, two, one, two, three—
The fiddler rose in a leap no man should have been capable of. Soared across the fire in one great bound and landed crouched lightly as a dragonfly before Delaney, who dropped his guitar and drew a lusty breath.
He caught Delaney’s chin between his fingers. Not a kiss, but a collision, a punishing blow, over so quickly that Delaney surged after him for more. The man rumbled low in his throat, a rasping susurration, and used Delaney’s body to thrust himself away. He spun away through the fire, unburned, unblemished, and with a flash of white skin and his hair flying in an arc, he ran.
Hugh’s hand closed around Delaney’s wrist and pulled him halfway back from the undying reverberation of the song. Neither of them expected it, but the jar of bone beneath the hard strike Delaney dealt him ended the reel at last.
He was on his feet and into the forest beyond the cellar before Hugh’s startled yell had finished.
Ten feet or fifteen or five steps beyond the tree line—time ceased to matter when the song ended—Delaney stumbled to a halt. His knuckles flared their protest, jarred when he’d hit Hugh.
He’d hit Hugh. Oh God. He stared at his hand, smeared with blood that wasn’t his own. He could still feel the hardness of bone under his fist.
What am I doing? What was I thinking?
Delaney turned to hobble and stumble as fast as he could back to the fire, apologies already crowding together on his tongue.
Ten steps or fifteen or five, and he stopped again, turning sharply. He’d heard… What had he heard? He couldn’t help but listen, and once he’d stopped he couldn’t move. His heart drummed hard against his ribs, so hard he thought it would burst, and roared in his ears.
. The shout of a horn so deep and pure it made his bones thrum. There
. The belling, barking, and baying of hounds, or were they wolves? Hoofbeats on either side of him, the lather of too-hot horseflesh making him gag. Iron, heated red and glowing, burning brightly in the night. Male laughter, dark and cruel, calling to horse and to hound.
A scrap of song rang through Delaney with the surety of old knowledge. Nothing else made sense, but he knew where he was now. Why. What he’d been set on this course to do.
“Chase him,” a baritone said, speaking too close to Delaney’s ear. “He’s yours if you can capture him.” Short, bristly hair tickled his ear, as if the speaker Delaney couldn’t see boasted a mustache and beard that had never seen a blade. “He wants to be caught, you know. He’s as enthralled by you as you are by him. He craves the touch of your hand and the taste of your kiss. Why else seek you out to begin with?” the man asked, as sibilant as a snake and sly as a fox.
Delaney didn’t trust this stranger, but he believed him. Hadn’t he seen it for himself? And he couldn’t let the fiddler get away. Wouldn’t. He jerked his head in a rough nod of agreement.
“Good!” The stranger pounded Delaney’s shoulder. “This is a fine game and a worthy night’s entertainment. Run, musician. The Hunt begins now