The Sweetest Temptation: The Whisper Lake Series, Book 2.
Saxon Grace nearly crashed his truck into a tree because of a pair of Daisy Dukes.
Technically, it wasn’t the shorts that had distracted him from the road as much as the perfectly plump, heart-shaped ass the worn denim so lovingly cupped.
He was almost home, driving down his quiet neighborhood street past his elderly neighbor’s house when he spotted the woman in the shorts. As he stared, that decidedly feminine, completely delicious ass wiggled as she struggled to drag something heavy out his neighbor’s front door.
Not admiring a sight so rare and lovely was simply not an option for a red-blooded man like Saxon—his idea of smelling the roses along life’s path—so his only choice was to either stop his truck, or drive it right into old man Cyrus’s mailbox.
Saxon pulled to a halt in front of his neighbor’s house and, ever chivalrous, hopped out to lend the woman a hand with her heavy burden. His mama would have expected nothing less of one of her sons—Daisy Dukes or not.
The early evening air was humid and warm with the promise of summer. School had just finished for the day, and the sound of kids’ voices raised in happy play drifted from the small, busy park one block over. The scent of grilling burgers and honeysuckle floated on the breeze, making his empty stomach rumble.
The closer he got to the woman, the better the view became until he was completely mesmerized by the bob and sway of those succulent curves.
He knew it probably wasn’t right to stare, but there were some things a man simply couldn’t control—the weather, the stock market, fate, and, apparently, the need to gaze at the finest ass to ever grace a pair of cutoffs.
As he hurried up the painted wooden stairs leading to Beth Fortier’s front porch, he heard the young woman grunting with effort. He was close enough now to see that she was trying to maneuver a heavy, rolled-up rug out through the front door and onto the covered porch of the little bungalow. The rug was too long to easily angle through the door, and obviously too heavy for her to manage alone.
The owner of the house and the rug—who everyone younger than fifty called Aunt Beth—was nowhere to be seen.
“If you’re robbing a sweet, old lady,” Saxon drawled, “you should have done so after dark, like any self-respecting thief would.”
The woman let out a faint yelp of surprise, dropped the heavy end of the rug, and spun around. She pressed her hand over her heart as if to calm it, drawing attention to the gentle swell of her breasts. Her baby blue tank top was worn and smudged with dirt, but the way it clung to her curves made the dirty shirt sexy as hell.
Her warm brown eyes were wide with surprise. The setting sun hit her face, giving him a clear view of garnet and amber colored flecks near her irises. Her face was pink with exertion, and beneath her flush he could see the beginning hint of summer freckles forming across her nose. Sweat dotted her forehead and made her skin glisten. She wore her shiny, brown hair in a short ponytail, but little wispy strands at her temples had escaped and clung to her damp skin. Tiny, corkscrew curls formed along her neck, and he had the strangest urge to touch them to see if they were as springy as they looked.
He rubbed his fingers together in an effort to resist the need to fondle a woman whose name—and marital status—he didn’t even know.
There was something familiar about her, but he couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
In a lake town like Whisper Lake, a lot of tourists came and went over the summer months. It would have been impossible to remember all of them, though one as pretty as her would have been hard to forget.
Whoever she was—judging by the dirt and sweat she wore—she wasn’t afraid of a little hard work, which only made her more appealing to a hardworking man like himself.
“You scared me,” she said. Her voice was soft and melodic, even when laced with a touch of fear. Her breasts rose and fell with her heavy breathing, and damn if he couldn’t stop staring.
What the hell was wrong with him? He was usually smooth, subtle. He didn’t have to be obvious to gain a woman’s attention. There were plenty of women around eager to date one of the Grace men.
But none of them had an ass like hers.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said. “I live across the street and saw your epic battle with the rug. Thought I’d stop and lend a hand.”
She instantly shook her head. “Thanks, but I got it.”
Saxon glanced behind her at the length of rolled-up carpet. As a builder, he was good with dimension and spatial relations. He knew without the aid of a measuring tape that there was no way she was going to get that rug around the stairwell in the foyer without lifting it over the railing on the front porch. And as much trouble as she was having simply dragging the thing, lifting it was clearly beyond her strength.
Rather than argue with her, he asked, “Why are you moving it out, anyway?”
She rolled her shoulders as if they ached. “It’s a tripping hazard—one I’m trying to remove before my aunt gets back from physical therapy, which is going to be any minute now.”
Pieces clicked into place and he suddenly realized why she looked familiar.
“You’re Gemma Fortier, aren’t you? Aunt Beth’s niece?”
She’d spent summers here as a kid. She was a few years younger than Saxon, so they’d never run in the same circles. He remembered her being scrawny and clumsy as she worked in her aunt’s bakery. At the time, she’d been all elbows, knees and freckles.
But she was definitely grown up now, with plenty of enticing curves to show for it.
She grinned, and her face went from pretty to stunning. Her eyes lit up, and her full mouth curled at the corners in a way that caught and held his gaze. All he could think about was how soft those lips looked, and how good they’d feel gliding against his.
“The one and only,” she said. “Contrary to how many people call her Aunt Beth, I’m the only one with the legal claim.”
“You’re a lucky woman. I’ve never met a sweeter lady than Aunt Beth. It’s a shame about her broken hip.”
“Sweet, yes. But stubborn.” Gemma sighed. “She’s determined not to change her life over her ‘little mishap’ as she calls it. That’s why I need to get this rug out before she comes home and stops me.”
“Then let me help.”
“Really, that isn’t necessary. I’ve almost got it.”
It was all Saxon could do not to laugh. “Honey, this is a small town. If word gets back to my mama that I didn’t help you help Aunt Beth, there’s going to be hell to pay before sunrise. Besides, we need your aunt back at her bakery ASAP. Life just isn’t worth living without Aunt Beth’s pies. We’ve all been pitching in to help her get back on her feet.”
“Bringing her food, giving her a ride when she needs one, keeping her house clean, mowing the lawn…you know, all the stuff she hasn’t been able to do.”
Gemma’s gaze slid away like she was hiding something. “Thank you for all you’ve done, but I’m here now. I’m going to make sure that she has what she needs.”
“Starting with a house free of tripping hazards?”
“Exactly. I don’t think she’ll approve of my redecorating, but it’s for her own good.”
Saxon didn’t budge. “Sorry, but there’s no way you’re getting that rug out by yourself. Let me give you a hand.”
As soon as he saw her mouth tighten in the same way Aunt Beth’s did whenever she dug in her heels, he knew his gentle requests weren’t going to get the job done. They’d still be standing here at midnight with that damn rug right where it was now, and Gemma insisting she could move it on her own.
Saxon was too hungry after a long day of work for that nonsense.
Rather than argue with Gemma, he simply stepped around her and went into the house. As he passed her, he caught a faint scent of her skin, all warm from exertion. She smelled completely edible, like buttercream frosting and ripe cherries. He slowed as he passed, breathing in the delicious scent of her until his mouth watered.
His arm brushed hers, and she flinched as if he’d given her a static shock. Her chin lifted until her gaze met his, and he came to a dead stop halfway to his destination.
Damn, but she was pretty. The longer he looked at her, the more he was drawn in by those cute freckles and the warm gemstone colored chips in her eyes. Behind them, a keen intelligence burned along with a hundred feminine secrets Saxon was dying to discover.
She lowered her lashes under his scrutiny, and only then did he realize just how long he’d been staring.
Without her eyes on his to hold his gaze, her plump mouth drew his attention. Smooth, pink, and pillowy—the perfect mix of sultry and innocent.
The urge to lean close and taste those sweet lips was almost undeniable. Only his good manners held him back.
If she tasted half as good as she looked and allowed him even a little nibble, he might never go hungry again.
Gemma tried not to hyperventilate as Saxon Grace came close enough for her to feel the heat of his skin.
He was even more handsome now than she remembered from her years of schoolgirl crushes on him. They’d never really hung out as kids. He’d been four years older, which put him into the category of a god. She didn’t think she’d said all of ten words to him her whole life, and now here she was, carrying on a conversation with a man who was what passed for royalty in the sleepy town of Whisper Lake.
All the gangly awkwardness of his youth was gone now, leaving behind a big, tall, hard man. The Grace men were all lean and sturdy, like skyscrapers, but seeing them from a distance and being this close to such a fine specimen of masculinity was completely different. She had to tilt her head back to keep her eyes on him, but the effort was definitely worth the view.
His skin was deeply tanned, though the summer had only just begun. His jeans were tight, accentuating thick layers of muscles—the kind only a man who worked hard every day could maintain. As he bent down to pick up the rug, his shirt stretched taut across his sculpted shoulders. Muscles flexed and bunched as he hefted the rug onto one shoulder.
“Where is it going?” he asked casually, as if lifting the handwoven wool monstrosity wasn’t even a challenge.
Gemma’s tongue dried to the roof of her mouth with a sudden flood of feminine awareness. She had to peel it free so she could speak. “You’re going to hurt yourself. That thing weighs more than I do.”
“Honey, I work for a living. Lifting heavy stuff is just part of the job. Now, where to?”
She hated being a burden to anyone, but this was for Aunt Beth, so she swallowed her pride and hurried down the steps to lead the way to the cellar doors on the side of the house. “This way.”
She rushed into the cellar to make sure there was still room on the heavy blue tarp to keep the rug clean. Knowing Aunt Beth, the rug was an antique, and Gemma would never hear the end of it if she ruined it.
The air down in the cellar was cooler and less humid, but heavy with the smell of earth. Shelves were lined with canning jars filled with an array of fruits, jams and jellies. By this time of year, most of the stores were usually depleted, awaiting the next summer berry harvests to make fresh batches. The fact that the shelves were still relatively full meant that either last year’s harvests had been awesome, or Aunt Beth was doing far less baking than usual, even before the broken hip.
Gemma didn’t like thinking about why that might be.
Everyone aged. Everyone eventually slowed the pace of their lives. But the idea of Aunt Beth going into a state of decline broke Gemma’s heart.
She couldn’t lose the only parental figure who’d ever really wanted her around. It was too soon. They needed more time together. Years of it.
Saxon’s boots thudded on the wooden stairs, driving away her dark thoughts.
She spread the edge of the blue tarp—which was already littered with several other smaller rugs she’d removed—to make room. Saxon came down the steep steps like he had a pillow on his shoulder, rather than over a hundred pounds of wool rug. He wasn’t even breathing hard.
All Gemma could do was stare. They didn’t grow men like this in the city—not even close. All of their muscles came from a gym, and while that might look good, they couldn’t do the things that muscles earned from hard work could.
Like make her insides quiver.
Saxon eased the rug into the spot she’d cleared. It barely fit, and was definitely in the way of the shelves of canned goods and the door that led into the basement, but there was no help for that right now. Eventually Gemma would get this part of the house straightened up too, but since there was no way Aunt Beth was coming down here with her walker, it wasn’t at the top of the priority list.
The single, bare lightbulb in the ceiling cast a network of stark shadows across his face and made his inky black hair even darker. His wide, angular jawline was covered with short beard stubble. He shifted his big body in the small space available, but it put him within inches of Gemma.
At this close distance she could see golden sunbursts brightening his green eyes. All the Grace family had pale green eyes like his. In fact, the feature was so striking and so prevalent that it was known in these parts as “Grace Green.”
She’d forgotten how pretty the color was and how it had the power to make a woman stare long past what was socially acceptable.
A knowing smile warmed his mouth and showed off his bright white teeth. “Do you need help with anything else?”
It was an innocent question, but the only thing she could think about was how she hadn’t had a decent orgasm in months. Maybe longer. He could sure as heck help with that.
Before she could lose her mind and say something stupid, she shook her head and backed away in the hopes of escaping his strong gravitational pull on her.
As she shifted away, she forgot that the cellar was littered with a dozen tripping hazards relocated from upstairs. One of them caught the back of her heel, and she started to tumble backward.
Her mind flooded with her impending doom. She saw herself careening into the hard wooden shelving behind her and bashing her head open. Glass jars filled with sticky jam shattered as they crashed down on her, cutting her skin in a thousand places.
Before any of that could happen, Saxon acted. His reflexes were so fast she didn’t even see him move. One second she was tipping back on the way to concussionville, and the next, she was plastered against hot, hard male flesh.
The scent of sunshine, salt and hot skin filled her nose and added to the dizzy swoop spinning through her head. She didn’t know if the vertigo was caused from the sudden motion, the relief of safety, or from his touch, but whatever it was, the feeling was potent enough to make her knees go soft.
His strong hands tightened around her arms to hold her up. Her breasts flattened against the hard contours of his chest, and her nipples puckered in celebration. Every cell in her body perked up as she realized that she was in the embrace of Saxon Grace—two hundred pounds of potent, raw sex appeal in one convenient, muscular package. Sure, maybe he was only holding her because of her clumsiness, but her hormones didn’t seem to know the difference.
How long had it been since she’d been held so close? She couldn’t remember, but she did know that she’d never before felt such an instant, visceral thrill scorch through her the way it did now, inside his firm grip.
If she wasn’t careful, this man was going to become the lead star in every one of her very secret, very sweaty fantasies.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice deep with concern. Tiny twin lines formed between his black brows, giving her the strongest urge to press her lips against them to smooth them away.
A response to his question rolled through her head, but no words made it past her lips. All she could do was stare and bask in the warmth of his strong grip.
“Gemma?” he asked again with a heavier tone of worry.
“I’m fine,” she finally managed. “Just…” swept away, quivering, aroused out of my mind, “…clumsy.”
He offered her a wink and chivalrous smile filled with the Grace family’s signature charm. “Never that.”
He took a tiny step back, putting a couple of inches between their bodies. He watched her for a second like he was worried she might fall over again, and then when he was satisfied she was stable, he let go.
Saxon’s fingers slowly grazed across her bare arms, raising goosebumps of delight as they passed. She could still feel the warmth of his hands lingering in her skin. Now that her nipples were exposed to the cool air, they tightened even more, until they were so hard they ached.
He glanced down, his gaze lingering for a long second before he looked into her eyes again. “If there’s nothing else you need me to lift, I should get going.”
Now that no part of her was touching any part of him, her brain started to work right again. “No, nothing else to move right now. Thank you.”
He gave her a nod, then stepped back to clear a path for her to reach the stairs. “After you.”
Gemma slipped past him, hoping he couldn’t see how furiously she was blushing in the dim light. It wasn’t like her to get so utterly swept away by a man.
Then again, Saxon Grace was no ordinary man. Any red-blooded girl could be forgiven for falling apart a little when faced with such potent male company.
A light breeze cooled her cheeks as she came out of the cellar. All she had to do now was hold it together long enough for him to walk back to his truck and leave her to quiver in peace.
“Thanks for your help,” she said as he closed the cellar doors. At least he wasn’t looking at her with those green eyes, or giving her that charming smile.
“Anytime, Gemma. I’m glad Aunt Beth has you looking out for her. If there’s anything else I can do, call me, okay?” He pulled a business card from his wallet and handed it to her.
She took it, not because she planned to call and bother him, but because it would have been rude not to. And because if she didn’t take it, he might keep checking on Aunt Beth and get Gemma all worked up again every time he came over.
She had too much to do for big, handsome, charming, sexy distractions like Saxon.
“I will,” she lied.
His fingers brushed hers for a split second as he handed her the card, but even that fleeting contact was enough to get her insides skittering all over the place again.
Just then Cotton Cyrus’s ancient Oldsmobile pulled into Aunt Beth’s driveway. He’d taken her to physical therapy, like he had every day since she’d been home from the rehab center. He lived only a few doors down and had insisted on helping. As much as it bothered Gemma to let someone else drive Aunt Beth, Gemma needed the time alone to take care of making the house safer. There was no way her aunt would let her do it while she was home.
“You should go,” Gemma told Saxon. “You don’t want Aunt Beth knowing you were my accomplice.”
He gave a casual shrug that made muscles along his neck and shoulders dance. “I can take the heat for you. Say it was my idea.”
Gemma was so stunned by his offer, all she could do was stare at him, blinking. “What? No. I can’t let you take the fall for me. Besides, she needs to face the fact that her life has to change at least a little if she wants to keep living in her own home.”
“If things go badly and you need backup, I live right across the street in the slate blue Craftsman.” He pointed across the street to a tidy little house that backed up to the elementary school. “Aunt Beth has never been able to stay mad at me for more than a few hours—even when I egged her house when I was twelve.”
“You were the one who did that?” she asked, stifling a grin. Gemma hadn’t been here that Halloween, but she’d heard the horror stories of the event for months after it happened.
He grimaced. “Not one of my better childhood moments. I’m still mowing her lawn to make up for it, eighteen years later.”
Mr. Cyrus hurried around the Olds and got Aunt Beth’s walker out of the back seat. He patiently held it while she eased out of the car. She moved more slowly than usual, like therapy had worn her out.
“Thanks again, but I need to go,” she told Saxon. “Time to face the music.”
The old farmstead could not have screamed go away any louder, unless it had been seeded with land mines and draped with loops of razor wire.
A low-grade spin of anxiety had been riding in Daisy Grace’s stomach since she’d made the decision to come here. But now that she’d reached her destination, that spin had become a nauseating, nervous tornado in her gut.
She gripped the steering wheel tighter, casting out all the voices that had warned her to leave well enough alone—those who’d told her that Mark Cooper had made up his mind, and there was no force on this earth powerful enough to change it.
She hadn’t seen him since the funeral. Her few mumbled words of condolence, shoved out a throat tight with tears, had been ignored. He’d brushed past her, his expression bleak. Even now it was hard not to cry when she thought about Janey. And they’d only been friends. Daisy couldn’t image how hard these last eighteen months had been on Mark after losing his fiancée.
The steering wheel became slick with nervous sweat. My brother is not the man you knew. He’s changed, Ellen had told her. Stay away. For your own good.
But Ellen had been Daisy’s best friend since kindergarten, and if she wanted her brother Mark to be there for her wedding, then Daisy was going to make it happen. No matter how much he’d changed.
She did her best to avoid the muddy potholes dotting the long dirt driveway leading to the farmhouse. Spring rains had been hard, spaced perfectly between warm days, making hearty plants burst back to life. Tall weeds scraped along the undercarriage of her work van. Long forgotten piles of fallen branches sat huddled inside nests of overgrown weeds—a perfect hiding place for snakes. Poison ivy curled around the base of thick tree trunks that had once welcomed visitors with a shady path. Now the rough landscape was a blatant dare to anyone who might be stupid enough travel on foot.
As she crept up the hill and around the bend, the house came into view. Once a pristine farmhouse, it was now a sad combination of peeling paint and rotting wood. Tarps covered the roof in an ugly, blue patchwork. The porch sagged in several spots, and even from this distance she could see a hole in the boards near the front door—one big enough to swallow her in one gulp. There were doubtlessly more snakes lurking below.
Revulsion crawled along her spine at the mere thought.
Mark’s battered pickup sat next to the porch, its tailgate open, its bed filled with chunks of field stone. Seeing proof that he was here, so close, made a rioting jumble of emotions scramble together in her gut. She feared that the warnings she’d heard were right, and that he was no longer the kind, easygoing man she’d grown up with. While she was hopeful that he’d listen to her and agree to show up for his sister’s big day, mostly she ached to see him again and know he was okay—that he was healing from his loss.
She was twenty-six now and had been falling in love with him since before she’d started high school. The idea that he was hurting kept her up more nights than she was willing to admit.
Daisy parked behind his truck, doing her best to block him in so he couldn’t leave. He’d managed to escape every one of his family’s attempts to bring him home. Hopefully he wouldn’t slam her van aside to get away from her, too.
With one last deep breath to steady her nerves, she got out of her work van and waded through a sea of weeds and hidden stones barring the path to the porch. The ancient steps creaked beneath her feet. The boards near the hole groaned as she eased around it, and she swore she felt the entire wooden structure sway slightly to the left as she knocked on the door.
There was no answer. She knocked again and waited a good three minutes before she heard a muffled thump and a low curse come from inside the house.
“I know you’re in there,” she called. “I can hear you.”
Another deep, furious curse echoed from inside. His voice was raspy, as if he hadn’t spoken in a long time. “Go away.”
“I drove three hours to find you. I’m not leaving until I’ve said what I’ve come to say.”
“Not interested.” Even through the rotting front door, his rough voice still sounded too sexy for her peace of mind. It had taken her several long years to learn not to see him as a man, but as the fiancé of one of her best friends. Unavailable. Off limits. A eunuch.
Janey was gone now, but eventually he’d find someone else to love. Daisy wasn’t about to let her guard down, fall for him, and go through the torture of seeing him fall in love with another woman again, no matter how sexy his voice was.
She braced herself, called on her anger caused by his decision to skip his own sister’s wedding, and raised her voice. “You will listen, Mark Cooper. Even if I have to break a window and crawl inside to make you listen.”
He was silent again, so she hopped off the porch, avoiding the gaping hole into snake territory, and started to look for a fist-sized rock.
A few seconds later, the front door swung open so hard she could feel the gust of air the motion sent rushing past her.
“Make it quick, Daisy,” he practically growled.
A delightful shiver trailed along her skin at the sound of her name. It didn’t matter that his tone wasn’t one of welcome. All that mattered was the intimate combination of her name on his lips.
She turned around to see him standing in the doorway. Shadows clung to his body, but even they couldn’t hide how much he’d changed. He was leaner now. Harder. His hair was a shaggy mess of tangled black strands. A thick growth of beard covered his once clean-shaven jaw. And his eyes—once a bright, sparkling blue—were now dull and empty, as if he’d been scraped clean of all joy. A desperate hollowness echoed out of him, so loud she felt herself tense against the force of that lonely thump.
He hadn’t gotten better since the funeral. He was much, much worse.
“Oh, Mark,” she whispered before she could stop herself. The sound of concern in her voice made him freeze up and go still.
“If you’re here to dump a load of pity on me, then leave now and save us both the trouble. I’ve had all of that I can stand.”
“No pity. Your…new look just surprised me. That’s all.”
He frowned as if he didn’t understand what she meant. “Spit out whatever you’ve come here to say, Daisy. I’m a busy man.”
“Busy with what? You quit your job. Your phone number now belongs to some guy named Bubba. You’re clearly not fixing this place up like everyone thinks. Your mom says all you do is split wood and haul rocks around. You don’t even own a TV.”
“Is that why you’re here? To interrogate me about how I spend my time?”
“I’m here for Ellen.”
Worry creased his face, hiding pale rays in the tan skin around his eyes. He took a hurried step forward and gripped the frame of the door like he was trying to hold himself back. “Is she okay? Did she get hurt?”
Sunlight crept up his jeans, revealing a thick layer of dust and several tears and worn spots. Along his left thigh were dark smears that looked suspiciously like dried blood.
Daisy’s heart clenched hard at the thought of him bleeding. He’d already been hurt so much. He didn’t deserve any more pain in his life. If only he’d come home, his family and friends would be there for him. They’d help him heal and hold him close while he did.
“Ellen’s fine,” she said before he could conjure any disturbing thoughts. “But she misses you. We all do. And her wedding is coming up soon. She’d like you to be there.” She moved onto the porch, drawn to him in a way she was ashamed to even acknowledge. She tried to tell herself that she only meant to comfort him, but it was more than that.
With Mark it always had been. At least for her.
He stepped back, and she could feel his complete and total retreat, as if she’d repelled him. “It’s not going to happen. I already told Ellen that. She knows my reasons. I can’t believe she’d send you here to beg.”
“Hardly. She begged me not to come. I simply couldn’t believe that you’d care so little about her that you’d ruin her big day.”
His body vibrated with restrained fury, and he looked like he’d suddenly grown larger. He stepped forward again, and this time, Daisy instinctively backed away from his palpable anger. The man she’d known would never have laid a hand on her, but Ellen was right. Mark was no longer the man she remembered.
The heel of her tennis shoe hit an uneven patch in the porch’s floorboards. Her toes slipped on the splintered wood. She felt herself start to fall back, and a squeak of panic lunged up her throat.
Hot, rough hands grabbed her bare arms and hauled her forward into a warm, hard wall. She hit his chest, but didn’t bounce off. His hold was too tight.
Dust puffed up off of Mark’s clothes, choking her for a second. Or maybe that was his iron grip around her body that cut off her air. She could hear his heart hammering against his ribs, and the sucking sound his lungs made as his breathing sped.
“You’re okay,” he said, over and over, as if trying to convince himself. “You’re okay.”
“Of course I am.”
“You almost fell, like—”
Like Janey had fallen. The unsaid words hung between them, heavy with grief and loss. In that moment, Daisy cursed herself for her carelessness. The last thing she wanted was to shove reminders of Janey’s death at him.
Daisy tried to pull away, but his grip was too tight, almost frantic. The scent of sun-warmed man filled her nose and wrapped around her in a hold as solid as his arms. It seeped into her, whispering of forbidden fantasies she’d buried long ago. Her body warmed in response, softening and leaving room for the rush of adrenaline to trickle out and a languid softness to take its place.
“I’m okay, Mark. Really. You can let go now. I promise to be more careful.”
He didn’t let her go. Instead he lifted her feet from the rotting boards, hauled her back inside the dark house, and then kicked the door shut.
Sweat dotted his forehead, even though the mild spring breeze was cool. He splayed one hand on the door behind her while the other kept a firm grip around her waist. His whole body shook. He wouldn’t look at her, and there was a panicked wildness in his eyes.
Daisy cupped his shaggy face and lifted his head until he had no choice but to look at her. His eyes were too wide, too frantic. His pupils were constricted with fear, and his jaw was clenched so hard his lips were pale and bloodless.
She kept her voice gentle, knowing he was still reeling from her near fall. “We’re okay now. I promise.”
He gave her a rigid nod and ripped his arm away as he stepped back fast—like pulling off a bandage. “You shouldn’t have come. It’s too dangerous.”
Maybe he was right—though whether the danger was from the rundown house or from him, she couldn’t be sure. Either way it was too late to leave now, so she ignored his statement and looked around the inside of the house. It was dark except for the light streaming in through the ancient windows. There were no sounds louder than their breathing. No fans, no TV, not even the quiet hum of a refrigerator. Outside birds chirped and sang, but inside was a dark, dusty silence.
Several of the walls had been demolished, with only the studs left standing. Plaster and lath lay in crumbled piles, like rubble at the base of a rocky cliff. Old knob and tube style electrical wiring had been stripped out and left lying in curling, twisted knots. There was no sign of pale, new wood or any other repairs. Only demolition.
To one side of the foyer was a living area filled with rubble and dust. To the other side was a kitchen with only a giant cooler sitting on top of a cracked tile counter. An ancient wood burning stove hunkered in one corner of the living room, and on it was a heavy cast iron pot with steam curling up from its contents.
“You’re certainly living the good life out here,” she muttered.
“The mice love it.”
Daisy stifled a shiver of revulsion. If he was trying to scare her away, she wasn’t going to give him any ammunition. “Do the mice make warm sleeping companions?”
“No, but they made a nest in the last mattress I had, so I got an air mattress.”
She looked through the crumbled walls and saw nothing.
“It’s upstairs,” he said to her silent question. “Where the only working bathroom is.”
“Posh. I can see why you stay. I mean, I know you’ve got an open invitation to cozy mice-free beds in the houses of any number of people back home, but this is the life.”
“Daisy, don’t,” was all he said.
She turned and looked at him. “Don’t what? Don’t insult your hovel? Don’t question why you don’t come home to a family who loves you and misses you? Or don’t say anything at all?”
“That last one works for me. I’ll help you out to your car.” His fingers circled her arm and he gave her a gentle tug toward the door.
Daisy pulled free, backed farther into the house, and crossed her arms over her chest to hide the way her nipples had tightened at even his most innocent of touches. Her mind may have been able to tuck him into a nice, eunuchy box, but her body knew better. It craved him.
“I’m not leaving—not until you agree to come to Ellen’s wedding. As maid of honor, it’s my job to get you there.”
“It’s not happening, Daisy. You might as well give up and go home before you get hurt. This place isn’t safe.”
“It’s safe enough for you to stay.”
His lips pressed together as if caging words he refused to let free. “Just go. We’ll both be happier if you do.”
She shook her head. “Nope. Ellen wants you at her wedding. She deserves to have her special day be perfect. If that means I have to camp out with some mice, then so be it.” She was proud that she didn’t shudder even a little as she said it.
He turned away from her and went to the cooler in the kitchen. “Suit yourself. Hope you like cold showers. That’s the only kind you’re going to get here.”
“No hot water?”
“No electricity either, except for a persnickety generator I use to make ice to keep food from spoiling.” He grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler. “I’ll come back when you’ve had time to rethink your strategy to dig in until I give up.” He opened the door and paused. “Oh, and don’t go in the basement.”
“Why? More mice?”
He was out the door before she’d finished quelling her instant panic at the thought of standing over a pit of snakes, held up only by rotting, warped floorboards. There were few things she hated more than snakes—and Mark knew it—but even that fear wasn’t going to drive her away.
He was going to that wedding, even if she had to knock him out and drag his heavy ass back home herself.
Daisy had no business being here. Shoving her nose in his life. Looking at him with pity in her big green eyes.
Nearly breaking her pretty little neck.
He looked down at his hand as he hiked toward a deer stand. He still hadn’t stopped shaking from her near miss with the hole in the porch. Cold sweat clung to his skin from the scare she’d given him. He knew it was only a couple feet down to the ground from that porch, but even a little fall could kill a woman.
There wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t question what he could have done to save Janey’s life, and now Daisy was here, scaring the shit out of him, adding to his misery.
She wouldn’t stay long. He knew how much she hated snakes. After a few minutes alone in the house, she’d slip away and go back where she belonged. All he had to do was wait her out.
Mark climbed the ladder into the deer stand and pulled a pair of binoculars out of the storage box he kept up there. Through the newly leafed trees, he could just see the edge of her van’s bumper. The red logo on the side stood out among the surrounding green. As soon as her work van was gone, he’d go back to the house and smash out another wall or three.
If he pushed hard enough, maybe tonight he’d finally be too exhausted to dream.
The sun was down, and Daisy’s van was still parked outside the house.
Mark knew she was stubborn—always had been—but this was taking things too far. That house was treacherous to navigate after dark, and with no lighting, he worried she’d hurt herself.
Maybe she already had. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t yet left, and he’d been sitting in the deer stand for two hours, fuming.
He hurried down the tree and raced across the shadowy landscape. Fear spurred him on, lengthening his stride. His heart was galloping hard by the time he reached the porch and leapt up the trio of steps. He avoided the gaping hole he’d been stepping around for months, and barreled through the front door.
Dark silence greeted him. No candles were lit. He could just make out the glow of embers through the grate in the wood burning stove. The smell of something savory filled the space, covering the musty scent of old plaster, mice and decay.
He tried to still his fears and convince himself they were irrational, but he knew better. Bad things happened.
“Daisy?” His voice wavered like a frightened child’s, but he didn’t care. “Where are you?”
His eyes adjusted to the dark, and he fumbled for the flashlight he kept in one of the kitchen drawers. The beam of light surged through the gloom, seeming nearly solid as it bounced off millions of particles of dust. He called out again, louder this time, as he waved the light through the rooms, scanning for her.
She wasn’t in sight.
From upstairs he heard the hiss of water being turned on in the bathroom sink, followed by a predictable thunk of aging pipes.
Relief left him frozen in place for a second, then a fist of rage slammed into him. How dare she scare him like that? How dare she come here, invade his privacy and scare the shit out of him?
Mark rushed up the stairs, not even trying to control his anger. She had no business being here. He’d made his wishes clear, both to her and his sister. He wasn’t going to any damn wedding. Daisy was trespassing, and it was time for her to go.
He didn’t bother to knock on the bathroom door. His bathroom door. He simply barged in, his mouth open to let spew a string of venom.
As he saw her, every vile, angry word that had collected in his head simply drained out.
Candlelight filled the small room with a golden glow. Daisy stood over the sink, shirtless, with only a lacy bra to cover her breasts. The T-shirt she’d been wearing was in her hands, along with a bar of soap. Her big green eyes were wide with surprise, but that registered for only a second before his gaze went right back to her breasts.
Mark tried to pull his eyes away, but they wouldn’t budge. It had been a long time since he’d seen a half-naked woman, and the baser parts of him were starving, anxious for even a peek at a woman built like Daisy.
In the back of his mind, thoughts scrolled by in slow motion. He hadn’t realized how pretty she was before. He’d never really paid much attention. They’d been kids together, grown up together. She’d all but disappeared after college, their paths crossing only once or twice a year since then. She was his baby sister’s best friend, and he’d never before looked at her in any other way.
Until now. Now he couldn’t seem to look away.
Her skin was smooth, painted golden by the single flame. Deep shadows hugged her contours, accentuating the fluid lines of her body. Her shorts hung low on her hips, showing off the feminine curve of her stomach and the narrow span of her waist. He could see the faint shape of the muscles in her thighs and calves, and the steep arch of her feet inside those strappy sandals.
But it was her breasts that caught and held his attention. He was a dog for staring, but there was nothing he could do short of gouging out his own eyes to stop himself from soaking in the sight.
Little Daisy was stacked. Not in an overblown, plastic tits kind of way, but in a secret weapon kind of way. Mark never would have guessed what she was hiding. Her loose clothes and thick sweaters had masked her assets well. If he hadn’t been staring at her now, he never would have believed it.
Maybe that’s why she’d always refused to swim in his family’s pool whenever he or his friends were around. She knew just how hard he and his buddies would have leered at her. Almost as hard as he was leering right now.
Daisy stared back at him, frozen like a frightened bunny rabbit. Cold water sluiced over her hands and the fabric she’d been scrubbing.
He should have muttered some apology and backed out of the room, but it simply wasn’t possible. He was glued to the spot, his gaze transfixed on her as it moved in a predictable loop up and down and back again.
She lifted the dripping shirt to hide her breasts, and only then was he able to shake off the spell she’d woven. Soapy water leaked onto her shorts, darkening the denim hugging her thighs. A glistening trickle escaped the fabric and slid down over her bare knee. He followed the path it took until it slipped between her toes.
She cleared her throat, drawing his attention back to her face. “I made stew. Ended up wearing some of it.”
Was he supposed to thank her for the food or apologize for her mishap? He couldn’t seem to remember what social convention dictated. Too much of his brain was busy staggering under the revelation that little Daisy Grace was not so little anymore. At least not all of her. While he wasn’t looking, she’d become a woman—one who held his attention far too tightly for his peace of mind.
~ ~ ~
Oklahoma, January 15
The wrinkled old man stayed crouched for hours in the same shadowy corner of the library where Isa Telwyn worked, which was odd, because it was obvious that he didn’t know how to read.
The large encyclopedia looked tiny in his huge, warty hands. He hadn’t turned the page since he’d arrived, but he kept peering over the top of the book at Isa like he was trying to figure out if he knew her. But the really strange part was that he didn’t seem to realize he was holding the encyclopedia upside down.
Closing time was minutes away, and he didn’t look like he was going anywhere soon. His bulbous body sat folded into a creaky oak chair that strained to hold his mass. The cowboy hat he wore was too small for his round head, but it shaded his face, leaving only an impression of sagging skin, wiry whiskers, and oddly-shaped eyes.
Wind howled outside as the winter storm front closed in. Tiny pellets of ice clicked against glass panes that had protected the books for so long they were rippled with age. The smell of old paper and aging wood wafted through the building as the fierce wind worked its way in through drafty cracks in the aging brick and plaster walls.
The buzzing fluorescent bulbs overhead hadn’t been replaced in years. There weren’t as many as there should have been, thanks to cost-cutting measures, leaving the whole space a labyrinth of shadowy mazes with high bookshelf walls. Even the utilitarian carpet on the floor seemed to absorb light as well as it did sound. Footsteps were muffled, but the creak of aging boards underneath was easy to hear all the way from the back wall to the check-out desk.
Mrs. Bird, the library’s oldest employee, shuffled toward the front desk, eyeing the strange man. Her white hair had thinned, but she still twisted the little wispy bits into a bun that was more bobby pins than hair. She settled her crooked hands on the back of a rickety chair too large for her shrinking frame. “It’s seven,” she said to Isa, confusion clear in her tone. “Why is he still here? Everyone knows we close at seven.”
“I don’t think he’s a local,” Isa said. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “In fact, I don’t think he can read. I bet he’s been sitting over there all day, trying to work up the courage to ask about our classes.”
“Classes are on Saturday. It’s Tuesday.”
Isa stifled a grin at the seriousness of Mrs. Bird’s statement. She’d lived in Silver Gulch her entire life, and after eighty-eight years had a hard time remembering there were other places on the planet where people could exist. This town—this library—was the center of her universe, and Isa feared that if she didn’t get out of here soon, she would end up just like Mrs. Bird sixty years down the line.
“I’ll go talk to him,” Isa said as she moved around the aging desk worn slick with use. “You should get home. The freezing rain they predicted has already started to move in, and you don’t want to be out driving in that stuff.”
A look of stark terror bleached Mrs. Bird’s papery skin. There were only two things the older woman feared: a fire in the library and bad roads. “Are you sure you’ll be okay to lock up by yourself?” she asked as she removed the knitted sweater she wore every day—cold or not—and hung it on the back of her chair.
“I am. Do you want me to walk you to your car?”
Mrs. Bird pulled on her coat and slipped her purse strap over her arm. “And leave the library unattended with that stranger in it? No, thank you. I’ll be fine. You protect the books.”
Isa seriously doubted that a man who obviously couldn’t read would steal their relatively meager collection of books, but saying so would only hurt Mrs. Bird’s feelings, so Isa kept her mouth shut about it. Instead, she held up one hand as though swearing an oath. “With my life. See you in the morning.”
The tarnished brass bell on the front door chimed as Mrs. Bird left, braving the oncoming storm.
Isa glanced at the stranger again. He’d been here for hours. She couldn’t even remember him using the bathroom. Whenever she’d passed by, he’d hunkered down and hidden his face. An odd musty smell hovered around him. Maybe he was homeless, using the library as a refuge from the storm.
A pang of sympathy swept through her, but she couldn’t let him stay here. Maybe she could drop him off somewhere on her way home—assuming he had somewhere to go.
She felt him watching her from beneath the brim of his too-small cowboy hat. There was something wrong with his eyes. They were obscured by shadows, but even so, she could tell they were misshapen. Tall and narrow, glinting with a bizarre orange color when a bit of light slipped in beneath the brim of his hat.
“It’s closing time,” she called out as she gathered her purse and coat. “We open again at nine.”
The man’s head shifted slightly. He’d heard her, but made no response.
She pushed on with her hints that he should leave. “We have several adult classes if you’re interested. Genealogy, computer skills, basic reading classes. We’d love to have you join us. Would you like me to sign you up?”
He stood, and she could see now just how huge he was. Easily as tall as the bookshelves flanking him, he lumbered down the aisle. He moved slowly, carefully, as though he was trying not to knock things over as he passed. The closer he came, the stranger he looked. In fact, she was almost sure that he was sniffing. That, combined with his heavy jowls, gave her the impression of some kind of hunting dog.
Warning bells chimed in her head as he got closer. She’d tried not to stare at him, worrying that she’d hurt his feelings, but now she’d wished she’d taken a closer look, or that Mrs. Bird’s eyesight had been a bit better.
Some deep, primal part of Isa screamed at her to turn and run. Only her sympathy for him kept her feet pinned in place. She knew how she’d feel if someone ran away from her, screaming.
His clothes were strange, rough—almost like burlap. Mismatched panels were laced together with leather and stretched over his thick body. He wasn’t wearing shoes, but his feet were wrapped in some kind of fur that was held closed with cord around his ankles.
The logical guess was that he was homeless, but her instincts were telling her that wasn’t the case. Something here was off. Way off.
Isa tugged her coat on and clutched her purse. The need to back away clanged through her, leaving behind a jumbled pile of nervous energy. “Sir? Are you okay?”
He wasn’t. There was something terribly wrong about him. And as he stepped closer to the desk where her lamp sat, she could finally see under the brim of his too-small hat.
His skin had a grayish cast, hanging in loose folds around his mouth and jaw, like a hound. Black, corkscrew whiskers poked out of his face at wild angles. He wasn’t just suffering from some kind of birth defect or odd skin condition. His eyes told the real story. She hadn’t been seeing things. They were taller than they were wide, with narrow, orange pupils.
The man wasn’t a man at all—at least not a human one.
Isa stumbled back, a squeak of shock springing from her mouth.
He sniffed in her direction, and this time, she knew she hadn’t imagined it.
“Child of House Loriah?” the creature asked, his words clear despite the extra skin around his mouth. “Come.” He held out his hand, and she saw now that he wore tight, flesh-colored gloves to mask his gray skin tone.
“Uh. No, thank you. I’m on my way out.” As she grabbed her keys, the need to get away pounded through her.
“Come,” he insisted.
Not in this lifetime.
Isa vaulted over the worn wooden counter, ripping the back seam of her long skirt, and sprinted for the door. She pushed on the cold, rippled glass. The bell had just begun its merry jingle when she was jerked back hard. Her shoulder screamed out in pain. Even through the padding of her winter coat, she could feel the bruising force of his grip around her biceps.
Her back hit his front, and the fleshy folds of his body cushioned the blow. They jiggled and lapped around her, shoving his musty smell into her nose.
She gagged at the stench, but that was the least of her troubles. His hold on her was too tight to break, especially with her damaged shoulder.
But she still had her keys in hand.
Isa reached over her head, ignoring the searing pain in her joint. She shifted her hold on her keys to shove one out like a small blade, and jabbed for his eyes.
He whirled her around and leaned back, so that his eyes were out of her reach. But the rest of him wasn’t.
Fear clawed its way up her throat, making her screams come out like the howl of a strangled, mewling cat.
“No pain to you,” he said. “Be calm.”
A sour, metallic taste filled her mouth, just as it always did when someone lied to her. She wasn’t sure where the bizarre radar had come from, but she’d had it all her life, and she certainly didn’t need it now to know that this creature definitely did mean her harm. Lots of it.
He was so freaking strong, taking control of her flailing hands as easily as if she were a child.
As the seconds ticked by, she was running out of options. As doom spiraled down on her, rage bloomed from deep inside, shoving aside her fear long enough for her to think.
If this was a male—and she sincerely hoped it was—it would have some kind of dangling male bits for her to target.
Isa gathered her strength, channeling every ounce of her fear and rage to her legs. Her knee came up in a hard, fast hit, right between his fleshy thighs.
He went still for a split second before a low, pain-filled moan erupted in a cloud of acrid stench. His hold on her arms loosened just enough for her to jerk free. The move caused a white hot flash of pain in her shoulder, but she didn’t care. She turned and ran, pushing her way out through the doorway into the frigid night.
The sidewalk leading to the library had been salted in preparation for the storm, but once she hit the parking lot where her car sat in the distance, her feet slipped on the thin layer of freezing rain that had already accumulated and turned to ice. She slid right past her car, her pretty dress shoes no match for the ice.
A giant, four door truck pulled into the lot, its headlights bouncing off the frozen grass and ice-coated twigs. It braked as the driver saw her, but the tires skidded along the ice. Her dressy shoes might as well have been skates, easing her over the pavement in an uncontrolled slide.
Time stretched out, and she saw herself gliding right into the path of the oncoming vehicle. The timing was perfect. There was nowhere she could go to avoid the collision. She couldn’t slow herself down. She couldn’t even shift her weight so that she fell out of the way. Two seconds from now, she was going down under several thousand pounds of steel.
A deep sadness shoved away every trace of fear. She wasn’t ready to die. There were so many places she hadn’t seen yet. G’ma’s last few years had left her frail and unable to travel. All those promised trips to Europe had necessarily gone by the wayside. Isa had never even seen the ocean she dreamed about nearly every night.
She was twenty-eight, and she’d never fallen in love, never held a child of her own in her arms. She hadn’t made a single, lasting mark on the world. Only the few residents of the tiny town of Silver Gulch even knew she existed.
And now she was going to end up squished, bleeding out on the frozen, cracked pavement of the town library. Assuming the monster behind her didn’t get to her first.
She couldn’t accept that fate. Life was supposed to be more than this. Her G’ma had always said she was destined for great things, and G’ma never lied.
The passenger door of the sliding truck shot open. A man flung himself onto the hood, holding onto the door frame by one hand. In a move so graceful he had to be an acrobat, he propelled himself off of the hood, his powerful legs bunching as he launched himself at her.
He flew over her, lifting her from the ground as he passed midair. His arms curled around her body, and she felt him turn her as they flew toward the grass. He landed first, taking the brunt of the impact. Her jolt was cushioned first by his body, then by their controlled roll into the bare bushes.
They came to a stop. She was alive, but she couldn’t breathe. The air had been knocked from her lungs, sending a spike of primal panic through her.
She laid there for a moment, trying to calm down and let the shock of what had just happened sweep through her, hoping it would open her airway. Heat from the man’s body protected her from the icy rain falling from above, but the frozen grass was cold and crunchy against her back.
He looked down at her, his eyes wide with concern. She swore she could see little pinpoint sparks winking in his dark eyes, but that had to be her rattled, oxygen-deprived brain talking.
“Are you hurt?” he asked. His voice was nice. Smooth, with a faint accent she couldn’t place. She tried to concentrate on that, rather than her screaming need for air.
Isa opened her mouth to take a small breath, but her lungs seized on the cold air, refusing to function.
His concern deepened, and he palpated her head for injuries.
She pushed his hands away and choked out a faint, strained, wheezing sound. “Can’t breathe.”
He didn’t even hesitate. His mouth covered hers, and a rush of warm air filled her aching lungs as he breathed into her.
Isa was stunned stupid. First by his actions, then by the feel of his mouth on hers. It was hot, firm, determined, making her think instantly of the kind of kiss she’d always longed for—the kind of kiss that not one single man in this town had the courage to give her.
As oxygen filled her body again, and the panic of not being able to breathe evaporated, she relaxed under him.
His head lifted for a moment, and then again his mouth covered hers and another puff of warm air filled her.
Finally, her lungs functioned again, sucking in a gasp of cold air all on her own.
He rose over her, his lips damp from hers. “Better?”
She licked her lips, tasting him there—clean snow and mulled cider. Some primal part of her woke up shivered in response, leaving her unable to do anything but stare.
He had long, dark hair that fell toward her in thick waves. Along his right temple was an intricate braid laced with vibrant blue silk. It tickled some distant memory, and associated with that were feelings of warmth, trust and complete safety.
She reached for his braid, stunned and off-balance. How could something so simple evoke such strong emotions? She’d never seen him before. The good ol’ boys around here sure as hell never wore ribbons in their hair.
As soon as she shifted her arm to touch the braid, her shoulder exploded with a sharp pain.
In that instant, everything that had just happened, including how she was injured, came rushing back to her. With it, a heaping load of fear.
Her voice shook as she spoke. “Call for help. There’s a stranger in the library. He’s not… human.”
The man pushed to his feet with the same powerful grace he’d used to leap from a moving vehicle. “Get in the truck. Stay there.”
A second later, he was gone, running toward the library.
Isa sat up and looked at the truck with its engine running and three doors left hanging open. Then she looked at the library door. From here she could see a pile of books strewn across the entry. Another handful hit the door, knocking the bell around. There were shadows of at least three people—or things—moving around in there.
Something bad was going on inside, and the man who’d saved her life was in there with it.
She searched for her cell phone to call the police, but it wasn’t in her pocket. Her purse lay nearby, its contents strewn over the frozen grass. She didn’t see her phone, but maybe it hadn’t been knocked out of her purse.
The front doors of the library shattered. Glass crashed, tinkling as it hit the ground. An instant later, she felt the heavy impact of the fleshy creature as it hit the asphalt. It kept sliding until it collided with her car hard enough to rock it.
The thing was much more agile than anything its size had a right to be. Within seconds, it regained its footing and charged back into the library, chin down, fur-wrapped feet moving easily over the ice.
She froze there, still and silent, hoping it wouldn’t notice her crouched by the bushes.
As soon as it plunged back through the doors, she grabbed up her purse and dug through its contents. Her phone wasn’t there, either. And she desperately needed a phone. Any creature that could take a hit like that and keep going needed more firepower than one truck full of unarmed people could offer. They needed help. Police with lots of guns, and maybe a sturdy cage.
She walked on the grass to keep from slipping, edging around the perimeter of the parking lot until she was close to where the salt had been laid out. She really didn’t want to go back in there, but someone needed to call for help, and with all the commotion going on in the library, she wasn’t sure that any of the people inside had found the time. That left the job to her.
Isa peered through the cluttered doorway, making certain the coast was clear. She could see motion at the back of the library. More books flew around. A shelf toppled over, making her cringe so hard it hurt her injured shoulder.
Mrs. Bird was going to be pissed that all of her beloved books were being abused so mercilessly.
With no one in sight, Isa hurried inside and headed straight for the phone behind the front desk.
Her cherry red cell was sitting on the desk, right where she’d left it. She’d been in such a hurry to get out, she’d forgotten it. But now she scooped it up and tucked it in her pocket while she used the land line to dial 911. If she had to run, she could leave the phone off the hook so the police would know where to come.
She hadn’t yet finished punching the last number when something flew past her head, missing by less than an inch. Before her hair had stopped swaying, she looked up and saw the fleshy gray creature lumbering toward her. Its orange eyes were lit with victory, its huge hands stretched out for her. “Child of Loriah.”
She didn’t stop to think, she just took the object in her hand and aimed at its head. The cordless phone sailed over the desk, hitting the creature in the cheek. Its many folds of skin flapped as they absorbed the blow. She hadn’t even slowed it down, and now the phone was gone.
Isa pushed herself back, using both arms and legs to get out of his way. Her dressy shoes slipped on the floor. Her long skirt impeded her movement. It felt like she scrambled forever—like some kind of cartoon character—but finally she found enough traction to spin around the giant desk and duck behind a sturdy shelf.
Through the stacks, she could see three men charging her way. The first in line was the man who’d flown through the air to snatch her out of the way of the truck. The second was shirtless, with deep bronze skin, wearing wide leather bands around his wrists. The third had a shaved head that was covered in intricate tattoos. All three of them were big, scary, and headed her way.
The man with the braid wore four rings on each hand. He clapped his hands together, and when he pulled them apart, filaments of blue-white electricity stretched between the rings, forming a kind of net.
He let out a bellow so loud the shelves rattled. She didn’t understand the word he’d uttered, but he said it with such force and conviction—such complete and utter command—she felt herself freezing in place.
So did the creature. It stopped and turned, baring thick teeth that looked like chips of gray granite. A deep rumbling warning vibrated its lips and cheeks.
The man with the braid stepped onto the top of the main desk, moving as casually as if he’d gone up a single stair. The light between his hands crackled as he spread his arms wider, splaying his fingers to thicken the streaming web of electricity.
“Warrian,” the bare-chested man said. “The woman.”
“I see her,” the man with the braid answered. “I will let no harm reach her.”
Isa waited for the metallic taste of his lie to coat her tongue, but none came. He truly believed she was going to be okay.
For some reason that bolstered her courage. She’d seem some freaky things tonight—his electrical finger web included. Maybe he knew something she didn’t. She sure as hell hoped so.
His gaze flicked to her for a split second. “Run.” It wasn’t an order. It was barely a suggestion. But his complete confidence surged through her, both infectious and welcome.
Isa ran for the door.
Before her second step had landed, she saw him move. The man called Warrian leaped from the desk, flying toward the beast. The web of light flowed between his hands like water, answering to even his smallest of movements.
His booted feet hit the creature’s saggy stomach and bounced off, landing neatly on the floor in front of it. It reached down beneath its tattered clothing and pulled out two red blades—each one the length of her forearm. They looked like table knives in its giant fists, but much more deadly.
The blades moved toward the heart of the man who’d saved her life, yanking a scream of fear from her chest. She stopped, trying to warn him of the danger, but no words came out. She couldn’t look away. She stared in shock, completely consumed by the battle playing out.
Warrian moved his hands in a big circle, making the web dance between them. The strands looped around the creature’s wrists. He pulled hard, causing the muscles of his arms and back to bulge under the strain.
Both of the creature’s hands flew off, completely severed by the brilliant net. Not a single drop of blood fell, but the smell of burning hair and flesh filled the air. The creature roared in pain and rage, but the man didn’t back down. He jumped up, tumbling over the creature’s head and looping his webbing around its neck. By the time his feet were firmly on the floor, the creature’s severed head was tumbling down, bouncing off its fleshy gut to land on a pile of books.
Isa stumbled to a halt, her heart pounding hard. She couldn’t believe what she’d seen, and yet the reality of it was all around her in the form of toppled books, monstrous body parts, and the smell of charred flesh.
All three men turned and stared at her as if expecting her to say something. Or maybe they were seeking applause.
Whatever it was they wanted, they were going to have to get it from someone else.
“I’m calling the police,” she said, pulling her phone from her pocket.
The bare-chested man reached for her phone to stop her, but Warrian gave him a warning growl. “She is of House Loriah. You may not touch.”
“Are you certain?” asked the dark-skinned guy who was mostly naked and doing a fine job of pulling off the look.
“I am. She looks like her mother.”
Isa went still in the act of dialing her phone. “What did you say?” she asked, nearly too shaken to get the words out. Her mother had been dead for years, since Isa was an infant. She didn’t even have pictures, and yet somehow this man knew what her mother looked like?
His gaze hit hers and held fast as he made his way to her, stepping over toppled furniture and books as if they were no more an obstacle than blades of grass. When he got close, she had to tip her head back to look him in the eyes.
He bowed his head. His voice was calm, almost reverent. “I am Warrian of House Loriah, Your Imperial Majyr. You look like your mother.”
Imperial what? She had no idea what he was talking about. He had to be mistaken. “My mother is dead.”
He closed his eyes and bowed his head momentarily. “Yes, sadly. A fate which will not find you while I yet breathe.”
“We can’t stay here,” the man with the tattooed head said.
Her savior seemed to be in charge, and started issuing orders. “Talan, destroy the body, then head outside and scout the area.”
Talan, the tattooed man, nodded and pulled a small metallic spike from his belt. He knelt over one of the huge, severed hands, plunged the metal spike in it, and seconds later, the hand fell into a pile of white powder.
Isa stared in shocked gratitude. At least no one was going to have to clean that up.
“Radek,” said Warrian, turning to the half-naked guy. “Search the building. Then we go separate ways. The Dregorgs rarely travel alone. There will be a hunt.”
Radek clenched his fists in anticipation. “We’ll need her scent to draw them away.”
Isa was having trouble keeping up with everything. It was all happening too fast. But there was one thing she had caught. She looked up at the man with the braid. “You mean there are more of those things out there?”
“Many. We must go.” His gaze slid past her to the parking lot. “Do you have a vehicle?”
“Your keys.” He held out his hand in expectation.
His palm was wide, square, and marked with calluses—the hand of a man who was not a stranger to hard work. She remembered how his fingers had felt sliding through her hair as he searched for signs of injury, gentle yet insistent, just as his mouth had been. She swore she could still feel the heat of his touch lingering along her scalp.
Each long, thick finger was encircled by a ring covered in tiny, intricate symbols she didn’t recognize. The rings on his right hand were silver, while those on his left were a rich, dark gold. There were no more strands of electricity spilling from the odd weapon, but she knew what it was capable of doing.
Isa swallowed hard to make room in her tight throat to speak. “I’m not giving you my keys. How will I get home?”
“You will not go home, Your Imperial Majyr. The Dregorg found you, and once his master sees what was done here he will know your true identity. More Dregorgs will follow.”
Who she was? A sick sense of dread began forming at the base of her skull. She wasn’t completely sure what was happening, but something in the back of her mind began to tingle, like a distant memory slowly surfacing. “Just exactly where is it I should go then?”
“Of course,” she snapped, fear and frustration getting the best of her. “Why didn’t I think of that? Just hop into a car with a monster-killing stranger with electrified hands. No big deal.”
“I will not harm you,” he said.
And unlike with the creature, she tasted absolutely no hint of a lie in his words. “I don’t know you. I don’t trust you.”
He flinched as if her words had hurt him, as if her lack of trust was some kind of wound to his pride. “I will not leave your side. You’re not safe here.”
“And where will I be safe?”
“That is a question that requires a longer answer than we have time. Please. Come with me. Your life depends on your cooperation.”
Again, no lie. Whoever this guy was, he really believed what he was selling.
“What happens if I refuse?” she asked.
His shoulders dipped on a sigh. “Then I will force you to come with me and accept the consequences of my actions once you’re safely away from this threat.”
“You mean you’ll abduct me against my will and just deal with me being pissed? You know I’ll press charges, right?”
He frowned for a second as if he didn’t understand her words. Between that and the slight accent lilting through his words, she was sure that English wasn’t his native language.
“No,” Radek, the bare-chested man, said. “Warrian means that he’ll do whatever it takes to protect you, and then when he gets you back safely where you belong, they’ll execute him for daring to go against your will. Is that what you want for the man who saved your life?”
Isa was struggling to find some scrap of sense or thread of logic she could grasp on to help her figure out what was going on. No one was going to execute him. It was a ridiculous thing to say, but all that she could shove out was a fumbling, “No, of course not.”
“Then give him your damn keys.”
She looked at Warrian’s square palm, then up at his face. There was no hint of anxiety in his expression. All she could see was a stoic kind of patience; he’d accept her decision—whatever it might be. His gaze moved slowly over her face, as if he was looking for something or memorizing her features. He lingered over her mouth for a moment, his eyelids drooping slightly.
She didn’t know who this man was or where he’d come from, but the need to know more swelled from deep within. Every time she glanced at the braid, some distant memory tugged at her, tickling the edges of her mind. It was almost like she knew him, except that if she’d ever met a man like him before, she never would have forgotten it.
Warrian was too big, too solid, too completely male. Even with ribbon in his hair, he screamed badass.
Isa had been staring too long, yet she couldn’t pull her eyes away. Watching him calmed her nerves in a way she couldn’t understand. And every time she looked at his mouth, she remembered the feel of his warmth sliding into her and the spicy taste of him.
She licked her lips to see if any hint of him remained. Warrian’s shirt shifted as his stomach clenched, but other than that, he had not moved. He was still standing there, solemnly awaiting her decision.
There were many things about what had happened in the last few minutes that Isa did not understand or care to dwell on. The one thing she knew for sure was that whoever this man was, she wasn’t quite ready to let him leave. He was the key to something—something important. And until she figured out what that was, she was willing to go along for the ride.
“What the hell,” she said, slapping her keys into his hand. “It’s not like tonight can get any scarier.”
Just then Talan came sprinting in from outside. The chains dangling from a multitude of piercings along his ear glittered under the fluorescent lights. “Two more Dregorgs are closing in fast. It’s time to go.”
Isa sincerely wished she’d kept her mouth shut.
Warrian tried not to stare overly long at the empress. He’d already dishonored her by putting his mouth to hers, and he refused to add to that shame by gawking at her like some kind of besotted adolescent. No matter how beautiful she was.
Fear stained the hollows beneath her cheekbones and widened her eyes. They were the color of deep, turbulent seas—a fathomless mix of blues, greens and grays. Her blond hair was worn loose, without a single sign of her house or status braded into the locks. Being in her presence like this was similar to seeing her in a state of undress—something only close family would ever witness back on Loriah. It was a form of intimacy that she wouldn’t understand, and, therefore, he would refuse to acknowledge. No matter how much it intrigued the baser parts of him. There was nothing to gain by embarrassing her, or shaming himself.
His family already carried enough shame.
Her frame was more delicate than it would have been had she been raised on her home world. The mass of this planet was slightly less, leaving her bones thinner and more breakable. His commander had warned him that she might appear strange, but there had been no warning that her fragile appearance would stir up and strengthen the protective instincts that had been bred into Warrian’s bloodline. It was his duty to see to her safety, but what he felt now went much deeper than duty, drilling down all the way to bone-deep, undeniable instinct.
This woman was important, and he would give his life to see to her safety. That was to be expected. What surprised him was that he realized even if she hadn’t been from House Loriah, he would have felt exactly the same way. She was an ethereal, priceless creation that was meant to be protected. By him.
Warrian tossed the empress’s keys to Talan, the soldier representing Imon’s national interests on this mission. A trio of chains dangled from metal loops along the outer edge of his ear, twinkling with tiny, complex charms. An intricate trail of markings covered his shaved skull, cascading down to disappear beneath his shirt.
“Lead the Dregorgs away in her vehicle,” ordered Warrian.
Talan nodded once. “I’ll need her scent. Something fresh for the Dregorgs to track.”
Warrian nodded, and turned to the empress, regretting the haste with which he had to treat her. “I must pluck some of your hair.”
She took a small step back, covering her head with trembling hands. “My hair?”
Talan shifted impatiently, but didn’t touch her. No one outside of members of House Loriah would dare touch her. Warrian would only do so if absolutely necessary, which had happened within seconds of seeing her. Even now, the thought of cradling her slender body against his again was enough to make his stomach clench with the need to see her to safety.
“The Dregorgs can track your scent,” said Talan. “We’re going to lead them away, but we need something that smells like you. Your hair, a piece of clothing—”
“No clothing,” said Warrian. He wanted her as fully dressed as possible in front of these foreigners.
She lowered her hands and leaned forward. “Okay. Sure. Whatever. Just do it fast before more of those whatever-you-called-thems come back.”
“Dregorgs.” Warrian did his best to touch her as little as possible, but the strands clung together, forcing him to slide his fingers in deep enough to feel the silken glide of her hair over his skin. He separated two strands and gave them a quick tug.
Talan took one. “That’ll work.”
“Head west,” Warrian ordered.
Talan nodded his intricately marked head, and sprinted out into the night.
Radek from House Soric held out his hand to receive the other strand. He wrapped it around two fingers, gathered it up and tucked it beneath the wide leather cuff around his wrist. “I’ll head north.”
Warrian nodded his agreement. The storm was worse in that direction, and Radek was most able to tolerate the cold.
“Are you sure those things are going to be able to smell me from just that one strand of hair?” asked the empress.
Warrian pinched the fabric of her puffy coat and tugged on it to get her moving toward the truck. “I am. We need to hurry now, Your Imperial Majyr.”
A book slipped out from beneath her shoe, causing her to stumble. Warrian grabbed her to steady her, and his hand accidentally found the slim curve of her hip. He should have pulled back, releasing her royal person, but they still had another mountain of books, a shattered glass door and an icy stretch of roadway to overcome before reaching the safety of the truck. So instead of doing what was proper, he did what was necessary. He tucked her against his side, tightened his grip on her body and sped toward escape.
The fact that every male instinct within him perked up at her closeness was an inconvenience he was going to have to ignore.
As close as she was to him now, her scent wrapped around his head. He dragged it in, reveling in the way it reminded him of warm ocean breezes and sun-drenched beaches. It had been a long time since he’d experienced the luxury of such things—not since the Raide had invaded Loriah and turned their world upside down. War had a way of driving all the good away, but here in this moment, he remembered the peace of his childhood, and silently thanked the empress for the pleasant respite from pain and death.
“I’ll take the bike,” said Radek, grinning at the thrill of the chase. He lifted a two-wheeled conveyance from the back of the truck and mounted it. The growling engine sparked to life, forcing out a billow of steam behind it.
The empress stopped in her tracks right in front of the bike. “You’ll freeze to death on that thing. You’re not even wearing a freaking shirt. And where’s your helmet? The roads are icy deathtraps.”
Radek’s smile widened at her ridiculous claim. “I’ll be fine, Your Imperial Majyr.” He thumped his chest and winked at her. “Good bloodlines.”
Warrian ignored the veiled insult at his own bloodlines and took the empress by the arm to help her up into the truck. She stifled a hiss of pain, clenching inward to favor her shoulder.
“Did I injure you?” he asked. He’d treated her roughly, tackling her to the ground as he had. He’d done it to save her life, but if he’d damaged her…
“No. That fleshy gray guy did it.”
A feeling of relief trickled through him. As selfish as it was for him to worry over such things, he was grateful he hadn’t hurt her. “I’m pleased that the Dregorg is dead, then. I would kill him for you again if it were possible.”
“Uh. Thanks. I guess. We’re good. Besides, I’ve never had anyone kill for me before.”
That wasn’t true, but he doubted she remembered much from the night of her escape. Warrian had been only ten at the time. She had been a baby, still mastering the art of walking. She’d wobbled past him, hand in hand with her sobbing mother, as she and the other children from House Loriah were rushed into hiding—sent to this distant world that no Raide knew existed. At the time.
And now all of those children needed to come home. Loriah and all of her people depended on it.
“How badly are you injured?” he asked.
“It’s not good, but I’ll live. Let’s just get out of here before company comes.”
He reached behind the seat to where his cloak lay and set it in her lap without touching her. “Put this on, covering as much of yourself as possible.”
“To mask your scent from the Dregorgs.”
She pulled the soft green cloak around herself as she asked, “How is a little fabric going to help when a single hair of mine is enough for those things to track?”
“Because I wear that cloak often and it smells of me. The fabric is a tight weave. It sheds water and deflects wind. Perhaps it will help.” And it was imbued with a substance the Builders had created that masked scent, but telling her that would only create more questions when there was time for none.
“Perhaps is better than no perhaps, I suppose.” She folded her legs on the seat, and draped herself completely. Only her face remained free, pale and pinched with pain and fear.
The urge to draw her against his chest and offer the comfort of his embrace was nearly overwhelming. He remembered how she’d melted beneath him, going boneless and relaxed as he’d breathed into her. Perhaps that had been shock, or the relief of feeling her lungs expand with air, but there was an instinct in him that whispered of something else, something deeper. It demanded he surround her with his strength and hold all enemies at bay.
Instead, he shut her door and climbed into the truck. He would see to her injuries as soon as it was safe, and in doing so, he’d once again have reason to touch her. Until then, Her Imperial Majyr was to stay out of his grasp.
Warrian turned the truck around slowly, cautious of the ice. There were no visible signs of Dregorgs approaching, but Talan was an excellent scout. If he said they were coming, then they were.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“We will keep moving for a while, then we will stop.”
“Way to be specific, Warrian. Care to try again?”
He was shocked by her use of his name. Most guards were only referred to by their position, if at all, especially by nobility. Her familiarity hadn’t been purposeful, but like her unbound hair, it was one more intimacy meant to fool him into forgetting his place.
He tightened his hold on the wheel and kept his gaze focused on the road ahead. Maneuvering these streets while coated with ice was much more difficult and slower than usual, which gave him all the reason he needed not to look at her. “I will drive until I’m sure that no more Dregorgs are on our trail. Then I will take you to a place of safety while we wait for the window.”
She wasn’t ready for that step of their journey yet. He could tell she was still suffering from the stress of the assault as well as her injury. “Are you hurt anywhere other than your shoulder?”
“Not really. And how did you know it was my shoulder?”
“Because I was watching you.” Too closely, but at least the lack of self-control had served him well in this case.
“I think I may need to have it x-rayed.”
Warrian glanced at her, hoping to figure out what she meant. “I don’t know this word, x-rayed.”
“Really? You’ve never had a broken bone with all of that tumbling, leaping, flying, rescue-fighting stuff you do?”
He put the pieces together, determining that this x-rayed had something to do with broken bones.
“You think your shoulder is broken?” The pain must have been more serious than he’d thought, though he should have expected it. The reduced gravity of this world had weakened her, leaving her prone to damage.
“I don’t know,” she said. “That Dregorg thing yanked on it pretty hard. It could just be dislocated. Either way I’m going to need a doctor.”
“I will provide what you need.”
“So you’re a doctor and an acrobat?”
“I am neither. But I will tend your injury as soon as it is safe to stop. I’m sorry it can’t be sooner.”
“I’m fine. Just keep driving away from those things and I won’t complain.”
“It is your right to complain as you wish, Your Imperial Majyr.”
“Imperial what? That’s not the first time you guys have called me that. Why?”
Perhaps he should have been more cautious with his words. Apparently she had no idea who she really was, or that this was not her world. His commander had been unsure if her permanent guardian would have told her the truth, assuming the woman had survived long enough to do so. The Raide had found this planet, and there was no way to know how long they had been lurking here.
Warrian’s orders were to deliver all information to the empress carefully, easing her into her role. Barring that, he was simply supposed to deliver her to the palace, handing the job of education over to someone more capable than him. Likely the council, who would shape her into an instrument that suited their goals.
Warrian’s face heated with frustration and a sense of failure. “Forgive me. I am much better in battle than in conversation.”
“You called me imperial something. What the hell does that mean?”
She wasn’t ready for the truth yet. And he clearly wasn’t capable of enlightening her gently. His only viable option to maintain the integrity of his mission seemed to be to lie to her—something he was loathe to do. Still, since it was for her benefit… “I misspoke. I apologize.”
“Liar. Try again. Why did you call me that?”
“What would you like me to call you?”
“Isa works. Ms. Telwyn if you’re nasty.”
His spine straightened with indignation. “I assure you I am not nasty.”
She sighed. “Okay then. That’s settled. Now about this imperial stuff…”
Warrian was trapped. Lies and evasion were not working. He could sit in silence, ignoring her questions, but that chafed against his sense of duty. She was undoubtedly confused, and if the trembling of his cloak was any indication, afraid. She’d been attacked by something she’d never seen before, nearly crushed beneath a truck, and whisked away by a stranger. She was injured, her body was frail, and the least she deserved was for him to answer her questions.
He pulled in a long breath as he checked for signs of danger. There were few vehicles out on the streets. The farther they went, the worse the storm became. Dregorgs or not, they were going to have to stop soon or risk dying on the roads.
“I was sent here to find you,” he said. “This place—this world—is not your home. But at your home—your real home—you are nobility. If my guess is right, you are daughter of the previous empress.”
“And since my mother is dead…”
“That leaves you empress now.”
Isa sat in silence for a while, staring at him. He could feel her gaze against the side of his face, warm like the fleeting brush of sunshine in a forest. Finally, her voice came out, quiet and uncertain. “You’re not lying. If you were lying, I’d know.”
“It was rumored that your mother could taste a lie.”
She sucked in a shocked breath. “So can I. It’s all metallic and icky, like old pennies.”
“Does that mean you believe me?”
Her head fell back against the seat in defeat. “Do I have a choice? It seems like the only other options are that I hit my head and am experiencing some kind of concussion-induced hallucination. Or I’m dead and the afterlife is an insane place filled with hot men with braids and scary, giant, dog-faced monsters.”
A little wave of pride puffed him up. He didn’t understand why people here used temperature to describe attractiveness, but he did understand her meaning. She found him appealing, which was both flattering and concerning.
She didn’t truly understand her station. She didn’t understand that she was supposed to see him as a tool—one meant to pry her from this place and carry her home. She was seeing him as an equal, which, while exhilarating at moments, was dangerous for both of them.
Warrian could not forget his place. He would not forget it. She ruled. He fought. There were no intersections between the two beyond orders given and obeyed.
His phone rang. The human devices were handy for communication, and while Loriah had its own kind of communication technology, it worked poorly here.
Talan’s voice came through the device. “One Dregorg is trailing me. The other was tracking Radek. He killed it.”
“There are none following us,” said Warrian.
“Okay. I’ll take this one out and we should be good.”
“Of course you should be good. You are a man of honor.” Talan had lived here long enough to have picked up the language better than Warrian had, and he was often left trying to determine the other man’s meaning.
“No, I mean I’m going to kill him.”
“I like your plan. You may proceed.”
“Glad it meets your approval. Where are you?”
“The empress is in need of repair. I will take her to the southernmost camp where I will mend her. We will regroup there.”
“Sounds good. Bye.”
“By what?” Warrian asked, but Talan had already ended the connection.
“You’re going to mend me?” the empress asked, her sharp tone stating clearly that she was not fond of the idea.
“You object to this?”
“I object to you not taking me to a medical professional.”
“I don’t trust anyone to repair you as efficiently as I can.”
“You know, words like repair and mend make me think of duct tape and electrical wire. I’m not letting you get anywhere near my shoulder without proof that you know what you’re doing. It already hurts enough.”
If there hadn’t been a thread of pain weaving her words together so tightly, he would have complied with her wishes. But she was in pain, and that alone was enough to push him to argue with her—something of which he never would have thought himself capable only hours ago. Before meeting her. Before seeing just how fragile this world had left her.
“There will be no wires, and less pain than the needles and knives your doctors use.”
“No needles?” she asked, her tone hopeful.
She deepened her voice and gave it an artificial roughness. “I like your plan. You may proceed.”
He’d said those same words to Talan only moments ago. “Are you mocking me?”
“A little. But you’re man enough to take it, and it gives me something to think about instead of the pain and the fact that there may be monsters chasing us.” There was an edge of vulnerability in her words that made him wish he could sweep her away from here sooner.
“I will not let the Dregorgs find you.”
“And if they do?”
“Then I will kill them.”
She turned away from him and stared out of the window. “How much trouble am I in, Warrian?”
The Dregorgs could still find her, but they weren’t the only threat. They were beasts of burden, war slaves of the Raide—the true threat. From now until the empress stepped back through the window, her life was at risk.
And then, when she did return home to the battle waging across Loriah, her safety was even more in question. If there were any other way of protecting their people from the Raide, Warrian would have left her here in peace. But there was no other way. Her people needed her, whether or not she knew it. Whether or not she wanted to be needed.
He wasn’t sure how to answer her question, and he knew that if he lied, she would sense it. After some silent thought, he settled on, “The trouble you are in is large, but there are many who would give their lives to keep you safe.”
“I don’t want that. All I want is for you to take me to a hospital where I can call the police or animal control to deal with my little infestation.”
“Your life has changed course.”
“But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t ask for this.”
“You were born the daughter of an empress. That’s all it takes to map out the course of your existence.”
Frigid rain hit the windows, mixed with the faint click of icy pellets. Heat was blown into the truck’s cabin, but he could feel cold air slinking in all around them.
“I hate it that I know you’re not lying,” she said. “If I didn’t know, then I could pretend that you were some deranged Comic-Con escapee.”
“I don’t know this Comic-Con thing, but I understand that lies are sometimes easier to bear. For burdening you with the truth, I am sorry.”
She continued staring out the window, and he found that he disliked not being able to glance over and read her expression.
“G’ma always said I was special. But all grandparents say that. I never thought it was anything more than pretty words—at least not once I was old enough to know there was no Tooth Fairy.”
Warrian wanted to ask about this fairy, but his focus had to remain on the empress. “This woman—your G’ma—was sent here with you. She was your guardian, charged with your protection and preparation.”
The empress let out a harsh laugh. “Prepare me? She told me stories of ocean kingdoms and warring lands brought together by a common enemy. She went on and on about beautiful places that don’t exist, lush island paradises, giant ships, and a way of life destroyed by greed. The only thing I’m prepared for is telling really great bedtime stories.”
She was wrong, though he refused to say the disrespectful words aloud. She never would have been entrusted to a guardian who would not have prepared her for her duty. There had been only one heir to the throne. The late empress would never have risked her entire empire by sending her only daughter away with a guardian who did not understand the magnitude of her responsibilities.
An entire world rested on Isa Telwyn’s slim shoulders. If she had not been prepared for her duties, then there truly was no hope.
Kemp, Battle Lord of the Third Arm of Force Dimas, surveyed the damage his Dregs had left behind. Paper books and glass littered the scene, along with the powdery pale remains of failure.
He turned to Oc, the lumbering giant looming nearby awaiting orders. “Where is the Loriahan?” he asked, his voice quiet.
This Dreg was less offensive than most, garbed in scented robes that masked his pungent odor. For that reason alone, Kemp tolerated his proximity.
“Gone,” Oc answered. “Carried away. Protected.”
Oc closed his brilliant orange eyes as he reached out to his people with his mind. All Dregs shared an intricate mental link that Kemp’s kind had yet to unravel. No matter how many subjects they tested, or what portions of the Dreg’s brains they removed, there had been no advancements in understanding. So the Raide were left leaning on a race of creatures who lacked intelligence, but had strength, stamina and a built-in system of communication.
“Two more of mine died on the hunt. No scent was shared.”
“Meaning you have no way of tracking her,” Kemp guessed.
Oc frowned in confusion, causing wrinkles to form between the skin folds sagging along his brow. “Mine died before they could share the female’s scent. Mine need a scent to track.”
Kemp sighed and trudged over the clutter to see if there were any signs of the woman inside. The intelligence unit of Force Dimas had learned that the Loriahan woman worked in this place. If she had been here every day, there had to be some trace of her left to find.
“Hunt for her scent.”
Oc stepped over a toppled shelf in one long stride and began sniffing the air. “There are remnants of too many beings here.”
“She worked here. Surely you can smell her scent over those who merely passed through.”
“I smell you.”
Kemp gritted his teeth in frustration and backed away. Oc continued sniffing, leaning down so that the folds of skin on his face hung close to a workspace chair.
“Four beings sit here.”
“Can you narrow it down?”
Oc began picking up items from the desk and bringing them to his nose. He paused over the sleeve of a sweater hanging on the back of a chair. “Old female.”
“The Loriahan woman is not old.”
Oc discarded the object and reached for another—a ceramic mug this time. “Male.”
“Try again.” Kemp looked around for something that might help. There, caught in the loose joint of a chair were a few strands of hair. He pulled them free and handed them to his slave. “What about these?”
Oc separated the strands with bulky fingers, bringing each to his nose. “Yes. Young females.”
That would have to suffice. “Send those scents to the others and have them begin the hunt.”
“Are mine to kill?” Oc asked.
“No. They are absolutely not to kill. Bring the women back alive, or yours die.”