“I asked you nicely. Once. I won’t do it again.”
The woman didn’t flinch, but her gaze turned hard and held his without faltering. “You didn’t, Vance.”
“I didn’t what? By the way, what’s your name, sugar? Guess it must’ve slipped my mind since last night,” he added, smirking.
“I’m called Lorelei,” she said as she stood, forcing him to take a step back lest she knock him over. “And what you didn’t do was ask me nicely, but it doesn’t matter. You won’t find your phone, clothing, or the means to leave until I’m sure you’re fully healed.”
He maintained his glower but found himself at a bit of a loss. Though she was tall for a woman, he still outweighed her by at least fifty pounds of muscle. Most men he’d faced down during his time on the road would have cowered, but she clearly didn’t fear him.
Since he couldn’t persuade her by fear, he shifted tactics again, reverting to his preferred method of persuasion when faced with a difficult woman. It hadn’t failed him yet. He allowed his gaze to wander down her face to her full lips, and from there down along the slender column of her neck. Her audible swallow and the bob in her throat made him smirk with satisfaction. When his gaze fell to the swell of her breasts, he grew hard again and knew she’d read the heat in his gaze when it returned to her face.
He definitely saw heat in hers.
He moved past her, taking care to brush his skin against her bare arms, and sat down on the bed. He reclined and stretched his body, allowing the towel that covered his lower half to come loose. Plastering a smile on his face, one that charmed most women right out of their panties, he said, “Well if you really want to make sure I’m healed, Lorelei, I guess you’d best get on with your examination.”
“You were right, you know.”
Somehow, he managed to speak through his suddenly tight throat, his voice a low, hoarse whisper. “About what?”
“About not being a knight in shining armor.”
Before he had the chance to pull away or sink into the sea of dejection, she continued. “I’ve seen all manner of mortal warrior throughout my long existence. Those knights celebrated in ballads and legends, the ones who don spotless armor? More often than not, they’re all for show. Prancing and preening, waving their royal banners emblazoned with family crests, drawing lance and sword in tournaments while never entering the battlefield. You are not one of those knights, Paul Pulaski.”
Paul almost forgot to breathe. Between her soothing touch and expression of awed reverence, he feared he’d come undone as the words he needed to hear caressed his ears and branded his heart.
“A real knight doesn’t scorn the wear and tear on his armor, the dishabille of his clothing, the roughness of his appearance. He’s too busy charging into battle, unafraid to toil and fight until he has mastered his foe, no matter how dark or daunting. He is tireless in his training and perfects his skill, not for the accolades of cheering crowds, but so he can be of use. A real knight sees no task as beneath him if he knows it will lead him to victory. And he will move heaven, earth, and even water to come to the aid of a lady,” she said, then paused and dropped her gaze, “even when that lady is ungrateful and most unworthy.”
He probably shouldn’t have done that, taken an unstable Phoenix on his version of a fun flight, but great gods the opportunity proved too irresistible!
Of course it would be more fun if she’d relax and stop screaming.
Bruce had extensive experience with flying and fledglings. And in his experience, the best way to get noobs to overcome fear of flying was to just boot them off a ledge, or cliff—or drop them from the sky and let physics and psychology work it out organically. It worked for all manner of birds, and it wasn’t like she would die, for fuck’s sake. She was as immortal as he.
Then again, the whole ticking time bomb issue gave him pause and urged uncharacteristic restraint on his part, which is why he hadn’t actually let her go and settled on carrying through the sky her instead.
Shame to waste such beautiful wings, though.
“Are you done screaming yet?” he asked with as much patience as he could muster. He’d never been more tempted to take someone’s voice, not even a Nixie’s. And their siren calls were deadly.
Her voice just grated.
Sera squirmed and twisted her head so she could look up at him, brown eyes wide with fear, anger, and righteous indignation. With a look of pure defiance, she opened her mouth and screamed even louder. Good for you, little sparrow. Well, not the screaming, but the fighting spirit. Such an odd mix, this one, wallowing in a death wish one minute and burning him to a crisp the next. Her emotional essence reeked of negativity, but also determination. He was a happiness and light kind of guy, and part of his nature was to foster that upon which he fed, so she presented quite a challenge.
And her scent matched the one he’d been tracking. Multitasking at its finest.
Breathless and furious, she stopped shrieking for a few blessed moments. When she recovered, she yelled, “Is this some sort of joke to you? You are playing with fire! Literally!”
“Oh,” he said. “Does this mean you’re done screaming and we can have a conversation?”
“What the hell are you playing at?”
He sighed, banking left as gently as possible lest any sudden moves inspire more unpleasant noise. Screaming was all well and good in other contexts, namely ones that involved cries of shared ecstasy, but the incessant shrill shrieks chapped his ass.
“I’m not playing. Calm down and focus. Can you feel any trace of your brother? I’ve been tracking him by his aura and smoke trails.”
She stared at him in apparent confusion. And jaw-dropping disbelief.
He snorted. “Yes, yes, I know. All this raw masculinity, charm, and brains, too. I get that a lot. Now, will you kindly close your mouth and open your other senses? I could use a bit of help here.”
She did clamp her jaw shut, at least, but also managed to kick him in the shin. Ouch.
Right. This was getting him exactly nowhere.
He yanked them up hard into a stall and then dropped them into free fall. This time he made sure to conjure a vacuum around his ears to get what would likely be his last moment of peace for the foreseeable future. As they approached the ground, he rolled belly up with her on top, facing the clouds. Then he summoned the wind to his service and slowed their descent, floating them down on a cloud of contentment.
Well, he was content at least. He doubted the creature squirming in his arms had ever been content a day in her existence.
They came to a stop with the delightful prickle of late winter grass caressing his back. Wind was his home and spirit, but the earth’s warm embrace always gave comfort and solace. With a deep sigh of crisp, cool air, he gave in to instinct and loosened his protective hold on Sera, pulling her into a proper embrace and willing some of that warmth into her as he planted a whisper of a kiss into her hair.
“Now that’s how you skydive.”
“Is that why you had to stop being a guardian of the law? Because you used your magic to find those men?”
“Yeah,” he said, grateful she was talking to him even if he didn’t care for the subject. “But I’d do it again.”
“Even after what it cost you? Your purpose?”
“Don’t you go believing all that nonsense from Ìyá. Who the hell has some grand purpose, anyway? Most folks are just doing the best they can, trying to survive and do some good along the way. I’m lucky that I still get to use my gifts to help people.”
He leaned against the door and whispered, “I’m lucky I get to help you.”
The lock on the door clicked and the knob twisted. It opened in response to his weight before he pulled back to let Gwen open it all the way. She stood just inside the doorframe, looking very small and fragile, head down and shoulders slumped.
“You’re not angry with me?” she asked.
Oh, damn, he couldn’t handle this. Angry Gwen, awkward Gwen, defiant and powerful Gwen? Sure. But sad and frightened Gwen? No, that would break his heart right in two.
“Of course I’m not, oyin mi. Come here.”
She fell into his arms and he caught her, grateful that he hadn’t destroyed the bond they’d formed. This bond had nothing at all to do with magic. This bond was much stronger.
She reached up and cupped his face in her palms, pulling him down for a kiss full of fire and passion. It was messy and awkward at first, but they soon fell into a rhythm that had him hot and hungry.
“I think I’d like a shave.”
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but she settled on laughter. It wasn’t a no. She could keep herself busy while he took care of grooming. The dishes needed cleaning, the fire could stand a few more logs, and there was always—
“Will you help me?”
His question didn’t quite register at first. She’d been expecting dismissal or some awkward handing of the hat and coat routine and an it’s-not-you-it’s-me speech. He wanted her help?
It made sense from a practical standpoint. It would be easier for her to cut his beard to a length amenable to shaving. Beyond that, however, the intimacy of such an ordinary act held delicious possibilities. Not that he wanted to explore those possibilities, but if he did…
“I’ve got a blade and strop, and some DIY shaving cream,” he said, almost apologetically. “Thought it would be another way to keep my mind occupied out here, doing things the old-fashioned way.”
“I can manage with that,” she said. “I’ll even throw in some herbs to soothe your skin.”
He grinned. It made her wonder what he’d look like without the beard, how silky his hair would feel under her fingertips, if his skin would be as warm and inviting as she imagined.
“Good,” he said, standing taller. “I’ll get everything together. Be right back.”
Her heart beat a little faster and her skin warmed. No, she needed to get a grip. He’d asked for a shave, nothing more. Gods, she hadn’t experienced this level of excitement since she’d been a hormonal teenager pining for her first crush. He’d been a strapping young farmhand who’d gifted her with kisses and caresses between chores and who’d later showed her paradise before leaving at the end of the season to go seek his fortune. She’d missed him, but it had been for the best. She couldn’t keep a human.
She couldn’t keep an elemental guardian, either, or so she’d thought. Jack had been right. She knew a thing or two about loneliness. Jack wasn’t human, not anymore, and he wasn’t an elemental guardian either. He was something else. He and Gren were more than the sum of their parts, could be even more.
Making peace, talking to the Griffin, listening to him, had already calmed Jack’s body and mind, even if he didn’t realize it. Aside from his slip when she snuck up on him earlier, he’d been relaxed, at ease, and in command of himself. Hopefully Gren had found more peace and calm, too.
And, if her preternatural hearing hadn’t deceived her, Gren had encouraged Jack to take her as a mate.
It was a big step, but she wouldn’t mind testing their…compatibility.
Calypso hovered above the storm she’d conjured, brooding, wondering if it would all be for nothing. The stubborn fool had been avoiding her for centuries, ever since their last brutal encounter had set off a tsunami of mythic proportions. That disaster could have wiped out half the mortal population had she not managed to contain it. He’d been angry, hurt, and unwilling to trust her enough to hear her side of things.
After all this time, would he finally be willing to listen?
He had to. She couldn’t bear to believe otherwise.
She’d endured enough empty days and lonely nights to atone for the sins she’d committed. Great gods, she’d been forced to pay for those she hadn’t. She hadn’t betrayed MacLir with Odysseus or any other mortal man, or immortal. Of course, MacLir believed she had. Damn Poseidon and his ancient power plays, and damn that mortal Homer and his treachery! Not only had the blind poet perpetuated the lie about her supposed affair with the Greek hero, it had become immortalized in legend, a constant reminder of betrayal to wound the tender heart of her sea god.
The Celts were a prideful race, and their revered gods even more so.
And the wretched bards of her people embellished their tales to make their mortal male heroes mightier, compensation for the imbalance of power and their woefully short lives. Oh, and didn’t the gods of Olympus just revel in it—elevating the brotherhood of men and gods while demonizing any and all of their female counterparts who dared follow their own passions and embrace their powers rather than bow to masculine whims. Calypso had dared, once, and wretched Poseidon had made her suffer for it. But if MacLir knew the real reason she’d parted with him, then he must surely forgive her. She would earn a second chance.
She must. She’d waited long enough, and she might never have a better opportunity.
That wild, wicked, passionate, mule-headed god with dark, windswept hair and eyes like a storm-tossed sea—eyes that had once looked upon her in awed reverence as they lie tousled and spent upon the shores of his untamed isles. Eyes burning with anguish and betrayal upon their parting. Those eyes had haunted her all the centuries that followed.
Gods, how she’d missed him.
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