The New York morning announced its presence by shooting rays of sunlight through Grace's living room windows. Cars honked outside; the people above her stomped across their apartment, shaking her ceiling.
"You have got to stop popping me in and out of places. I'm this close-" she told Darius, pinching her thumb and finger together "-to having a heart attack. And besides that, I wasn't ready to leave," she snapped. "I wanted you to take me into town so I could show Alex's picture around and ask if anyone had seen him."
"I did not deem it necessary," he said, releasing her. His face was pale and those lines of tension were back.
He did not deem it necessary , she silently mimicked. What about what she deemed necessary? Scowling, she padded to the kitchen, placed her gun inside a drawer and poured herself a tall glass of ice water. She drained every drop. Only after she'd consumed three more glasses did she offer Darius a drink.
"Have you anything other than water? Something with flavor?"
"I could make lemonade." Not that he deserved it.
"That will suffice."
She withdrew several lemons from the refrigerator, beat them against the counter to release the most juice, then sliced a hole in the top of each. She squeezed the tangy liquid into a glass and added sugar substitute-she did not keep real sugar anywhere near her-and water. She slid the drink across the counter.
Having watched her mix the contents with a leery eye, he lifted the glass and sipped tentatively. She knew the exact moment the sweet-and-sour flavors blended into his taste buds, knew the exact moment he wanted to howl with pleasure. His strong fingers gripped the cup, curling around the glass with surprising gentleness; his eyelids grew heavy, causing his inky lashes to dip over the sensuous planes of his cheekbones.
As he swallowed, his throat moved. A wicked shiver dripped along her spine, and she had the sudden urge to lick him there. I'm turned on by a man's trachea. How pathetic am I ?
"Surely that is ambrosia," he said. Thankfully his color had returned. He reluctantly set his empty glass on the countertop.
"I don't mind making more if you're-"
"I would like more," he rushed out.
If he reacted like this to lemonade, how would he react to chocolate? Spontaneous orgasm? Maybe she had a Hershey bar hidden somewhere...
He consumed two more glasses of lemonade in quick succession. He requested a third, but she'd run out of lemons. His disappointment was palpable, but he shrugged it off.
Watching her with heated eyes, he licked the last drop from the cup rim. "You asked me earlier what power my medallion possessed. I will show you now," he said. "First I will need your brother's surname."
"Carlyle. Like mine."
He arched a brow. "Is that common here? To share names?"
"Yes. You didn't share the same name as your family members?"
"No. Why should we have? We are each individuals and our names are our own."
"How do you show your family relationship, then?"
"With our affection for each other." Darius removed his medallion, and as he held it in his open palm, it glowed a brighter, eerier red. "Show me Alex Carlyle," he said to the dragon heads.
Four beams of crimson sprayed from both sets of eyes. They formed a circle in the air, and the beams grew wider by the second. Grace watched with fascination as the air began to crystallize.
"What's happening?" she whispered.
Alex's image appeared in the center of the circle, and all questions were forgotten. Her jaw dropped open in shock. Dirt, sweat and bruises covered her brother from head to toe, and as she took in his appearance, her blood ran cold. He was pallid, his skin so pale she could see the faint tracings of his veins. He wore only a pair of ripped, stained jeans. His eyes were closed, and he huddled on a muddy floor. Tremors raked him. From cold? From fever? Or fear? The room was sparsely furnished with a small bed and a chipped wooden nightstand.
With one hand she covered her mouth and with the other she reached out, hoping to smooth his brow, hoping to reassure him that she was here. Just like in me cave, her fingers drifted through like a mirage. Feeling helpless, she dropped her hands to her sides. "Alex," she said shakily.
"He cannot hear you," Darius said.
"Alex," she said again, determined to gain his attention in any way necessary. How long since he'd last eaten? What had put those bruises on his skin? What had made him so pale? She bit back a deep moan of distress.
"Do you recognize this place?" Darius asked.
"No." Lips trembling, gaze never straying, she shook her head. "Do you?"
"No," he sighed.
"It's a motel room, I think. Find him," she beseeched, watching in horror as her brother rolled to his side, revealing two bloody puncture wounds on his neck. "You said you would."
"I only wish it were that easy, Grace."
At last she switched her attention, flashing Darius an accusing glare. "You found me."
"We were connected through the spell of understanding. I simply followed my own magic. I have had no contact with your brother, nor does anything bind me to him."
Alex's image began to waver just as a woman approached him. She was the most beautiful woman Grace had ever seen. Where Alex was long and lean, the woman was small and delicate with flowing silvery-blond hair. Pixie features, porcelain skin. She crouched beside him and gently shook his shoulders.
"Who is that?" Grace demanded sharply.
Darius narrowed his focus. "That is Teira," he said, an undercurrent of incredulity in his tone. "Javar's wife."
"I don't care whose wife she is, as long as she leaves my brother alone. Is she cruel? Will she hurt him? What's she doing to him?"
Just as quickly as it appeared, the image faded completely.
"Bring them back," Grace commanded.
"The medallion shows me a vision for only a small period of time, and never the same person more than once."
No. No ! She controlled the urge to stomp her foot, to whimper. To cry. "Take me to Alex."
"I wish that I could, but I do not know the surface."
"You said you found me because we're connected. I can give you one of Alex's belongings. Or a photograph of him." Nearing a point of desperation, she jerked out the photo of Alex from her pocket and wrapped Darius's fingers around the folded edges. "You can connect with this and find him."
"That is not how my powers work, Grace." There was no emotion to him now. He'd reverted to his indifferent, unperturbed self, the part of him she so longed to shatter. Blue eyes hard and cold, he set the photo aside.
A single tear slowly ran down her cheek. "You have to help me." Gripping the fabric of his shirt, she said, "He's sick. I don't know how long he's gone without food or water. I don't know what that woman planned to do to him."
"Teira will not hurt him. She is ever gentle and caring."
"He needs me ."
"I have given you my word that I will help you find him while I am here. Do not doubt me."
"I don't doubt that you'll help me, Darius," she said brokenly. Hollowly. She stared up at him with watery eyes. "I just wonder if we'll get to him in time."
At that moment, Darius knew she meant Atlantis no harm. Knew she only wanted her brother safe and whole. Her emotions were too raw. Real. He hated himself for it because he could not let that change his purpose. He might loathe the man he'd become, the man he willingly was-a killer and a user-but that changed nothing.
When Grace learned that he was helping her only to destroy Alex, as well as Grace herself...
Tensing, he forced his mind on the matter at hand. Why was Teira with a human? Where were they being held? Their cell was a surface dwelling, yet Alex had been bitten by a vampire-a fact Darius wouldn't tell Grace.
The female dragon's presence added a new complication. Was she prisoner or captor? A loving woman who possessed a sweet nature and giving heart, she would not make a good captor. Yet Javar would never allow his wife to be taken. Unless he were dead.
That Darius once again found himself back to that line of thought unsettled him. He had, perhaps, another day here before he must return, yet he was no closer to answers than he had been when he first arrived. Instead the mystery had sprouted new, twisted limbs.
"The key is the medallion," he said. "I must figure out which human has the most to gain by possessing it."
"Not necessarily a human." With a shuddering sigh, Grace sank onto a stool. "Any of the creatures in Atlantis could use it to sneak inside your home and steal your valuables. For God's sake, you own jewels of every kind and size."
That's exactly what those humans had been doing inside Javar's palace, stealing, using the gods' tools to pry out the jewels. "Atlanteans must only ask and we share. There is no reason to steal."
"There is, too, a reason. Pure greediness. And I know for a fact that the emotion is inherent to all races, gods and humans alike. All of our myths and legends expound upon such things."
Now he sighed. "Humans are responsible this time ." He thought back to the messenger's words and the gun the boy had drawn. "Humans are even now inside my friend's home, wielding guns and the gods only know what other weapons."
"Could the humans be working with this friend?"
"Never." He would not consider the possibility. "Javar loathes humans as I do. He would never aid one."
She averted her gaze from him, shielding her expression. Several seconds ticked until she said, "Do you loathe all humans?" A trace of hurt leaked into her voice.
"Not all," he admitted reluctantly. He liked one tiny female more than was wise. A female with silky red curls and softly rounded curves. With lush breasts and high-tipped nipples.
A female he craved in his bed more with every moment that passed.
"Well, then," she said, straightening her back, pretending she had not a care. "We'll concentrate on humans. I'm sure I've told you this, but Alex wrote of someone chasing him through the jungle during his search for the portal. I'm willing to bet the same humans who are inside that palace are the ones Alex wrote about."
"Wrote?" he lashed out, concentrating on that one word. He could not allow any written record of his home. He already had the Book of Ra-Dracus to contend with. "You said he told you."
"He did. In his journal. He kept a log of his search for the mist. Would you like to read it?"
"Where is it?" he asked sharply.
"I'll show you." She walked from the kitchen, and Darius followed close on her heels. She led him down a small, narrow hallway laden with the calming scent of chamomile. They entered her bedchamber and it took only one glance at the bed for his stomach to tighten. She stopped at the desk and held up a can for his view. "This looks like an ordinary hairspray can, right?"
"Of course," he said, though he had no idea what hairspray was.
"Well, it's not." With quick, precise motions, she untwisted the end and out popped a key. Her lush, pink lips lifted in a half smile, revealing the hint of straight white teeth.
His stomach didn't tighten this time, but reached up and devoured his throat.
How could one woman possess so much beauty?
With a graceful flick of her fingers, she hooked tendrils of hair behind her ears. She bent down and inserted the key underneath the desk. "My father was too sick to hold a job-that's why we moved from South Carolina to New York, so he could be close to Sloan-Kettering. Anyway, to pass the time and make money in the process, he carved and sold furniture. He built this for me a long time ago."
"I am sorry for your loss."
"Thank you," she said softly. "My dad built one for Alex, too, though his secret compartments are different. I think. We used to get into each other's stuff, which made both of us furious. Alex would read my diary, and I would steal pictures of his friends. So my dad made us each a desk where we could successfully hide our treasures."
The melancholy in her voice remained long after her words faded away. Darius very nearly dropped to his knees and vowed never to hurt her or her brother if only she would smile again. He stayed the impulse, knowing such a promise was impossible to keep.
Inside the secret drawer lay a thin, plain book bound by black leather. As Grace traced her fingertips over the surface, she caught her bottom lip with her teeth, slowly releasing it. She handed the book to him, retaining contact until the last possible second.
He flipped through the pages, frowning at the unfamiliar script. While his spell of understanding gave him complete comprehension of Grace's spoken language, it did not provide him with an understanding of the written. He'd never been concerned with others' opinions of him, but he did not want Grace to perceive any weakness in him. He wanted her to see him as strong and capable, all that a woman could desire.
He handed the journal back to her, saying, "Read it to me. Please."
Thankfully she made no comment, merely accepted the book and stood. "Let's get comfortable in the living room."
Once there, Grace situated herself on the scarlet couch, and he eased beside her. Perhaps he should have chosen another chair, but he craved physical contact with her and saw no reason to deny himself. Not while he hungered for her scent in his nostrils. Hungered for her touch. Even this, as little as it was.
His thigh brushed hers, and she sucked in a breath and tried to scoot away. Did she think to deny him this minor connection? After everything she'd already allowed? Only hours before, the woman had kissed him as if she couldn't live without the taste of him in her mouth. She had let him suck on her nipples, had let him bury two fingers deep inside of her.
He spread his knees, straightened the wide width of his shoulders, both actions consuming all of her space.
"Do you have to sit so close?" she asked on a ragged breath.
"Yes," was his only reply.
"Want to tell me why?"
"I don't like it," she insisted, scooting from him for the second time.
He moved closer. "Want to tell me why?" he parroted.
"No," she parroted right back, her expression stubborn.
"Then you may begin reading."
She examined her cuticles and yawned prettily. Only the needy gleam in her eyes gave her away.
"What are you doing?" he asked. "I do not have time to waste. Begin."
He arched his brows. "For?"
"For you to move."
Scowling, Darius stayed where he was for a long while. This was a minor battle of wills, yet he did not want to lose. Did he have any other choice, though? Teeth grinding together, he inched slightly away from her. As he moved, the sweet scent of her lessened and the heat she emanated faded. He wanted to howl.
"That's better." She settled into the cushions and opened the book. Her fingers smoothed over the first page, and a look of sadness filled her expression. She began reading, despair reflected in her tone, as well.
He leaned his head back, locked his hands under his neck and closed his eyes. Her melodious voice floated over him, as gentle as a caress. There was something so peaceful about listening to her, as if her voice, despite its melancholy, was a reflection of joy, laughter and love. As if all three were his for the taking, if only he would reach out and grasp them. But he knew they would never be his. Warriors like him were destined to roam life alone. It was the only way to preserve his sanity.
A cold-blooded killer needed absolute withdrawal.
Much too quickly, Grace closed the journal with a gentle flip of her wrist and glanced over at him. He worried two fingers over his jaw. "Tell me again where your brother stole the medallion from his boss."
"At a charity gala hosted by Argonauts."
Again Argonauts, Darius thought, his determination to speak with them increasing. Alex had stolen it, had almost had it stolen from him, and had been followed.
He frowned as a thought occurred to him. "If you knew your brother was in danger," he said to Grace, his voice growing harsher with each word, "why did you even go to Brazil?"
"Did you not hear the last passage? Alex found the hint of danger exciting. And so-" she jutted out her chin in defiance "-did I."
He was furious as he leaned toward her, putting them nose to nose. Their breath mingled, swirling together and becoming a single essence. Exactly what he wanted for their bodies. That quickly he lost his fury in a haze of lust. His dragon's blood roared to life, clamoring for her. Aching for her. Frenzied for her.
"And do you still crave excitement?" he asked softly, menacingly. "Do not think to deny it because I know you do," he added when she opened her mouth to protest. "I sense the need inside you. I sense it pulsing through your veins even now."
Her throat constricted, and she gulped.
Dismay whirled in the turquoise cauldron of her eyes, but he also saw hunger, a tempest of desire. She would never be happy with an ordinary life. She needed adventure, needed her deepest fantasies realized, and though it was irrational, he wanted to be the one to give her those things.
His gaze swept to her lips. He found himself closing the rest of the distance, a heartbeat away from possessing her mouth with his own. She jackknifed to her feet, turning her back toward him, granting him a tantalizing view of her cascading curls.
A lovely view to be sure, but not the one he craved.
"I'm sorry." Grace fingered her lips. Darius hadn't kissed her, had only come within a whisper of her, but still her lips throbbed for him. Of all the things he'd done to her, of all the things he'd made her feel, she feared this the most... this seemingly unquenchable desire she had for him. This need for him, and only him. This consuming ache for his touch that made her forget the only thing she should care about. Her brother.
The more time she spent in Darius's presence, the more she saw past his cold, callous mask and into the heart of a vulnerable man. And that made her want him all the more. That scared her all the more. Such intense longing bordered on obsession. No man should have that much power over her. No man should be able to wrap sultry coils around her and consume her every thought.
Most women dreamt of having such a strong, sensual man at their fingertips. A week ago, she would have been in their ranks, thinking there was nothing more a woman could want than a man who looked at her with undeniable hunger, as if there were no other woman who could make him feel that way. Right now, Grace felt too exposed, too vulnerable.
"I'm not ready for this," she said. "Not ready for you. Last night, and even in Atlantis, everything seemed surreal. This... doesn't. This is real and in-your-face and can never be undone. I'm just not ready," she said again. "More than that, the timing is horrible. My first concern has to be my brother's welfare. Not my own... desires."
While she rattled off her list of reasons she shouldn't bed him, Darius's mind formed a list of all the reasons she should. And only one of them mattered. She's mine , he thought. His instincts had tried to warn him, had actually screamed it was so when he last kissed her. This undeniable tug had been between them since the beginning, and it wasn't going away. He admitted as much now. He wouldn't forget his oath, but he would have this woman. Where she was concerned, he could fight his needs no longer.
He would be doing himself a favor, he rationalized, if he took her and rid himself of this growing obsession for her.
He wanted to rise and reach out to clasp her by the waist. He forced himself to remain in place, hands at his sides. He would take her, yes. But he would take her when it was she who was desperate for their loving. Not him. Beads of sweat popped onto his brow and dripped from his temples. He fisted his hands in the soft couch cushions.
Needing a distraction, Darius stood and liberated the journal from between her fingers. She gasped at the sudden loss and spun to glare at him. As she watched, he tossed the little book into a bowl and ignited a fire-with his mouth. He was surprised when the fire quickly dwindled to nothing, and he frowned. The fire should have lasted much longer. His powers must be weaker than he'd realized.
"Fire flew out of your mouth." Grace gaped. "Fire really and truly flew out of your mouth."
"But fire flew out of your mouth."
"I did tell you I was a dragon."
"I just didn't expect fire to fly out of your freaking mouth." Grace struggled to form a proper response. Darius really was a dragon. The concept was laughable-or should have been. All of it should have been laughable. Atlantis, misty portals, the gods. Yet she'd skipped right along, accepting every fantastical experience tossed her way.
But this... She expected her brain to shout it's too much. I can't accept another implausible happening .
Surprisingly enough, her mind didn't shout. Her mind welcomed.
She toyed with the ends of her hair and expelled a breath. When she was a little girl, her father had read her a book every night. His favorite had been the story of a long ago prince who rescued a princess from a fierce dragon. Grace had never liked that story. She'd always wanted the dragon to defeat the puny prince so the princess could sail through the clouds on his back. A real, live dragon sat in her living room.
"What else can you do?" she asked, her voice raspy.
He merely lifted a brow, a wouldn't-you-like-to-know glint in his eyes.
"Well?" she demanded.
"When you are prepared for the answer, perhaps I'll tell you. Until then... " He shrugged.
"Fine," she huffed. "If you won't tell me about your abilities, at least tell me why you destroyed my brother's journal. I wanted to give it back to him."
"There can be no record of Atlantis." As he spoke, the blue of his eyes swirled and churned with a life of its own, like the very mist he guarded. "I decided to either destroy the book or destroy you. Perhaps I made the wrong choice."
She preferred the other Darius, the honey-eyed Darius. The man who made her blood sing and her deepest fantasies cry for him. The man who twisted her into knots.
"You will obtain the vests now," he told her, crossing his arms over his chest.
Her nose crinkled. "What vests?"
"The ones you promised to buy for me in the cave. The ones that protect against guns."
That's right. She had promised him. With a sigh, Grace loped down the hall and into her room. After she booted up the computer-with Darius standing over her the entire time, his hands on either side of her armrests, his chest pressing into her back-she found a site that specialized in guns and other equipment.
"I like this thing," he said. "This computer."
With him so near, she had trouble concentrating. "The vests are two-hundred-and-fifty dollars each," she said, squirming in her seat. Maybe she should turn on the air conditioner. Her skin suddenly felt too tight for her body. "Do you still want to buy one?"
"One? No. I wish to purchase twenty. For now."
"Twenty! Where will you get the money? I doubt you brought any with you."
"I will allow you to pay for them."
Of course he would. "You want extra large, I take it?" Doing this was probably going to place her on the FBI's most-watched list. But Darius wanted the vests, and what Darius wanted, she would acquire for him. They were helping each other, after all.
She placed the order and had to use both of her credit cards. She also requested overnight shipping for double the mailing expense. "They'll arrive in the morning."
"I want to visit the Argonauts," Darius said. "Afterward, we will purchase bullets and you will show me how to use them."
Such a dictator, she thought, and wondered, foolishly, if he'd be that demanding in bed. She stole a glance at the hard angles of his profile. Oh, yes. He'd be demanding and the knowledge made her shiver. With a gulp, she flipped off her computer and swiveled in her chair, dislodging his hands. "Do you think they know more than they told me?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not."
Which told her nothing. "If we leave now, we can be there within the hour."
"Not quite yet." He leaned down, replacing his palms on the arms of her chair. Her knees bumped his thighs as his gaze traveled all over her. Burning her. Devouring her in a way that should have been illegal. He saw past her clothes, she suspected breathlessly, and saw the hard pebbles of her nipples. "First," he said, "you will bathe. Quickly," he added.
Blazing red heat stained her cheeks. "Are you saying I-" her mortification was so great she almost couldn't finish her sentence "-stink?"
"You have dirt smudges here." He ran his fingertip over the side of her mouth. "And here." That finger moved to her chin, and his nostrils flared. "While you are beautiful to me as you are, I thought you might wish to wash."
He thought she was beautiful? As she was? Grace nearly melted into her seat. Most men found her a little too plump, a little too red and freckly.
She struggled to form defenses against him, and reminded herself that she wasn't ready to handle such a dangerous man. "I won't take long." Her legs trembling, she pushed up and raced to the bathroom. She slammed the door shut.
Just in case he entertained any notion of slipping inside, of stripping out of his clothes and getting into the tub with her, of letting the warm, wet water deluge their intertwined, naked bodies, she twisted the lock. She pressed her back against the cool wood, her breathing shallow.
Damn if she didn't pray Darius would burn the lock away.