Darius gazed at the sights around him.
Buildings towered as far as the eye could see, stretching toward the skyline-a skyline that was wide and open, cloudy, not filled with crystal and water. Colors, so many colors. They glowed from signs; they blurred together as masses of people strode past him. Even the sun shone brightly of yellow, orange and gold. What struck him most of all, however, was the multitude of scents that intermingled and cloyed the air.
The overload to his senses was strangely welcoming.
This place did not offer the lush, green foliage of his home, yet New York was beguiling and lovely in its own right. A place that called out to the beast within him-just as Grace did.
When this was over, he would-No, he could not think that way. He could not allow himself to envision Grace in his future. He must finish this.
Some of his men were surrounding Javar's palace, preventing the humans from spreading their violence further. Still... his fists clenched. The fact that they lived offended him.
And he did not like to be offended.
Beside him, Grace skirted around a table overflowing with photos. "We'll be there soon," she said, glancing up at him. "Are you okay? You look pale."
She had changed into new clothing after her bath. She looked edible. Pale blue pants clung to her legs and a sea-green shirt molded itself to her breasts. She was like an ocean wave, utterly captivating. He could have drowned in her and died happy. "Do not concern yourself with me."
"You could whisk us to Argonauts and save us the walk," she said. "I'm anxious to question them again."
Darius, too, was anxious to question them, but he couldn't whisk about in this city. To do so, he had to visualize his target. He knew nothing of this area, he thought, letting his gaze scan. A trickle of sweat dripped into his eyes, and he wiped it away.
The sun continued to beat down upon him, growing hotter with every step he took. Usually his body embraced heat. Now he fought a deepening lassitude. He stumbled when his foot caught on a rock. One corner of his lips lifted in a scowl as he steadied himself. He despised frailty of any kind, especially his own.
"You're not okay," Grace said, her concern more concentrated. She clasped his arm and tried to pull him aside.
He shook off her hold and kept walking in the direction she'd given him earlier. A woman's concern was not something he knew how to deal with. This woman's concern was something he couldn't deal with.
I'm going to bed and kill you before I leave , he almost shouted. Don't waste what's left of your life caring for me .
Scowl solidifying, he stepped out onto the street. He wanted his peaceful, emotionless existence back. No more of this I-want-her I-can't-hurt-her nonsense.
Pain suddenly flashed through his head. A pain more intense than anything he'd ever experienced. He doubled over with it, cursing the gods all the while.
"Darius!" Grace shouted, grabbing him by the arm and jerking him toward her. "Look out."
A honk sounded. A whiz. Cars swerved out of the way.
Fear halted Grace's heartbeat as a taxi nearly clipped Darius's side. The organ kicked back into gear only when she had ushered him to the safety of the sidewalk. Along the way, she accidentally bumped into a young woman headed in the opposite direction. "I'm sorry," she said, jumping out of the way to avoid the coffee spilling from the girl's cup.
"Watch where you're going," the girl fumed, never actually slowing.
"Darius, talk to me. Tell me what's wrong." Too afraid to release him, she clenched his hand and faced him. "We're not moving from this spot until you do."
"My time here is running out," he said.
She studied him. His sculpted features were taut, his lips tight, and the fine lines around his eyes strained. "You've said that before. What happens if you stay too long?"
He shrugged. One minute ticked into another, but he didn't move. Didn't speak. Didn't acknowledge her again in any other way. He simply watched as men, women and children continued to skip past them, some talking and laughing. Some arguing.
Maybe he thought she would use the knowledge against him. She didn't know, but was determined to help him. "Look at me, Darius. Please look at me."
His gaze descended gradually, falling from the building tops, to the neon signs, and finally to her. When their gazes connected, her jaw dropped slightly. As she looked at him, she saw many things. Heart wrenching things. She saw pain in his eyes, as well as traces of guilt and sadness. And, beneath it all, was the slightest glimmer of... hopelessness?
"When we returned from the cave," she said, "you were weak and pale, but after you drank the lemonade you felt better. If you'll wait here, I'll buy you something to eat."
The guilt in his eyes increased, and she wondered at its origin. But he nodded slowly, and her concern for him overrode everything else. "I will wait," he said.
She raced inside the bakery. Fresh ground coffee beans, with a hint of vanilla, and a mouthwatering array of muffins fragranced the air. She claimed a place in line. When her turn arrived, she ordered a bottled water and raisin granola bar for herself. For Darius, she ordered a sinfully rich chocolate ¨¦clair and espresso.
With sack and beverages in hand, she rejoined Darius. He hadn't moved from the spot where she'd left him, and he was still too pale.
"Here," she said, handing him the ¨¦clair and coffee. Her gaze lingered lovingly on the chocolate. How long since she'd had such a treat? Too long. She and Alex used to spend their allowance on box after box of ¨¦clairs. They'd eat as many as their stomachs could hold, and sometimes more.
She blinked away the memory, her determination to find him growing.
"Come on," she said to Darius. "We'll walk and eat at the same time."
As they trudged into motion, Darius sipped at his drink. Some of his color returned, and his steps became more fluid. Men gave them a wide berth, and women gave them, or rather Darius , a second-and sometimes third-glance. Grace knew those women were wondering if he looked this savage simply strolling down the street, how savage would he be making love? In his tight black shirt and tight black pants, the man reeked of sexual pleasure.
Darius pinched the ¨¦clair between his fingers, studying the sumptuous pastry from every angle. She watched him while she chewed her tasteless granola bar. "Just eat it," she said.
"It looks like creamy mud."
"If that's your attitude, you deserve to eat my granola." Mouth watering, she slapped the bar in his hand and confiscated the ¨¦clair.
"Give that back," he said.
"Over my dead body."
"I am hungry."
"Well, so am I."
She was just about to place the chocolate reverently on her tongue, was just about to let the Bavarian cream slide right into her mouth, when Darius ripped the dessert from her hands.
"That is mine," he said and handed her back her granola bar.
Ready to pounce on him, she growled low in her throat.
His lips twitched. "Why did you not buy yourself one of these if you want it so badly?"
"Because-Just because!" Grace chugged down her water, letting the coldness of the liquid bring her back to her senses. I'm a rational being , she reminded herself, and I don't need the extra fat grams. Besides, what does one dessert matter in light of all that has happened lately ?
"Do all the women on the surface refuse to buy themselves the food they want to eat?" Darius asked.
She recapped the lid on the water bottle. "I'm not talking to you right now. You've tackled me to the ground, you bound me to your side, and... and you cast some sort of magic lust spell on me." Once she said the words, Grace blinked in astonishment. Of course! A magic lust spell explained her seemingly unquenchable desire for him, as well as the fact that she often found herself thinking of him when she should be thinking of ways to find her brother.
Slowly his lips inched into a half smile, a true smile of amusement. The first he'd given her. There was a hint of possessiveness in that smile, too. His eyes darkened to gold. "You lust for me?"
"No, I do not," she ground out, her cheeks scalding hot. "I suspect you're capable of such a despicable deed, that's all."
His nostrils flared in a way that proclaimed he knew, knew , exactly how she felt about him-and knew the lust was entirely her own. "If we did not have so much to do this day, I would take you back to your home, sweet Grace, and explore this magic lust spell. Very, very thoroughly."
While she floundered for some type of rejoinder, he at last bit into his food. He stilled. Utterly and completely stilled. Chewed slowly. Closed his eyes. Opened his eyes, revealing a joy tantamount to orgasm. Chewed some more. Swallowed. "This is-this is-"
"I know," she grumbled. She finished off her granola. "It's not mud."
The taste was amazing, Darius thought, and helped restore more of his vigor. What had Grace called this culinary treasure? An ay-klare. The delectable morsel wasn't quite as flavorful as Grace herself, but close. Were he to slather her body with it and lick away every trace, he might find release before he actually entered her.
For so long he'd tasted nothing, and now he tasted everything. He knew Grace was responsible, that she was the catalyst. He just didn't know how. Or why. And he was no closer to the answer than he had been before. But he didn't care. He reveled in these new experiences. When she was dead-was gone, he corrected, not liking her name associated with death-he wondered if he would ever taste again.
He took another bite of the ay-klare and noticed Grace eyeing his mouth with longing in her turquoise gaze. His stomach tightened. Did she crave him ? Or the food he ate? Most likely the food, his mused, and he bit back a self-deprecating chuckle. She'd very nearly bitten off his hand when he'd snatched the dessert from her, reminding him of a female dragon who'd gone far too long without food.
He waved the remaining piece under her nose, and her eyelids became heavy and sultry. "Would you like to share this with me?" he asked.
She moaned as if he'd just offered to make her dreams come true. Dreams that were forbidden, coveted. Dreams she couldn't acknowledge but craved with every ounce of her being.
"No," she said, that single word sounding raw, like it had been ripped from her throat.
She obviously wished to partake, and quite desperately, so why did she think to deny herself? No matter, he thought in the next instant. Before she could pull away, he placed the food at her lips. "Open," he commanded.
Automatically she obeyed. Then she gasped. Bit. Savored. As she chewed, she made noises of pleasure. Breathy noises he'd only heard from women in his bed. His blood heated, rushing from his head and into his shaft. Gods, he wanted this woman. His responses to her were coming more quickly now. A bit more intently, too. Where she was concerned, he was all beast. Primitive and unapologetically barbaric. One moment he wanted her slow and easy, tender. The next he wanted her rough, hard. Now.
He needed to sate himself on her, but to do so he needed to make her as desperate for him as she was for the dessert.
Her fingers curled around his hand, holding the ay-klare in place. "Oh, my God," she said, eyes closed. "That is so good."
At the first touch of her fingers, white-hot heat speared him. He jerked away from her, then found himself reaching out again, reaching to take her by the base of her neck and yank her to him. Reaching out to kiss her, hard and deep and wet. He dropped his hands at his sides. Teeth grinding together, he increased his speed.
He had to remain focused where this woman was concerned. The time for making her desire him would come after he'd learned all that he could from her and the other humans. Damn this!
"Slow down," she huffed after a few minutes.
He tossed her a glance over his shoulder and noticed a dark smudge marring the edge of her lip. Before he could stop himself, he extended his arm and swiped the smudge away with his fingertip. He kept the contact light, quick. If he lingered, if he prolonged the contact, he would strip her. Penetrate her. He was near his breaking point already.
He turned his face from her so she wouldn't see him lick the morsel he'd swiped from her off his finger.
"Slow down," she said again. As she dictated directions, she had to pump her arms and jog to keep up with him. "Will you slow down already? I've had enough exercise these last few days to last me a lifetime."
"You may rest when we have completed our mission."
"I'm not one of your men. And just so you know, the outcome of this is just as important to me as it is to you-if not more so-but I'll be no good to anyone if I collapse."
"Thank you," she said. "I didn't even move that quickly when I thought I was being followed yesterday."
Darius ground to a halt, causing the couple behind him to slam into his back. He remained in place, absorbing the impact without moving an inch. With muttered curses, the glaring pair scurried around him.
"You were followed?" Darius demanded, glaring. "By whom? Man or woman? Were you hurt?"
When Grace realized he was no longer beside her, that she'd actually passed him, she had to stop and backtrack, hopping over a piece of chewed gum, then scurrying around a vender selling pirated DVDs until she reached his side. "I'm not sure," she said. "A man, I think, though I never saw him. And no, he didn't hurt me."
"Then he might be allowed to live another day."
Oh, my, Grace thought, breathless again for a reason that had nothing to do with exercise. Sunlight couched Darius's features, giving his cheekbones and nose a harsh sort of radiance. When he turned on the intensity like this, going all commando, her belly did strange things. Her mind did strange things. Like try to convince her to throw herself in his arms, sweep her tongue into his mouth, and rub herself against him, all over him, and forget about the rest of the world.
"I will hold sentry at your side," he said, his gaze already scanning the area, searching. "If this man comes near you today, I will eliminate him. Worry not."
She nodded, fighting an involuntary shiver. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, she knew Darius would keep her safe. As they jolted back into motion, he continually watched the world around him, taking in every detail and missing nothing. Like the guard he'd promised to be, he remained on alert.
If they were being followed, he would know-and she pitied whoever it was.