Grace riffled through the box of Kevlar vests she'd picked up downstairs. Darius knelt on the other side and pinched one of the heavy black vests between his fingers. His lips curled with distaste.
She watched him. His eyes shone with vitality, alive with gold, glistening with contentment. They had been like that since last night and hadn't changed. Hadn't even flickered with blue. The fine lines around his eyes and mouth had relaxed, as well, and there was an ease about him that warmed her heart. Oh, he still possessed that dangerous aura. Danger would always be a part of him. But the coldness, the hopelessness, were both gone.
How she loved this man.
"Try one on," she said.
Frowning, he tugged the material over his shoulders. She leaned over and worked the Velcro for him. "It's too tight," he said.
"If a bullet smacks into you, you'll wish it was even tighter."
He snorted. "How can these do any good?"
"Maybe you'll understand better after I show you how to use a gun." She raced to her kitchen and dug out the gun she'd stuffed into one of the drawers. She doubled-checked to make sure no bullets rested in the cylinder.
"This is a revolver," she explained when she stood behind Darius. Wrapping her arms around him, she placed the cold metal in his hands and curled his fingers in the correct places. "Hold it just like this."
His shaking fingers squeezed.
"Gently," she said, noticing how unsteady he suddenly seemed.
He tossed her a glance over his shoulder. "Who taught you these skills?"
"Alex. He said a woman should know how to protect herself." Fighting a wave of sadness, Grace steadied Darius's wrists by locking her palms underneath them. He might be more relaxed and at ease than ever before, but he battled that damn weakness and she didn't like it. The only time he seemed to recover his full strength was when he was sexually excited.
Grace wet her lips and purposefully meshed her breasts into the hard ridges of his back. "You want to keep your finger on the trigger and pick a target. Any target. Do you have one?"
"Oh, yes." His voice grew stronger and deeper. If she allowed her hands to slide inside his pants, she knew she would find him hard and thick.
"Good," she said. "Aim down the sight on the barrel."
Pause. Then, "What?"
She blew on his neck. "Aim down the sight on the barrel," she repeated.
Another pause. "How can I concentrate when your body is pressed to mine?"
In response, her fingers tickled up his arms. If sexual arousal kept him strong, she'd use everything in her power to arouse him. "Do you want to learn how to shoot or not?" she whispered huskily.
"I do," he ground out.
"Is your target in sight?"
He felt the heat of her, Darius thought, the sizzle of her, throughout his entire body. Yes, he had his target in sight. The couch. Exactly where he wanted her, naked and open.
He flicked a glance to the window. The sun arrived hours ago, vanquishing the binding spell. He should have left for his homeland. He possessed everything he needed from the surface. Atlantis called him, and it was long past time he destroyed her invaders.
But he wasn't ready to say goodbye to Grace.
He couldn't take her with him. She would be safest here, and her safety mattered more to him than anything else.
When this whole mess with the Argonauts ended, he would come back for her. He would whisk this woman, his woman, his wife -gods, he liked the sound of that-to Atlantis. They were going to stay in bed for days, weeks, perhaps months, and they were going to make love every way possible, then invent some new ways.
"Target in sight," he said.
"Squeeze the trigger," she said.
He easily recalled how she had squeezed him. How her inquisitive fingers had slipped beneath the hem of his shirt and skimmed the taut flesh of his lower abdomen. He ground his teeth together.
"Hmm?" he bit out.
"Squeeze the trigger." She blew in his ear.
He squeezed. He heard a click .
"If the couch were human, and this a loaded gun, a bullet would have shot out and punctured skin, causing grave injury," Grace the temptress said. The woman who had sneaked past his defenses and infiltrated his senses. The woman who had captured his heart. "The lining inside these vests stops bullets and keeps them from entering bodies."
Darius spun, keeping her arms locked around him. The gun fell from his hands. He wrapped his fingers around her wrists and directed her aim lower.
"I have another target in mind," he said. And he kept his "target" busy for the next hour.
Sated and redressed, Grace tucked her gun in the waist of her jeans, filled her pockets with bullets and helped Darius gather the remaining vests. With that done, they squared off, facing each other. Neither moved.
"It's time to go," he finally said.
"I'm ready," she said with false confidence. She raised her chin, not removing her gaze from him, but daring him to contradict her.
He regarded her silently for an inexorable moment, his expression blank. "You will remain here, Grace."
She bit back a scowl. She'd known he would do this, but knowing didn't stop the anger, the hurt. "Wrong," she said. "Alex is my brother, and I'll help find him."
"Your safety comes first."
"I'm safest with you." Her eyes narrowed, showing him the first sign of her increasing ire. "Besides, I'm your wife. Where you go, I go."
"I'll return for you and bring back your brother."
She gripped his shirt, tugging him close. "I can help you, and we both know it."
Pain flashed in his eyes, but was quickly overshadowed by determination. "This is the only way. I must lead my dragons into war, and I will not allow my woman near battlegrounds."
"What about the binding spell?" Ha! She watched him with almost smug expectation. "I can't leave your presence."
"The spell broke when the moon disappeared."
Her shoulders dropped. She racked her brain, searching for anything, anything at all, that might change his mind. When the answer arose, she smiled slowly. "Perhaps you're forgetting the Argonauts. That they had me followed."
Arching a brow, he crossed his arms over his chest. "What are you saying?"
"They could have me followed again. They could try to hurt me this time, instead of simply watching me."
He stroked his jaw as he considered her words. "You are right," he admitted darkly.
She relaxed, thinking she finally convinced him of her point-until he next opened his mouth.
"I will simply lock you inside my palace."
Her earlier scowl broke free, and she poked him in the chest. "I like this macho thing you've got going on. I really do. But I won't stand for it."
Without a word he clasped her wrist with one hand and held the handle of the suitcase with the other. The air around them began to swirl. Bright-colored sparks flickered like dying lightbulbs, then quickly sped past them. The temperature never changed, the wind never kicked up, but suddenly the cave closed around her.
Grace didn't have time to catch her bearings. Never breaking his momentum, Darius pulled her inside the mist. The moment she realized exactly where she was, she threw herself in his arms.
"I've got you," he said.
His voice soothed her racing heartbeat. Only a minute or two passed before Darius unhooked her hands from his neck, gave her a quick kiss and ushered her into another cave.
Not even slightly dizzy, she cataloged her newest surroundings. A man-Brand, she recalled-stood off to the side. He held a sword above his head, and there was a deadly gleam in his eyes as he stared at her. Before she could utter a protest, Grace found herself shoved behind Darius.
"Brand," Darius barked.
At the sound of his voice, Brand's gaze finally flicked away from her. He glanced at Darius and relaxed. He even lowered his sword. "Why does the woman still live?" he demanded.
"Touch her and I will kill you."
"She is from the surface," he spat.
"She is my mate."
"My mate," he said firmly. "Therefore, she is one of us."
A childish part of Grace wanted to stick her tongue out at Brand. She hadn't forgotten that he'd once called her a whore.
Brand considered those words, and his fierce expression softened. He even grinned. "Tell me what you learned."
"Gather the others and meet me in the dining hall. I will tell you when I tell them."
Brand nodded, and with a final glance in her direction, he rushed off.
"I am glad to be home," Darius said. His strength had returned in its entirety the moment he'd stepped through the mist, and now he breathed deeply of its familiar essence. Familiar, yet so long ago experienced. Three hundred years, in fact. "I need you to demonstrate the gun and vests to my warriors."
She shook her head. "Not unless you're willing to compromise with me."
"I do not compromise." His tone was as stern as his expression. "Come."
She glared at him the entire way to the dining hall. The dragon warriors were gathered around the table, standing with their arms locked behind their backs and their feet braced apart. When they spotted her, they each glanced to Brand who wore a smug, I-told-you-so frown. The youngest of the group offered her a smile, if you could call baring of teeth a smile. She waved nervously.
"Hi, again," she said.
Darius squeezed her hand. "Do not be scared," he told her, then glanced pointedly at each man present. "They will not muss a single hair on your head."
In the next instant, questions were hurdled at Darius. "Why did you take a human for your mate? When? What happened while you were gone? What happened to Javar?"
"Give him a minute," Grace told them.
Darius smiled at her and tenderly kissed her lips.
Madox gasped. "Did you see that?"
"I did. I saw," Grayley said, awed.
"A human female has succeeded where we failed," Renard said. "She made Darius smile."
"I've made him laugh, too," she pronounced.
Darius rolled his eyes. "Show them what we have brought."
Despite his failure to compromise, she did as he asked. His safety, and that of his people, came before her sensibilities. "This is a Kevlar vest," she explained, demonstrating how to maneuver the Velcro fasteners.
"You must remain in human form to wear it," Darius said. "Your wings will be trapped by its wrappings. However, it will protect your chest against the enemies' weapons."
"I have a more important part I'd like to protect," Brittan said with a smile of his own.
A round of laughter followed.
"Now demonstrate the gun," Darius said.
Grace nodded and withdrew the gun from the waist of her pants. "This expels bullets, and those bullets cut through clothing and skin and bone, and sometimes lodge themselves inside the body. You can't see them, but they leave a hole and make the victim bleed. If you want to survive, you must dig them out. Let me show you." She walked over to the nearest warrior. "If he had been shot in the shoulder, I would take his knife and dig like so." She moved aside the medallion hanging at his neck and demonstrated a digging action.
Silence reigned as they considered her words and actions.
Each of the men wanted to view the gun. She double-checked to make sure she'd removed the bullets, then passed it around. "They come in many sizes, some much bigger than this, so be prepared."
After everyone viewed the weapon, Darius returned it to her. "Guns such as this were used to destroy Javar and his army."
Some warriors gasped. Some hissed. Some blinked in shock. "So they are dead?" Madox asked sharply.
Darius didn't flinch his gaze. "Yes. Both humans and vampires seized the palace."
Their fury became a palpable force, wrapping around each of them. "Why did you make us wait? Why did you not let us slaughter the vampires days ago," Tagart shouted.
"Had you approached them, you would be dead," he said flatly. "Vampires are already powerful, but aided as they are by the humans... "
Tagart had the grace to nod in acknowledgment.
"An entire dragon army wiped out," the tallest said, shaking his head. "It hardly seems possible."
"We will claim vengeance this day," Darius said. "We will reclaim Atlantis, our home. We go to war!"
Cheers of anticipation erupted.
"Gather what you need," Darius finished when the cheers died down. "We leave within the hour."
"Wait!" Grace called as the warriors shuffled out of the room. They paused and glanced back at her. "There's a man, a human with red hair. He's my brother. Keep him safe."
They looked to Darius. He nodded. "He is to be protected and brought to me."
The men filed out. All except Brand. He approached Darius's side. "The men need you to lead them. I will remain behind and guard the mist."
"Thank you," Darius said, and clapped him on the shoulder. "You are a true friend."
When they were alone, he turned to Grace. "Come," he said, an order he'd obviously become quite fond of.
She didn't protest as he led her to the entrance of his room. "Are you sure you don't want me to guard your back?" she said as he hustled her inside.
His golden eyes darkened. "I do not mind a woman going into battle. I mind my woman going into battle."
"Grace." He closed the distance between them and meshed her lips with his. His tongue swept inside, conquering. She wound her arms around his neck, accepting him fully. Loving him completely. When he pulled away, they were both panting.
"Darius," she whispered again.
His heated gaze met hers. "I love you," he said.
Of all the times to give her those words!
"Tell me what I want to hear," he demanded.
"I love you, too," she sighed.
He nodded, satisfied, and gave her one final kiss. Without another word, he left her in his room. Alone. The doors slid firmly shut behind him, and Grace looked down at her hands. They were shaking, not from the lust that sluiced through her body; that was always there and would never go away. This time a gut-wrenching fear caused her tremors. Fear for Darius. For her brother. They needed her.
And she wasn't about to let them down.
She could deal with Darius's fury, but she couldn't deal with his death.
In her hands, she cradled the medallion she'd pilfered from the warrior whose imaginary bullet she'd removed.
I'm going with him , she thought, determined to follow him.
Darius might be strong, but he had never seen what a gun could do. Yes, he had the vests, but that didn't ease her fear for him. He was her husband, and she planned on using her gun to protect him.