Light pierced Gray's consciousness.
He slowly cracked open his eyes and winced. His body throbbed like he'd been thrown into a ring and gone fifty rounds with a heavyweight Jewel was curled into his side, still asleep. Her features were soft and relaxed and contentment lifted the corners of her lips.
She was naked. He was naked. And his body liked the contact.
God, she was lovely. Her skin was as dewy as a morning peach, her legs long and tapered perfectly. Her waist dipped and her hips flared deliciously. The hair at the apex of her thighs was soft and black and begging for his touch.
Fighting the sudden fire in his blood, he brushed a strand of hair from her cheek. Last night's events sped through his mind. He'd almost lost her. This innocent little peach had almost died. Just the reminder made his palms sweat. In their short time together, she'd come to mean a lot to him. More than any woman ever had.
She's safe now, he reminded himself, relaxing. That was all that mattered.
From this point on, he was damn well going to do a better job of looking out for her. Gambling with the Formorians had been risky, and he'd known better. He'd just wanted to give her an honestly purchased present and the desire had clouded his common sense. Which proved his reasons for not getting involved were well founded.
The armband rested at the bottom of his bag; he knew it was there. He just didn't know when - or if - he was going to give it to her. He had to get focused on his job, and if he gave her the gift now, she might think it meant more than it did. Like he'd stay with her or something.
"Wake up, sleeping beauty." He wanted to wake her with a kiss, but didn't dare. If he kissed her, he wouldn't stop kissing her until he had her under him, his cock sliding inside her. They had stuff to talk about, and he had stuff to do. It was time he remembered that and put things in perspective.
Jewel stirred and stretched like a newborn babe, purring low in her throat. The sounds drifted over his nerve endings like an erotic caress. She blinked open her eyes, her long lashes fluttering up and down. He was suddenly thirsty for her.
"Gray," she said, gingerly sitting up. "Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine." He forced his mind to remain on business. "Did last night's adventure throw us off the path to Dunamis?"
She pushed her hair from her face, realized she was naked, and grabbed her now dry sheet, tugging it around her. "Not at all. The temple is only a day and a half walk from here."
Walking that long sounded about as fun as a full body waxing. He grimaced and worried a hand on his jaw stubble. "I'm going to ask you something, and I want you to answer honestly. Don't answer me with a question. Just tell me the truth, okay."
Her eyes met his, thoughts spinning in her head. Reluctantly she nodded. "Why am I craving blood?"
A soft sigh escaped her. "When the vampire and demon bit you, they left pieces of themselves inside you."
So, legends had gotten that part right. Revulsion, dread, and rage pounded through him. "I'm becoming like them?" The words were stark, ripped from his throat. He wanted to howl in denial; they were evil, he was not. He believed in truth and justice, protecting the weak. "Exactly like them?"
"Only certain characteristics. We won't know which ones until you experience them." "And there's no way to stop the changes? I'm going to become evil?"
"No, never evil."
"You say that with such surety, yet you also say I'll change."
"Who you are inside will never change."
He took comfort in that, inhaling and exhaling, then determinedly pushing the subject from his mind. He'd deal with each change as it came and not worry about it beforehand. Right now he needed to radio OBI, let them know he was okay. And he didn't want Jewel to hear the conversation. As he struggled to a sitting position, he pinned her with a pointed stare. "Why don't you go to the river and wash, honey. You've got mud all over you."
"No, you're too weak - "
"I didn't want to say this," he said, cutting through her words, "but you've forced me. You kind of smell." Unlike Jewel, he could lie his ass off. She smelled wonderful; she always did.
Her eyes widened, and her mouth dropped open.
"Come on," he said. Gray pressed his lips together to keep from smiling, humor at her distress overshadowing the darkness inside him. He wanted to laugh out loud at her horrified expression. He pushed to his feet, every muscle and bone in his body screaming in protest. Damn, he hurt. He picked up his backpack. "I'll escort you down there."
Cheeks flaming red, she squared her shoulders and hugged her makeshift robe more tightly around her.
They lumbered to the river's edge, and Gray did a perimeter search. "Everything appears safe and sound."
"Then you can go back to camp," she huffed. "You are not watching me bathe. And if you need me, well, don't bother yelling. I won't come to your rescue." She stomped away, but paused and turned, facing him. The blue of her eyes gleamed with wicked retribution, "Oh, and Gray? I plan to bathe naked, letting my hands linger on my breasts and between my legs."
Truth. She couldn't lie. "Thanks for that," he said wryly, already growing hard, delicious images racing through his mind.
While she bathed - naked and touching herself in all the places he wanted to touch, damn it! - he trudged a few feet away and eased down behind a bush. Her words brought images of soft, peach-colored skin, lips parted on a breath, dark hair spread like a rain cloud around her shoulders. Nipples hard and begging for his mouth. Legs -
"Damn it." He withdrew his transmitter. "Santa to Mother."
Static, then, "Mother here."
"Will have package in about two days and head home."
"You've got us worried, Santa. Delivery is taking longer than expected." "Maybe next time you need to rethink the words 'in and out.'"
Pause. "What do you mean?"
"You know the text we discounted? Well, it's true."
"You mean - "
"Yeah. That's exactly what I mean. Read The Book of Ra Dracas again and work me up a list of every creature's weaknesses." He didn't know why he hadn't thought of Ra Dracas before. "Have you learned anything else?"
"We found something, but we're not sure we translated it right." "Tell me anyway."
"Basically anyone who tries to snuff out the breath of life from the Jewel of Dunamis will earn the gods' darkest wrath." His boss paused again. "How can a gemstone breathe? Is it alive?"
A completely ingenious/dumb-ass idea crashed into his mind, and he stiffened. He blinked his eyes. No. Surely not. But... maybe. "I need to think about this," he said. "Will contact you later for that list. Over."
Gray set the radio aside, intent on finishing his tasks before he allowed himself to work on the puzzle that had presented itself with his boss's words. He checked his GPS system, only to discover the stupid thing was broken. He didn't understand. It wasn't water damaged, wasn't smashed. For a long while, he reworked the wires, reconnecting and tightening, to no avail. Disgusted, he finally shoved the priceless piece of shit into his backpack.
Because he himself wasn't at his best, he needed his equipment to pick up the slack. Obviously that wasn't going to happen. He expelled a frustrated breath. If he and Jewel were going to sleep out in the elements for another night or two, he'd have to build some sort of shelter, preferably something he could hook to his back and carry. Something to hide and protect them.
His gaze scanned the surrounding area, mentally cataloging what he could use. Twigs, leaves, rocks. He should have brought a camo tent, but hadn't thought he'd need one.
"That damn Jude Quinlin."
Gray lumbered to his feet. His head pounded sharply, and his wounds pulsed. His legs were still weak from blood loss, and his vision swam, but he managed to stay upright. He really, really wanted to stroll down to the river and shock Miss Prudence Merryweather right out of her inhibitions. To catch a glimpse of those long legs that stretched all the way to paradise... that soft belly and rounded waist... those small, pert breasts and pink-as-berries nipples that begged for his mouth...
"Don't do this to yourself again, man." Too late. His body hardened, and he forgot all his aches but one. But Gray stayed put - and not because of any gentlemanly tendencies. "Damn shelter," he muttered, adding it to his shit list with Quinlin.
Jewel was a walking contradiction, a smart-mouthed, freaky little sex puppet slash shy, innocent virgin nun. Both sides of her intrigued him, and he enjoyed watching the two sides of her nature battle for supremacy. He often found himself wondering which would ultimately prevail. The angel or the tigress? Or a combination of both?
As he forced his attention on his surroundings, the sound of splashing water echoed in his ears as loudly as screams of pleasure. He could very easily imagine droplets of water cascading from Jewel's plump breasts, dripping onto her stomach, gathering in her navel, begging for his tongue, before finally catching between her legs and -
"Not again." He slapped himself across the face. "Concentrate, man." He rubbed his cheek, feeling several days' worth of stubble. "Work. You have work to do."
Holding his stinging side, Gray gathered branches and leaves, vines and sapling. Over the years, he'd constructed hundreds of hideaways; the actual building was most likely ingrained in his cells. His expert eye quickly found the best location, a spot that provided an escape route yet hid them under a sloping hill and between two trees.
The trees stood roughly five feet apart. Using the rope he'd stolen from the centaur, he tied a long, solid branch to each trunk, reaching as high as possible. He crisscrossed the sapling and vines he'd gathered, working his way down the beam, then did the same to the other side. Sweat trickled down his brow, and he wiped it away with the back of his wrist.
By the time he finished the framework, his arms were shaking and his knees knocking. He hated weakness of any kind - especially in himself. He sipped at the water in his canteen, then jumped back into his work.
After he covered the braided vines with brush leaves and grass, he pulled back and studied the end results. "Not bad," he said with a nod. Not a five-star resort, but it would hide them from their enemies and protect them from the elements. When the time came, he would untie the vines from the trees and fold everything up, hitching it to his backpack.
Deciding to rest while he could, Gray eased to the ground. He closed his eyes. Rocks dug into his back, but relaxing proved easy. All around him, the insects were creating a soft symphony. Who needed an MP3 player when the sounds of nature performed twenty-four seven?
He rubbed his temples. How long would it take him to heal completely? He knew better than most it was best to keep moving, and keep moving quickly, never staying in the same spot long. Less chance the enemy could ferret him out.
"God, I need a vacation." Once he returned home, he'd go to the beach, find himself a woman and rid himself of his growing need for Jewel.
Funny thing, though. No woman appealed to him but Jewel. His body wanted her, and only her. His mind wanted her, and only her. The thought of being with another woman felt wrong, and the thought of being without Jewel made him sick. And Gray didn't think a few nights, a month, a year away from her would diminish his obsession in any way.
He hadn't lied to her. If he stayed, OBI would continually send agents inside Atlantis, looking for Dunamis. People would die. Dunamis might end up in the wrong hands. If he tried to take her home, well, OBI guarded the portal, so he could never get her through without their knowledge. The moment they saw her, she'd be poked and prodded and dissected by scientists for the rest of her life. She'd never leave the laboratory - not alive, at least.
He scrubbed a hand over his face, infuriated with his lack of choices. Sweat poured down his back as he realized, really realized, that these next few days were all he and Jewel had. That was it. After that, he'd never see her again. A bitter laugh escaped him. He wanted her in a way he'd never wanted another woman. He wanted her taste, her body, her voice, and he knew she would willingly and passionately give herself to him. He could have her all right, but he couldn't keep her.
"I'm not going with you." Jewel's angry voice tore through his musings. "Let me go. I've killed before, and I'll do it again."
Male laughter floated across the distance.
Instant fury and concern burning inside him, Gray jumped up. Damn it all to hell, not again! Couldn't they rest for a fucking hour before something else attacked them? Ignoring the sharp tongs of discomfort - all right, agony - he launched forward, swiped his gun out of his bag and sprang toward the river. As he ran, he checked tile weapon's clip. Only one bullet left. Crap. Had he lost one?
He shoved himself past trees and branches, uncaring as they cut his skin. His adrenaline level kicked up, providing extra strength, causing energy to surge through his veins. At last he reached the edge of the river, gun aimed in front of him. Jewel immediately came into view. She was in the middle of the river, the water up to her neck.
"You'll suffer if you continue with this," she said, her tone hard. "I see your death in my mind." "Our king desires a word with you," another male said.
Shit. There were at least two of them. Gray's gaze scanned, but he saw no one besides Jewel. Where were -
The two heads smoothly broke the water's surface and the men were flanking Jewel's sides, only their naked upper bodies visible. Fiery rage sparked to life inside him, the flames licking through him as one of the men reached for her. She slapped at his hands, but he managed to clasp her shoulder. Thankfully, soaked as she was, she tugged free.
Gray growled low in his throat, heat burning in his eyes. He didn't like another man's hands on her. If they hoped to rape her... His growl became a silent, feral breath as he studied his enemies. They were big, their stomachs and arms ripped with sinew and muscle. Their gargantuan size dwarfed the petite Jewel.
"Your king can go to Hades."
Water splashed. A man grunted. Jewel gasped.
Gray crouched down, keeping his arm steady. Perhaps, with the right angle, he could kill them both with a single bullet. The men closed in on Jewel, gliding through the water effortlessly. So effortlessly, the water never even rippled. It was as if they were floating.
"Come on, Pru," Gray whispered. "Move to your left." At the moment, she blocked his shot.
"You're coming with us. Understand? If you fight, you might be hurt and we do not wish to hurt you."
They continued to close in on her. Gray cursed under his breath. He couldn't risk shooting one and giving the other time to abscond with Jewel. God, he wished he had his rifle and a case of hollow point bullets. They left a nasty hole going in and a crater going out.
"I warned you," Jewel said. Scowling, she bent her arm and jerked up her elbow, landing a solid blow to the closest man's nose.
He bellowed in pain, the other guy merely watching in shock as his friend wiped at the blood streaming down his face.
"You hit me. You hit me!"
"You hit him!"
"Well, of course I did. And I'll do it again if you come near me."
"Witch!" The idiot launched himself at her, his intent to hurt evident in the harsh lines of his expression. Gray squeezed the trigger.
The big guy dropped into the water like a lead weight, a red cloud already forming around him.
"Brackin. Brackin! What's wrong?" When the dying - or dead - man failed to respond, the friend darted a confused look around him. His gaze collided with Gray's, his features narrowed and darkened.
Gray raised the gun as if he meant to shoot again. The man panicked, grabbed his friend and dove under the water's surface. A glistening tail slapped droplets in every direction.
His eyes widened. Tail? Shit. He'd forgotten about the merpeople. He rose. "Get over here, Jewel. Now." He barked the command in the same tone he used for his subordinates, but didn't wait for her to obey. He chugged into the water, heading straight toward her. He'd drag her out if necessary.
She hadn't moved at the sound of his gun being fired, but she whipped around at the sound of his voice. Her color was high, her eyes bright. He'd expected her to appear frightened. Instead, she appeared excited.
"Did you see what I did?" She grinned. "I hit him."
"Get out of the water," he barked. His stomach had tightened with desire at the first hint of that smile, and now was not the time for sexual thoughts. He wanted her as far away from this river and those mermen as possible. Jewel would be safest at camp.
"Did you hear me? I said get out of the water."
Unaffected by his brusqueness, she swam to the shallow bank, meeting him halfway. As she ascended from the dappled liquid, the white undergarments she wore clung to her curves like a dedicated lover, revealing the pink thrust of her nipples and the dark patch of hair between her legs.
He had to force himself to look away. When she was within arms' reach, he clasped her by the forearm and helped her to shore.
"Don't touch me. I'll make you wet," she protested.
"That's my line," he muttered. "And I'm already wet Why the hell didn't you scream for me?" Launching into motion, he dragged her behind him. He glanced back and pierced her with the force of his gaze, knowing his eyes practically sparked with silver fury.
Her grin faded. "Your wounds are still healing, and I - "
His male pride roared viciously in response to her words. She hadn't screamed for help because she'd thought him too weak to protect her. He scowled. "I'll never be so hurt that I can't protect you. Understand? If something like this ever happens again - " he almost slammed his fist into the nearest tree trunk over that thought" - if something like this ever happens again and you don't shout, I'll, I'll - " Nothing sounded violent enough.
"Next time you're in jeopardy," he said, forcing himself to calm, "at least project your voice into my head to let me know something's happening!"
"I tried," she said.
"What?" He paused midstride and faced her. His sense of urgency immediately started screaming, and he jumped back into motion. "What do you mean you tried?"
"I can't reach your mind anymore." She dragged in a breath. "Inside the bar was the last time, and then I was only able to send my voice, not hear your response. It's as if the ability has weakened with every passing moment and now is gone completely."
They reached camp, and he ushered her to a trunk and sat her down. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at her. He never would have let her out of his sight, not in town and certainly not here if he'd known. "You aren't leaving my side. Not for a single moment. Got that?"
"Why are you so angry?" She grinned proudly. "Didn't you see the way I punched him?"
Gray nodded with grudging respect. His hands itched to draw her into his embrace, to hold her close and assure himself she was all right. "You should have told me there were creatures in that water."
She shrugged, kicking at rocks with the toe of her bare foot. "I didn't know they would bother me. They didn't before."
He almost cursed as his attention became snagged on her foot. He'd dragged her through the woods without any shoes. He bent down and clasped her ankle in his hands.
"What are you doing?" she gasped.
"I should have carried you." Her bones were small and delicate, her skin soft and moist. He lifted her foot and inspected. No cuts, thank God. No bruises. Just specks of dirt. He didn't want to let her go, but he gently placed her foot back on the ground.
A muscle ticked in his jaw. If he didn't do something to change her future, this hide-and-seek thing was the life she'd be left with, always on the run, always hunted by one creature or another. She'd told him that. He'd known it was true, but the knowledge had never been more real than right now. But what the hell could he do?
Unbidden, his gaze moved over her again. He couldn't help it, really. She was like a magnetic force. Those delicious curves, that smooth skin. She was watching him just as intently, desire in her eyes.
He wanted to kiss her, was almost shaking with the need, but didn't. He wouldn't be able to stop. And if he didn't stop, the urge to drink her blood would rise up inside him, gnawing at him, consuming him, making him crave the very substance that kept her alive. He'd sink his teeth into her neck, he knew he would. Look how close he'd come to doing just that inside the inn.
While he could forgive himself for biting the Formorian, he'd never forgive himself for hurting Jewel. He was supposed to be her protector, not her tormentor.
The air was cooler than usual and soaked as she was, Jewel had to be cold. A droplet of water snaked from her forehead and onto her upper lip. She licked it away, exactly as he wanted to do. His cock had hardened the moment he'd pulled her out of the water, or maybe he'd never lost his arousal, and hadn't lessened since. At the sight of her pink tongue, he hungered for her all the more. His mind flashed a visual of all the things he'd like her to do to him with that tongue.
"You need to change into something dry," he muttered, his tone rough. He found and tossed her his shirt.
Her eyelids dipped to half-mast, the excitement of the fight becoming sexual excitement Breath emerged from her choppily. "Maybe we could... you know, and - "
After a heavy pause, her gaze devouring him the entire time, Jewel moved behind the trees to remove her wet clothes and don his shirt. A few moments later, she returned, and the sight of her hit him like a well-placed punch in the gut. The camo shirt hung to the middle of her thighs, but it was his shirt and she was wearing it and the sight nearly undid him.
Sweating now, he dug inside and withdrew two energy bars. His supply was running low. If he didn't get out of this underwater hellhole soon, he'd be forced to hunt and eat the creatures here - and a Formorian souffle was not his idea of a good, nutritious meal. Unfortunately they couldn't risk going back into town.
"Time for breakfast." He handed one of the bars to Jewel and plopped onto a rock.
She eased beside him, enveloping him in her sweet scent, and nibbled on the edges of the bar. He gulped his down, staying the urge to escape her appeal.
"Thank you," she said finally, though she sounded anything but thankful. "I do believe these energy bars are the most horrid things I've ever eaten."
"It'll keep you alive, so eat."
"I have berries and meats I bought in town." "We'll save that for later."
Nose wrinkled, she finished off the bar. They took turns sipping water from his canteen. She continually cast glances in his direction. He knew because he could feel the force of it. Finally she sighed, sending a small puff of air against his shoulder, and looked away. Sighed. Looked at him again. Sighed.
What the hell was going through her mind?
He popped to his feet and paced to the far tree, unable to handle the closeness. Her calves were bare, but her ankles were crossed. She folded her hands in her lap. A very ladylike position. Her eyes told another story, however. They were filled with sadness and desire, hope and need.
"We should get going," he bit out. "We've got a lot of ground - "
Without warning, dark, eerie shadows fell over the forest. The insects ceased their chatter. The air thickened with salt.
"Ah, hell." Gray groaned. "Guess we aren't hurrying anywhere today." This very thing had happened his first night here, so he knew what was coming. "I should have expected this. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Fucking great. Anyone ever tell you you're a bad luck charm?"
He heard the hurt in her voice and swore under his breath. "I'm sorry."
"Why apologize? You've known one disaster after another since meeting me." "It hasn't all been bad." Some of it had been amazing.
With a bittersweet snort, she moved to his side. He bent down and hefted up his backpack and her wet things, then linked his fingers with hers and tugged her to the shelter he'd erected. Thank God he hadn't taken it down yet.
"You built this?" she asked, a bit awed as she studied the lean-to of twigs and sapling.
"Yeah. And before you get any ideas, it isn't the Love Shack." He pulled the robe from the backpack and rolled it into a pillow, then tucked the pack in the shack's corner. "Climb in."
They had to lie down and crawl with their elbows, but they both managed to get inside, where there was more room to move around.
The crystal dome creaked open, booming like thunder, and drenched the entire land with ocean spray. Gray knew he should keep his hands to himself, but trapped as they were in the tent, it was no use even trying. He'd give in eventually and better now than later. He couldn't not touch her when they were so close. He wrapped his arm around Jewel's waist, the sound of the rain creating a lulling rhythm.
"Why don't you get some sleep?" he said. "You've had an eventful day." She traced her fingers over his cheek. "Thank you," she said softly.
"For what?" Every where her fingers touched, his skin burned hungrily. "For saving me from the Mermen. For... everything."
The rain pitter-pattered against the leaves as he contemplated her words. He'd saved her life a few times, yes. But it was he who suddenly felt thankful.