Jewel's heart thundered in her chest as she raced behind Gray through a maze of darkened rooms. She remained alert, ready to lash out if someone tried to hurt him. More than once, she'd attempted to take the lead, but he kept her firmly shielded by the width of his body.
Her satchel of stolen goods was tied to her waist, and the heavy burden banged against her thigh with her every movement. Flames flickered sporadically, licking the walls, offering momentary visions of crimson remains.
Gray's steps were eerily quiet amid the tormented screams of dying demons, and he blended so well with the shadows she might not have known he was there if she hadn't been able to smell the masculinity of his scent. Hadn't felt the heat radiating from him and enveloping her.
He stopped abruptly, pivoted, and leveled her with a hard stare. He towered over her, the size and width of him nearly swallowing her whole. She'd known he was tall and big, but not like this. Seeing him in person brought to light the sheer maleness of him, the vitality. Placing one finger over his green-black painted lips, he motioned for her to be silent. She nodded her understanding.
One of his arms wrapped around her and pulled her deeper into the shadows, deeper into his body. This was her first true contact with him and even though danger lurked all around them, she found herself yearning to melt into him, to wrap herself around him and slide her Lips over his skin.
"Stay here." His warm breath fanned her ear. "I'll be back." Truth. His words held only truth. He would be back.
Her gift to hear beneath the actual words and know beyond any doubt the speaker's true intention was usually a curse. Not today. When Gray slinked away in the next instant, she didn't race after him. Following him would have proved impossible, anyway. He was like a mist, barely visible one moment, an ethereal phantom the next, lost from her sights completely. She pressed against the too-warm, jagged wall behind her. Where had he gone? What was he doing?
Seconds dragged by, and a slow panic began to burn in her belly as a sickening thought occurred to her. Gray intended to return, true. Sometimes, though, intentions mattered little. He could be ambushed. Hurt. She gulped. Killed. After the premonition had warned her of his being hurt, why had she let him leave her?
Fighting a rising tide of terror, she tried to open her mind to him, to find him in the chaos and guide his steps, but she continually stumbled against a mental barrier and saw only darkness. Was it his barrier? Or her own? Having never encountered this type of resistance before, she didn't know the answer. Frustration joined ranks with terror, heating her panic to boiling.
She drew in a long breath, hoping to calm herself, but the overpowering odor of sulfur and smoke stung her nostrils, making her gag. Bands of fiery heat permeated the air as flickers of light continued to illuminate the shadows. Her gaze scanned the hallway for any sign of Gray. Instead, she saw the headless demon bodies that littered the floor, their scales sizzling.
A noxious breeze ruffled her hair when a hissing demon whizzed past her, his wings gliding frantically. The creature didn't spare her a glance, but she caught the feral, pained glaze in his eyes, the wildness of his expression.
She quickly untied her satchel, dug inside, and yanked out a jeweled dagger she'd stolen from Marina. Sensing her, the demon whirled around and pinned her with a deadly glare, hunger washing over his features. Marina's minions were never to hurt or touch her without permission, but Jewel doubted this one cared about such an edict now. He craved blood and death. Saliva dripped from his fangs, as he moved toward her.
Her heart skipped a beat before reclaiming its frantic tempo. In her visions of Gray's life, she'd seen him fight. She'd seen him kill. He performed each feat with ease, such grace and agility, never questioning his choices. I can do this. I can. Nothing mattered except survival. Determined, she raised the weapon.
Sensing her intent, the demon abandoned his slow stalking and launched himself at her.
Her mouth went dry and time slowed. Closer and closer he came. As his claws elongated, preparing to rip through her, she sank to the ground, shoved her knife up and into his stomach. An unholy screech vibrated in her ears.
"Bitch!" He spat the profanity, hissing wildly. His body jerked and spasmed; his legs kicked out.
She rolled away from him but wasn't fast enough. His foot slammed into her middle, knocking the breath from her lungs and doubling her over. Panting, she jolted to her feet. The demon tried to remove the knife, but couldn't get a good grip on the handle. He thrashed and moaned and writhed.
Run, her mind shouted. Hide. She didn't. Couldn't.
Very soon Gray would return here, and she couldn't leave this demon alive, placing her human in unknowing danger. A weapon. She needed another weapon. Jewel sprinted through the hallway, searching for something. Anything. Only dead bodies greeted her.
Gray suddenly appeared at the opposite end of the hallway like an avenging angel, his features hard and cold. His legs were braced apart, and his hands fisted at his sides.
He spied the infuriated, injured demon, then darted his gaze throughout the long, narrow space until he saw her. His eyes were winged with soot, making the silver irises appear all the more steely and as dark as a winter sky.
"Stay where you are," he commanded her, returning his attention to the creature. He still held his knife, the silver now drenched with crimson. Steps slow and sure, he approached, his muscles clenched and ready for attack.
As Jewel watched him, four words pounded inside her mind. Gray. Danger. Blood. Death. No. No! "Stop," she screamed, bolting toward him. "Not another step!"
The demon had gained his bearings, had waited until Gray drew close enough, and used his wings to vault forward. Before Gray could dodge him, the creature sank his razor-sharp fangs into Gray's upper arm.
Gray howled in surprise and pain. "Motherfucker!" He slashed at the demon with his knife, but its teem retained a tight grip, buried deep.
The moment she was within reach, Jewel kicked up and struck the demon dead center in the face. His head whipped to the side, and his teeth tore out of Gray, dripping with blood.
With a growl, Gray leapt to the creature and sliced its throat. When it stopped thrashing, when its screams died, the room too became still. Silent.
"Want to touch her now?" Gray barked, kicking it. Then he stopped, shook his head and seemed to lose the sharpest edge of his fury. He jerked her blade from its belly, wiped the tip on his pants and handed it to her.
"Thank you." She sheathed the weapon at her side with a shaky hand and fought the urge to throw herself into his arms. To slather his face with kisses. He was so fierce, so much a warrior.
He wiped a streak of red from his check with the back of his hand, but only managed to smear it further. "Were you hurt?" His voice was hoarse, cracked and layered with tension.
"No." Her gaze dipped to his newest wound, watching the slow trickle of blood pooling at his elbow. "But you were. I'm sorry. So sorry." More sorry than he might ever know. If not for the vampire bite he'd received days ago, he would be fine. Because of that bite, his blood was already tainted. When the demon and vampire saliva combined, they acted as a deadly poison.
Gray had one hour, maybe two, before his body reacted and he collapsed.
This is what her premonition had warned her about. "I'm sorry," she said again. She had to get him out of this palace.
"I've had worse," he said dryly.
He wasn't thinking of the vampire who had bitten him, but of the women he'd bedded, the women who had bitten him sexually. Their images flashed through his mind, blondes, redheads, brunettes, their bodies open for him. Eager.
Jewel saw the images, too, the block from earlier gone. Her sympathy and concern for him dwindled. The debauched He had the dirtiest mind she'd ever read. Motions stiff, she bent down and retrieved her satchel, then retied it to her waist.
"Let's go." Gray grabbed her hand and tugged. "I found a clear pathway that leads outside."
Incredulous, she ground her feet into the marble floor, holding herself immobile. She ignored the delicious tingle racing from her hand and up her arm. "That's why you left me?"
"Yeah." Another tug. "Now let's go." "Escape routes are my specialty."
His brows arched, two sandy slashes on his forest-colored forehead, and he offered her a sexy grin. A born rogue and charmer, he was. He released his hold on her and spread his arms wide. "Then lead the way, baby. I'll follow."
"I will need a moment."
He sighed. "Take all the time you want. It's not like we've got a pressing need to save our lives or anything."
"I will, thank you," she responded primly. Eyelids drifting closed, she pictured the palace, sweeping every corner and hollow. She saw exactly where the demons lurked, where they donned blade-resistant armor around their necks, gearing for war. They hungered for human blood. Smelled it. Craved it.
Were determined to have it.
You, to the front entrance, Marina commanded her strongest minions. You, to the back. I want that human snack captured immediately. Do not let him leave.
"Your path will not work," she said, opening her eyes. "We must go that way." She pointed in the opposite direction.
"You sure?" "Very."
He didn't ask how she knew, but intertwined his fingers with hers. The feel of his callused hand once again tingled up her arm, renewing her ever-present awareness of him as a male. He pulled her behind him and bolted into action. "I'm sorry you had to fight the demon without me," he threw over his shoulder.
In her shock, she missed a step and stumbled. An apology. He was giving her an apology. He'd come for her; he'd saved her. He owed her nothing, while she owed him everything.
"What's wrong? Are you hurt?" He didn't wait for her answer; he whipped around, bent until his shoulder made contact with her belly, then effortlessly lifted her.
Jewel gasped. "What are you doing? Put me down!" He shot back into motion. "You're too slow."
"This puts you at a disadvantage." She slapped at his hard, muscled bottom. "Put me down this instant or I'll stab you in the back!"
"I hadn't realized you'd be so bloodthirsty." He chuckled. "You wouldn't let me hurt the centaur or the nymph, but you yourself attempted to kill a demon, and now you want to draw my blood. And if you don't settle down, your feet are going to bruise my favorite body part."
He made a choking sound in the back of his throat, and his feet nearly tripped over themselves. "Watch your mouth, Prudence. You shouldn't talk like that."
Watch her mouth? Watch her mouth! "Penis, penis, penis," she muttered, but she stilled, her body bouncing over his shoulder.
Stone chips were scattered across the floor, and Gray kicked past them to rush through the wide, jagged hole that used to be a wall. He settled into the shadows whenever a demon flew past, doing his best to keep them out of view. When they found themselves alone again, he would jump back into motion. Her satchel pressed into his stomach. She directed him toward the center of the palace, toward the demon queen's private pool.
Three sentinels awaited them.
Gray spied them and quickly settled her on her feet. "Stay here." She was getting sick of those words.
He sprinted in front of her. The guards' evil red eyes narrowed hungrily. He didn't slow. Gray grabbed a small, round object from a side pouch in his pants, pulled something thin and silver out of it with his teeth, then tossed it at the creatures.
"Down," he commanded Jewel, turning and diving on top of her, propelling her to the ground. The moment she hit, Gray's heavy weight crashed into her, and cut off her air supply.
More jagged pieces of stone rained over them. More dark plumes of smoke. More hisses of fury as the demons were tossed into the air like play toys. Before they even hit the ground Gray was up and running toward mem. Fire flickered around him, licking dangerously.
Coughing, eyes watering, Jewel shoved to her feet and raced after him. When the demons landed, Gray expertly killed two. Jewel didn't hesitate. She knew what needed to be done. She gripped her knife and killed the third.
Demon blood splattered her clothing.
She'd never killed before. She'd attacked the other demon, yes, but she herself hadn't been the one to render the deathblow. Now that she had... she stared down at the lifeless body. She expected to feel guilt or remorse; she'd always fought for the survival of the Atlantean races. But she felt neither of those emotions. Instead, she felt empowered. Like she had finally taken control of her life.
Gray grabbed her by the arm and whipped her around, his gaze dipping over her, scanning for injuries. "Did you see me?" She couldn't stop the slow grin that spread her lips. "I killed him. I really killed him."
"Yeah, and you surprised the hell out of me." Grudging pride laced his tone. He plucked the bloody dagger from her hand and sheathed it in his belt. "We can't stay here. We need to find an exit. Fast."
"We'll use the pool."
His gaze shot to his right, at the debris-covered water dappled by pinpricks of light from the flickering flames.
"We can swim to safety," she said.
He frowned. "I hate to break it to you, babe, but I'm guessing that pool is only seven feet deep. All we can do in that is swim laps." And have sex, his mind added, never far from the subject.
Hearing his unbidden thought, her cheeks warmed and her stomach knotted. This time he hadn't been imagining any woman except her. Her. He'd pictured her naked and rosy, skin covered with droplets of water waiting to be licked away.
Tendrils of pleasure curled inside her veins, spreading like the fire around them. When she spoke, her voice cracked. "There's a hatch on the bottom. A door that leads into the forest."
He paused, considering her words. His frown deepened. "If the demons follow us inside the water - " "I'll make sure they do not."
His mouth opened to ask how, but he shut it with a snap, changing his mind. "All right. We'll swim."
He stepped to the pool's ledge, Jewel still close to his heels. Before he entered, he turned to her and said, "Take off your clothes."
Her head snapped up, and she met his stare with wide eyes. "The demons will sniff you out soon and you want me to get naked?"
His mouth twisted in one of those wry smiles of his. "Silly girl. Can't you read my mind?"
"Not always," she grumbled. Like before, he had erected some sort of wall she couldn't breach. It had to be him, but how he managed it, she could not fathom.
"Just so you know, Prudence, that thick material of yours will weigh you down in the water. Take it off." As he spoke, he began removing his shirt.
She'd seen him naked a hundred times before, perhaps a thousand, but those visions of him had always been in her mind. Seeing him now, in the flesh, was so much more potent. She forgot her surroundings, forgot the danger, focusing only on the bronzed strength of his muscled, sinewy chest. His abdomen was chiseled into perfect rows of hardness.
"You can look all you want. Later," he added. "Right now, Pru, you need to get naked." He dropped his shirt and withdrew his dagger.
Her gaze still locked on him, she brought her shaky fingers to her waist and tried to untie the satchel.
"No time." He sliced the ties with his knife. The satchel dropped to the ground with a thwack. In the next instant, he cut the shoulder straps of her robe. The white material swished to the floor, joining the satchel and leaving her in only a thin chemise.
Bending down, Gray grasped the robe and said, "Step out of it."
The moment she complied, the robe was stuffed inside his bag, followed quickly by her satchel. All the while, he perused her up and down. His eyes were heated. What did he see when he looked at her? She gulped, too afraid to try and probe his mind to discover the truth.
His hands reached toward her and she felt their warmth as they neared her skin. What did he plan to do? He stopped just before contact.
He shook his head, and his gaze grew cold. Empty. "We need to get the hell out of Oz. Can you swim?"
It took a conscious effort to tug herself out of the sensuous spell he'd woven over her, but force herself out she did. "Yes." Swimming was one of the few memories she possessed of her childhood. Frolicking many hours in sunshine and water. Laughing. Enjoying the day. Over the years, she'd forgotten how to laugh and enjoy, but she'd never forgotten how to swim.
"Just try and keep up with me," she said, proudly tilting her chin.
His lips twitched. "Can you hold your breath for long periods of time?" That, she didn't know. "We'll just have to see, won't we?"
"I'll take that as a no," he muttered. "Listen, I've trained in water. The key is to stay calm, to slowly release the air trapped in your chest. Understand?"
"I will not let you down." She'd prove herself worthy and strong if it killed her.
Jewel entered the water with Gray right behind her. The wet warmth lapped at her skin, seeping past the thin garment she wore, making her shiver. A cloud of red swirled around Gray, his open wound coloring the water.
"I want you holding on to me at all times once we leave the pool," he said. "Don't let go for any reason."
"I'll do my best."
"No, you'll do it." His voice whipped out like a king instructing a servant. "I want to know you're with me every second we're down there."
He shook his head at her impudence. Without another word, she dragged in a breath and dove underwater.
She kicked her way to the bottom. Marina often used this secret doorway to sneak into the Inner City undetected, commit her crimes, feast off unsuspecting creatures, then return. The queen thought she herself was the only one who knew. She should have realized long ago that with Jewel, there were no secrets.
Once they reached the bottom, Jewel grabbed for her dagger. When her hand encountered only wet cloth, she nearly panicked before she recalled Gray had taken it.
She jerked on his pants to gain his attention. A few bubbles slipped from his mouth as he faced her, and he nodded as she slipped the weapon from his belt. Gliding away from him she inserted the tip into a tiny crevice. Marina used a key, a key Jewel did not possess. She pried at the opening, making it widen slowly.
The water stung her eyes, and lack of air soon caused her lungs to burn. Her dark hair floated into her line of vision like curling ribbons. Gray worked feverishly beside her, his strong hands pushing the slab of rock farther and farther apart.
Both she and Gray had to go up for air before the opening was wide enough for them to slip through. Jewel wanted to swim to the surface one last time and steal another gasp of precious oxygen, but when she pushed up, she saw a horde of demons had entered the room. They spotted her and cried gleefully.
Ice filled her veins, and she sliced her way back to the bottom and pointed up. Gray saw them and tried to wrench her through the opening, but she violently shook her head, I have to keep them from following us.
He stilled. Had he heard her, or was the block still in place? Gray, deciding to trust her, released her and held his palms up. Do your thing, baby.
Thank the gods, no block. She closed her eyes, her thoughts directed at the creatures above. No one is in the water, her inner voice suggested to them. You do not see the human; you do not see the girl.
She'd never attempted to direct so many at once, never tried so valiantly to keep a being from knowing she'd entered its thoughts.
The shouting demons pressed their lips together, going silent. They stared down at the water, shaking their heads, their eyes glazing as they accepted her plea, but they didn't leave the room. They looked around, confusion flittering over their expressions.
Why wouldn't they leave?
Jewel's strength was quickly depleting, and her hold on them began to lessen. Gray must have sensed her need for him because he yanked her through the opening and worked swiftly to close the hatch.
Whether the demons had seen them there at the end or not, Jewel didn't know, and she no longer had the strength to find out.
She held a firm grip on Gray's pants. Her lungs burned, and she desperately needed air, and even though her strength was nearly depleted, she kicked her legs and lowered her free arm, trying to increase their speed. A thick fog soon wove its way through her mind.
I can't... need... to breathe...
Gray wrapped his arms around her, holding her close to him. His eyes met hers and the connection managed to strengthen her. Calm her. She'd been thrashing, she realized, but settled as his hand snaked around her neck.
Slowly he drew her face to his and their lips met. Open, he commanded. His voice filled her head, bringing with it a wealth of hope and confidence she eagerly embraced.
She did so without question, parting her lips wide.
He blew air into her mouth, precious air her lungs accepted with relief. The warmth of his breath curled through the rest of her as her black tresses floated around them, a dark cloak that wrapped them in a private haven. Time seemed to slow. She savored his sweet essence.
All too soon, he drifted a few inches away and met her gaze. Better? Better.
You can do this, I know you can.
She nodded, praying he spoke true.