Bright light poured from the crystal skyline, so bright Gray had to squint to prevent his eyes from watering. Even the trees looked white - wait. They were white.
His head pounded, and several minutes passed before he was able to orient himself completely. He lay on a soft bed of foliage. Jewel knelt beside him. The long length of her silky black hair tumbled down her shoulders, caressing his skin and drifting a magical sea-storm fragrance in its wake. She wore an expression of intense concentration as she gently massaged a grainy paste into his arm wound.
The injury burned as if she'd poured molten lava inside it.
"What kind of poultice is that?" he asked between gritted teeth. His voice cracked with each word, his throat raw.
Startled, she gasped. Her hands still, and she blinked over at him. "You're awake."
"Seems like it, doesn't it?" Reaching up with his good arm, he massaged his temples, his neck, The ache slowly receded.
Her gaze bore into his, deep and penetrating, the otherworldly blue of her irises mesmerizing. "How do you feel?"
"I've done my best to make you more comfortable."
Maybe he should have lied, he thought, studying her crestfallen features. Told her he felt like spring roses, or some other romantic crap women liked to hear. He'd hurt her feelings, and the knowledge didn't sit well inside him. Plus, he had pride - more than most and more than he should - and he didn't want the woman he planned to bed to think of him as a pansy-assed weakling who couldn't take a little pain.
Gray frowned. Wait He was not going to bed this woman. Think about it, sure, but that's as far as he could allow it to go. Much as he imagined every touch, scent and sound, every breathy sigh that would purr from her lips as he dragged his tongue over her nipples, between her legs - he cut off that line of thought, hoping to slow the amount of blood pumping into his dick - starting a sexual relationship with a non-earth girl wasn't smart One, he wouldn't risk pregnancy - did human and Atlantean DNA even mix? And two, he simply didn't do flings.
What's more, a man involved sexually with a woman tended to relax his guard and lose his edge, thinking of nothing but getting the woman naked again. Gray snorted. He hadn't slept with Jewel, but he thought of her naked constantly. Hell, he'd already lost his guard with her. He'd passed out in front of her, for God's sake. The reminder mortified him, but how much more relaxed could a man get?
"You're doing great. My feeling like shit is a good thing," he said grudgingly.
"True," she replied after a moment's contemplation. Her expression brightened, and she offered him a soft, sweet smile. "A man who feels like shit is a man who's alive."
He pressed his lips together to smother a laugh. Hearing Jewel cuss, no matter that the dirty words sprang from such a luscious, made-for-sin mouth, was like hearing his potty-mouthed dad sing a chorus of hallelujah. It just didn't fit with their respective personalities. But damn if he didn't get a thrill every time Jewel talked dirty.
She returned her attention to his arm, massaging the grainy, feels-like-fire substance into his wound. "Do you remember anything that happened last night?"
"You mean my passing out like a little girl?" His adrenaline rush must have crashed hard-core. "Yeah, I remember."
"What about after?"
He searched his mind and shook his head. "No."
Tendrils of different emotions curled over her expression: relief, disappointment, resignation. "While you were out, you muttered in Klingon. Something about a Khesterex thath - a screwed up situation."
His cheeks reddened. He felt the burn of it, and that made him all the more embarrassed. "How do you know about Kling - " He frowned. "Never mind. I don't want to know." Passing out in front of a woman was bad enough. Passing out in front of Jewel and muttering in Klingon was an ego killer. He'd tried his damnedest to make her see him as strong, capable. Invincible.
Too late now.
"Help me up," he said darkly. "You need to remain - "
"Help me up or I'll do it myself."
With a growl, Jewel slid her arm under his neck and applied pressure, helping him rise. The higher his head, the more lightheaded he felt.
"Want to lay back down?" she asked smugly.
"Hell, no." He raised his knees, planted his elbows there, and dropped his face in his waiting hands. "Just give me a minute. Damn injuries." His stomach rolled in protest, and didn't stop rolling. "Yes, damn it. Back down I go."
She eased him onto the ground, remaining at his side. He liked her there more than he should have, liked the feel of her against him. Liked the way her scent encompassed him.
She was beginning to get under his skin.
"You could be a lot worse, you know, and if you don't lie still, you will be."
"Wounds aren't to be recovered from, they're to be conquered. I'm not worried. I've beaten worse." Trying not to wince, Gray motioned to his arm with a tilt of his chin. "The poultice. What is it?"
"Sand," she answered, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to rub a potentially bacteria-infested clump of mud into an injury.
He jerked his arm away from her, his eyes wide with horror. "Sand? Did you say sand? As in, off the ground, stepped on, spit on, God knows what else has been done on it, sand?"
Confused, she nodded. "Are you hard of hearing, as well as stubborn and foolish? Yes, sand. Now give me back your arm."
"No. Putting dirt in a wound can cause an infection and an infection can cause a limb to rot off. And what do you mean, I'm stubborn and foolish?"
"The sand possesses many healing qualities your body needs." Her shoulders squared, and she pulled her gaze away from him, concentrating on the wound. "Stubborn because you refuse to listen to reason, instead doing whatever you think is right Foolish for the same reason." As she spoke, she wound a strip of white cloth around the injury.
He didn't protest further. Instead he watched her, watched the way she nibbled on her bottom lip as she worked. Images probed at the back of his mind. Dark images, dangerous images. Erotically seductive images. Last night he'd dreamed of battling a demon and a vampire, but what he remembered most was dreaming of Jewel. Kissing her. His lips had moved against hers, savoring the softness. His tongue had dueled with hers, devouring the sweetness. All the while, the soft mounds of her naked breasts had pushed into his chest, her pink, pearled nipples creating a delicious friction.
The pleasure he'd received from that one dream-kiss had astounded him. He still remembered the taste of moonlight and stars. And magic. Yes, she'd tasted of magic and possibilities.
In his dream, he'd known her thoughts. Known she craved him like she craved air to breathe. Known she loved him - loved him more than her own life.
Known, too, that she carried a secret she feared would destroy them both.
What had that secret been? He couldn't remember, and fought to bring the answer to the surface of his thoughts. No luck.
Right now, Jewel's gaze was downcast, her long, thick lashes shielding the otherworldly blue of her eyes he found so fascinating. Perhaps that was best. He didn't have the strength to keep from drowning in them right now. He wondered, though, what thoughts swam through her mind. He couldn't read her as he'd been able to in his dream.
"Time to bandage your neck," she said, cutting into his thoughts. "Hopefully that wound will be better healed." Her sensuous voice swept over him, and he felt himself growing hard. Always hard.
He wasn't a teenager, damn it. He should have better control over his body. Who was master? Him or his dick?
Me, his dick said confidently. As if there was ever any question. Oh, shut up.
Jewel slapped her hands together, back and forth, causing sand crystals to fly in every direction. "Turn, please."
He shifted to his side to give her easier access, and a sharp pain tore from his neck to his toes. "Damn it," he growled. "A stupid bite shouldn't have caused this kind of damage."
"You're right. A bite like that should have caused much worse damage. Be thankful you're alive." "I'm thankful," he grumbled.
Gingerly her fingers probed at his throbbing neck. She had to lean closer to him, and her female scent again filled his nostrils. More of her hair glided over his bare chest - when had she removed his shirt, or had he done it? - and the lush fullness of her breasts pushed against his chest.
Just like his dream.
If he'd had the energy, he would have jerked her to him and learned if she tasted like his dream. Like heaven and hell, sin and deliverance. His mouth watered for her tongue; his body tensed for the weight of her.
Not smart to fraternize with the locals, James. Remember?
He felt, actually felt, her nipples harden against him, going from soft to utterly lickable in seconds. Being smart was overrated.
One kiss didn't a sexual relationship make, he rationalized. Would she even be receptive to him? He studied her expression. Her rosy lips were parted; her breath emerged a little shallow. Two twin circles of pink colored her cheeks. She might not know it, she might deny it, but she wanted him. She wanted him bad. All the signs were there.
He almost, almost decided it didn't matter that he had no energy. He wanted to kiss her. Only the thought that he'd do a poor job of it in his weakened condition and have her think he didn't know how to pleasure a woman correctly kept him still.
"What do you think?" he asked. "How does it look?"
"Better than I'd hoped." She nodded with satisfaction. "You'll heal with barely a scar." "Maybe you need to lean in and take a closer look."
Her gaze flicked to his in confusion. When she saw the heat in his eyes, the color in her cheeks deepened prettily. "I'm going to start charging you for your sexual invitations."
"Excellent plan. I'll pay you in kisses."
She chuckled, a throaty purr better suited for bed than banter. "It will only be considered payment if I accept."
"You'll accept," he said, his tone laced with utter confidence. "I have no doubts. I have a feeling you'll even thank me."
She rolled her eyes. Using another strip of cloth, she began rubbing sand into his neck. He tried not to cringe at the thought of bacteria and microbes. All right, he also tried not to shout at the burning pain. "You're one hundred percent positive there are healing qualities in that disgusting stuff, right?"
"Yes. Well." She added hesitantly, "ninety percent positive, at least."
"What!" He grabbed her wrist, surprised momentarily by the delicacy of her bones, and stilled her hand. "That ten percent of uncertainty could mean you're massaging disease straight into my bloodstream. My neck could rot off, for all you know."
A booming laugh escaped her. "I was teasing. Only teasing. You need not fear the sand."
"You are a cruel, cruel woman." His grip loosened by small degrees, more from wonder at her laugh than relief at her words. Unlike when she chuckled, her all-out laugh had been raw and new, as if she rarely gave way to such unabashed amusement. She'd uttered the same sound while they'd been in the water, swimming to shore. It had affected him then, and it affected him now, warming his every cell.
"I'm the one who cracks jokes in this relationship. You just stick to caring for my every need." "May I return to my work now?" she asked with a grin.
"Baby." Her fingers probed at the edges of the wound. As she worked, her nail accidentally scraped a particularly sensitive spot on his ear, and a sharp pain rebounded through him. He gave no outward reaction, however. He didn't want her to pull away. God knew he'd let her slap, punch and pinch him if it meant her hands would be on him.
Wait. If he didn't want her to know she'd hurt him, he had to stop thinking about it. She would read his mind - if she hadn't already.
He studied her more closely, and his brow furrowed. As he continued to watch her, she gave no indication that she knew what he was thinking. Gave no indication she knew she'd scratched him.
In fact, she'd given no indication she'd heard any of his thoughts since he'd woken up, and he'd had some pretty heated ones.
I want to strip you naked, he projected, still watching her.
No reaction. Her fingers remained steady.
I want to crawl over your body, lick every inch of you, and savor your taste. Still no reaction.
I'll start with your lips, then work my way down, and I won't stop until you're writhing in pleasure and screaming for God to deliver you from my tongue.
Interesting, he thought again. Very interesting. Could she no longer read his mind? During their escape from the demon palace, she'd mentioned that there were times she was unable to get inside his head. What prevented her from doing so? Less and less, he liked the idea of this woman knowing his every thought.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked. "Your body has gone stiff."
"Can't you read my mind?" His gaze probed her.
She paused. She drew back and stared down at him. "You sound upset by the very idea. I can't help what I am, Gray. You were thankful for my ability only a few days ago."
On a sigh of regret, he anchored one of his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. "I know."
"If it makes you feel any better," she said grudgingly, "I'm having trouble getting into your head. It's like your mind built up an immunity to me when - " She stopped abruptly.
"When?" he prompted, then his eyelids popped open as her words confirmed his suspicions. "You can't read my mind anymore? Not at all?"
"No." She sounded both annoyed and shocked. "And believe me, I've tried."
He decided to test her one more time. I won't rest until I've had you in every position possible. And when I'm done with you, your naked, sweaty body will be so sated you'll never again be able to think of sex without picturing my face.
"Finally." He sighed with pleasure. "We're on equal footing."
"Then why do I always feel off balance with you?" she asked, resuming her doctoring. When she finished bandaging his wound, she sat back and eyed the results. "You'll be sore and weak for several more days, and I'm sorry for that but there's no help for it. The important thing is that you will heal." As she spoke, her stomach growled.
His grin spread as quickly as the color in her cheeks. "Hungry?" "Yes." She nodded, rubbing her belly. "Very."
"I have energy bars in my pack."
"Tasteless morsels packed with everything our bodies need to survive."
"Sounds... delicious." Her nose wrinkled, but she leaned over him, meshing her breasts into his chest.
His blood heated as desire rushed through him.
She rooted through the backpack. "I have bread in my satchel."
"Grab that, too. The bars will help us keep up our strength, but they won't do much to fill us up."
"Is this what I'm looking for?" she asked, holding up a brown-packaged rectangle.
"Yes," he said, his voice more hoarse than he would have liked. She started to pull away.
"Maybe you should dig one out for me, too."
"Just make sure you dig real deep." He wriggled his eyebrows at her.
Her lips twitched, a smile clinging to the edges. She reached deep inside the bag and withdrew another energy bar.
"Oh, yeah. Just like that."
"I suppose this is where I demand payment?" She slid away from him, leaving a trail of heat, and grabbed two pieces of hard, slightly crumbling bread. "I did warn you that I planned to start charging you for your naughty invitations."
He allowed his gaze to sweep over her. The hem of her robe was noticeably shorter where she'd torn the strips for his wounds, revealing the peaches-and-cream perfection of her calves. Smooth and lean, slightly muscled. All traces of amusement abandoned him. Though she'd moved away, he felt the imprint of her nipples all the way to the marrow of his bones.
"I did warn you that I planned to pay with kisses," he said, willing her to close the rest of the distance between them. He needed her tongue in his mouth. Weakened body be damned.
She lost her amusement, too. Her smile disappeared. Desire lit her features, swirling in her eyes. "Yes, you did warn me," she said, breathless.
Slowly she moved her face toward his, so close the sweetness of her breath fanned his chin. "I shouldn't." "You should."
"Not too hurt. Kiss me."
"Yes, I - no." She blinked and straightened her back, widening the distance between them. "No. We need to eat," she said, giving no other reason for her sudden refusal.
What had changed her mind? He wanted to demand an answer, but his pride wouldn't allow him. A woman had never pulled away from him before, and he didn't like that one had now - one he wanted more and more as the seconds passed. One he wanted more than he'd ever wanted another.
He ate the bread first, relishing the familiar taste, then tore into his energy bar, eating half in one bite. Jewel, too, ate her bread, then nibbled on the bar, wrinkling her pixie nose in distaste.
The wind kicked up, rustling leaves and gusting tendrils of her hair over her shoulders, onto his chest It felt like a caress of her hand.
He gulped. "We really should get moving soon. The longer we stay here, the more likely the demons are to find us."
"They'll never find us here. In fact, we're safer here than we would be anywhere else."
"How do you know?"
"Marina fears the owner of this land."
He considered that and nodded. "So tell me, Prudence. Where will I find the Jewel of Dunamis?"
Her cheeks paled, leaving her skin pallid. "You need rest. There is no reason to worry about that now." "You swore to take me to it. Are you planning to renege on me?" He spoke quietly. Deceptively calm.
"No, of course not." The thunderous look Gray was giving her now was the look he usually reserved for his enemies. Ominous. Deadly. "I have every intention of revealing exactly where Dunamis is."
His shoulders relaxed. "So where is it?"
She turned to him, meeting his gaze and holding his stare. The fact that she was still fighting her need to kiss him didn't help matters. But run, she would not.
Kiss him, she would not. He might not remember what had happened inside his consciousness last night, but she did. She remembered how he'd thought of her as "not for him." Remembered that he'd intended to push her away if she hadn't done it herself.
If she kissed him now, she wouldn't have the strength to pull away from him, even if she heard him curse her to Hades in his mind. She'd spent the entire night caring for him, bathing him when his fever raged, pouring water down his throat. Sleep had been impossible when his survival depended on her, so shards of fatigue rode her hard, weakening her resolve to remain distanced from him.
"Where is it?" he demanded again.
She pushed out a breath and prayed he took her next words as the answer. "I need you to escort me to the Temple of Cronus." A sense of foreboding swept over her. For her? For Gray? Or the temple? She closed her eyes, trying to center the sensation, to study it, but it slipped out of reach.
Gray bared his teeth in a scowl. "That wasn't the deal, babe."
He hadn't taken it the way she'd hoped; instead, he'd heard the hesitation in her voice, the wistful catch. She couldn't lie to him, but now she'd have to utter a distorted truth he would assume meant one thing, when in fact, it meant another. It's what she had done with Marina, and she hated to do it to Gray, but she had to reach the temple.
The only memory she had of her father was inside that temple. His face was a blur to her, but she remembered how he'd descended the long, white steps, coming straight for her, his arms wide.
"I sprang you from prison," Gray snapped. "You take me to Dunamis. That was the deal, and you know it."
"What if I told you that you will discover Dunamis at the temple?"
"Will I?" he asked, suspicious.
"I wouldn't have said so otherwise, would I?"
He remained silent for a long, protracted moment, then relaxed. "If Dunamis is in the temple, that's where we're going. Geez. For a minute you made it sound like they were entirely separate things."
She blinked innocently. It had taken Marina over a year to even suspect that when Jewel responded with a question, the real truth did not lie in the answer. Gray was well on his way to that realization after only a few days.
"Is anyone or thing guarding it?" he asked. "Dunamis, I mean?"
"It does have one protector, yes."
When she said no more, he added, "You want to tell me what I'll be up against?"
How did she explain without lying? "The protector is strong and brave, but he will let you do whatever you wish with Dunamis."
Gray's eyes narrowed. "Just like that?" He snapped his fingers. "The man will give it up just like that?" "Answer a question for me first. Why do you want it so badly? The jewel, I mean."
"You mean you don't know?"
"All I know is that you do not wish to conquer and rule the surface world, nor do you plan to use it to destroy an enemy."
His silver gaze pierced her all the way to her core. Jewel didn't think a man had ever looked at her the way Gray did, as if she were a platter of some unknown, but delicious smelling dessert.
"Will my reason affect your willingness to take me to it?"
"No," she said, and it was the truth. No distortion. No dancing around the issue.
He nodded, deciding to trust her. "I want Dunamis because it's dangerous. In the wrong hands, millions of people could be annihilated. I want Dunamis," he added carefully, "because it needs to be guarded by the right people or be destroyed."
Her stomach knotted, sadness mixing with her dread. She'd had to hear that, hadn't she? What would he do or say if he knew that destroying the jewel would destroy her? Would he hesitate in his determination, perhaps change his mind? Or would he act without reservation?
"I will answer your question now," she said, forcing the words out. "The protector of Dunamis will let you destroy it. Just like that." She snapped her fingers.
"Why?" Incredulity radiated from him.
"He believes as you do, that it needs to be destroyed."
Gray's brow furrowed. "Then why the hell does he protect it?" "That is a question you will have to ask him yourself."
He opened his mouth, his eyes thoughtful, then he closed his mouth with a snap. Opened, closed. Finally, he growled, "What do you have on under that robe?"
Confused, she blinked over at him. What kind of question was that? He knew what she wore under her robe: a thin white chemise. He'd seen it. Had he planned to ask her something else, then changed his mind?
She sighed. She might have watched this man her entire life, but she doubted she'd ever understand him. Or maybe it was just men she didn't understand. All the other male minds she'd ever read had been focused only on their survival. Some hoping to block her out so that whoever owned her at the time wouldn't know of their crimes. Others had merely been nervous, wanting her to see the truth so she could send them on their way. But for all of that, she'd never taken time to truly explore the male thought process.
"You want to know what I'm wearing under my robe?"
"But - why?" She wished to the gods she could read his mind right now.
"Instead of answering me, why don't you show me?" Gray let out a heavy breath. Damn it. For a moment, when they'd been discussing the destruction of Dunamis, Jewel had looked so lost, so sad, and he hadn't known what caused the transformation. He'd only known he had to fix it.
Thankfully, he had. Color bloomed bright in her cheeks, and her take-me-to-bed eyes sparkled. Desire flared to life, but it couldn't beat past the sudden sense of lethargy racing through him. He gently stretched his arms over his head, arching his back. His mouth widened in a yawn.
"You've already seen exactly what I'm wearing under the robe. Soaking wet, no less." "Maybe I've forgotten." His eyelids were growing heavy. "Maybe I need to see again." "No, you do not," she said primly. "What would Katie say about your behavior?"
Hearing her speak his sister's name so easily was disconcerting. Strange and surreal. "How do you know Katie?" His question held curiosity and surprise as he fought to stay awake. "I haven't thought about her since I met you."
"I'm sorry." Jewel nibbled on her bottom lip. "I shouldn't have mentioned her." "It's okay." He yawned again. "Really. I'm just curious how you know about her."
Agitated, Jewel eased to her feet, but he was unable to read her expression, unable to figure out what she was thinking. "I don't want to talk about this," she said quietly.
He wanted to push her for an answer, but didn't think that would be wise. She looked ready to bolt and never return. He didn't understand this... or what it meant. "Jewel," he said.
"Sleep," she interjected, cutting off whatever he'd been about to say. He felt oddly compelled to do so. "I'm going to the river to fish. If I never eat another energy bar, I will die complete."