That woman needs to be restrained or someone is going to get hurt.”
Joseph did his best to stay focused on what the concerned human parents were saying rather than on just how much the idea of restraining Lyka Phelan appealed to him. “I’m sure she’s being careful with her lessons.”
“Our son broke his arm,” said the mother, Joann, her lips tight with irritation.
“I’ll see to it that one of the Sanguinar heal him.” “Lyka already took care of that, but that brings us to the next issue,” said the father, Darren.
“Which is?” asked Joseph, bracing himself for yet another problem added onto the already impressive pile he had on his plate today.
His patience had worn thin. His head throbbed and his chest ached with the strain of the magic growing inside him. Unlike the men under his command, who were free to roam, he was usually trapped behind a desk, unable to enjoy the physical exertion of battle. Without even that small outlet, the power he stored within his body continued to build, causing the kind of pain he could have only imagined a few years ago. The one thing that would ease this ache was to find a woman who could wield that power, channel it out of him and free him from it.
And he sure as hell wasn’t going to find her sitting behind a desk inside a fortified compound, deep in the rural Midwest.
The human woman sitting across from him tightened her lips until they were bloodless with irritation. “Lyka didn’t even ask us if we wanted one of the Sanguinar treating our son. She had no right to let one of those leeches touch him.”
Joseph bit back the harsh reprimand that surged behind his teeth at the woman’s use of the derogatory term for the Sanguinar. “When we found your son hovering at death’s door, you didn’t seem to mind the Sanguinar healing him.”
“That was before we found out what one of them did,” said Darren. “We always knew they were a shady lot, but stealing children? It’s unthinkable.”
Since word had gotten out that one of the Sanguinar had turned traitor and stolen a human woman and her child to use their lives as a bargaining chip with the enemy, everyone inside the walls of Dabyr had become suspicious of them.
Every day fewer and fewer humans offered the Sanguinar their blood to help fuel their efforts to heal the sick and injured. And every day the Sanguinar grew weaker.
“We found the traitor,” said Joseph, with as much patience as he could muster.“He’s dead. He can’t hurt anyone ever again.”
“You found one traitor,” said the man. “For all you know, there could be more of them waiting for an opportunity to strike. They can read minds, you know. Twist your thoughts and make you believe they’re telling the truth.”
Joseph pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Pain stabbed behind his eyes, and the lighting in his office felt as if it were slicing his retinas. “I understand your concern, but I assure you that Tynan has used all his massive mind-reading ability to ensure that none of his people were working with the traitor.”
“And you believe him? Our son can’t leave this place. If he does, Synestryn demons will find him and he’ll be as good as dead. This is the only place he’ll ever be safe. That’s what you promised us when we agreed to live here.”
“Your son is safe here,” said Joseph. “The Sanguinar aren’t going to hurt him.” He’d had this conversation or one just like it a hundred times in the past week. At least that’s how it seemed.
All he wanted to do was get back to his job. Lead the Theronai in the war against the demons. Keep the humans under his care safe and sound. Calming worried parents was not in his job description, but it was all he seemed to be doing lately.
“Our son broke his arm,” said the woman slowly, as if Joseph were a small, stupid child. “That’s hardly safe.”
Most of the nearly five hundred people Joseph housed at Dabyr were reasonable folks. They were grateful for the safety the magically enhanced walls around the compound provided. Unfortunately, these two people had forgotten the hysterical terror they’d faced three years earlier, when their son had been stolen by demons and rescued before he’d been exsanguinated for the traces of magical blood flowing through his veins. They’d forgotten how desperate they’d been at the time, and how willing they’d been to do whatever it took to keep their baby safe.
But Joseph hadn’t forgotten. He knew what they would face outside these walls, and the fate that awaited their son if Joseph wasn’t able to appease them.
Synestryn demons wouldn’t care what the boy’s parents thought or felt. All they cared about was draining as much blood as possible from their son before tossing his remains to their beasts to pick his bones clean.
It took considerable effort, but Joseph managed not to growl at them when he said, “Perhaps you’d be happier if your son didn’t attend Lyka’s class. It’s not required, you know.”
“But he loves it,” said Darren. “The only way he’ll stop whining at us is if you shut the class down altogether.”
“Surely the other parents have complained,” added the mother.
“There aren’t a whole lot of parents here,” Joseph felt the need to remind them. “Most of them died trying to protect their children. You are among the lucky ones.”
The way her mouth turned down made it clear she didn’t see herself as lucky right now. “It’s teaching violence. The kids are too young to learn such horrible methods.”
“I’m sure it’s not all that bad,” said Joseph. “A little self-defense training is a good idea.”
The parents shared a meaningful look before the father spoke up. “A little self-defense? That’s what she told you she was teaching?”
“Have you watched her lessons?” asked the mother. “At all?”
Joseph shook his head. “No, but I have a feeling that’s next on my list of things to do.” The list was already a mile long, but the lure of seeing Lyka again was one he couldn’t resist.
He dismissed the parents and went to the outdoor play area that had been set up for the kids. By the time he made it through the twisting halls of Dabyr, he’d been stopped three times and told about new issues that demanded his attention.
The grinding pain behind his eyes—his constant companion—grew worse with each problem heaped on the pile. He wasn’t even halfway through his twenty-year term as leader of his people, and the strain was already tearing at him. He bowed under the weight of all the lives that depended on him to be smarter, stronger and deadlier than their enemy. Of all the hundreds of things he needed to accomplish, dealing with a petty human squabble over a children’s class should have been so far down on his list of priorities that he couldn’t even see it.
And yet here he was, drawn to it—not by a sense of duty to the human parents, but instead by the idea of seeing the female Slayer who took up far too much space in his thoughts.
Lyka’s class was nearing its end by the time he finally made it outside. The sun was high overhead, making her hair look like spun gold. Even though she was a Slayer and practically immune to the cold, she still covered everything but her face and hands under a layer of clothing. The fabric clung to her skin, outlining curves that had kept Joseph awake and aching more nights than he cared to admit with the need to touch her. He’d never once laid a finger on her in any way, not even in greeting. Every time he got within arm’s reach of her, she would back off so fast he was afraid she’d hurt herself trying to get away from him.
He would have taken it personally if not for the fact that she treated all of his men the same way. No one got close to Lyka Phelan. Period.
She was a Slayer, sent here to serve as a hostage to guarantee that her brother would honor the treaty struck with Joseph. In return, Joseph had sent Carmen, the young woman he’d claimed as his own daughter, to stay with the Slayers. It was an old-fashioned way of ensuring both sides upheld the treaty, but one that had worked well for centuries.
And like it or not, there really was no other choice but to end their hostilities. Their two races had been at odds for too long, sacrificing too much time and too many resources fighting each other when their real enemy was growing stronger every day.
If Joseph was honest with himself, having Lyka here was no hardship. As touchy as she could be, the distraction she offered was a welcome respite from the weight of his station.
The high glass ceilings and openness of the central dining and living areas had been recently renovated. The colors were earthier now, with plenty of warm golden tones and rich, gleaming wood. Colorful tablecloths brightened the dining hall, where people gathered over meals or a cup of coffee. The magically enhanced glass let in sunshine without the risk of its summoning the Solarc’s deadly wardens if it touched the skin of a Sanguinar. Cozy alcoves were filled with comfortable leather sofas where kids could study, watch TV or play games.
The second he was through the glass doors leading outside, he saw her. As always, Lyka drew his complete attention, glowing like sunshine incarnate. He wasn’t sure why such a prickly woman would appeal to him on such a deep level, but there wasn’t much he could do to stop it.
Heaven knew, he’d tried.
As he watched her talking to the kids, the searing pressure behind his eyes began to fade. There was something magical about a beautiful woman, and Lyka was about as beautiful as they came. Long golden hair. Soft golden skin. Bright golden eyes. He couldn’t stare at her too long without feeling the need to shield his eyes from the glow.
Every move she made was filled with the sinuous grace of her kind. She took after her mother, showing off decidedly feline attributes beyond her catlike eyes. There was an alertness about her—a kind of intense awareness of the people around her. He knew that if he got to within twenty yards of her, she’d sense his presence.
He didn’t want that yet. He liked looking at her too much for her to know he was doing so. Maybe staring at her wasn’t appropriate, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. And he sure as hell wasn’t about to tell her that she was so beautiful that merely watching her had the power to ease his pain.
He only wished he could find a way to stop wanting her. There was nothing quite like groping a man’s sister to ruin a perfectly good peace treaty.
As he continued to watch, he realized that she was directing children in the open play area, though what was going on there was like no form of play he’d ever seen.
The kids were grouped by size. The largest four were in the center of a clearing, being watched by several smaller children. The big kids were clustered together, snarling at one another and grappling for supremacy as they tried to knock one another out of the rope boundary laid out around them. They used teeth and fingernails, elbows and knees. The blows were real, leaving behind both bruises and blood.
It was a small wonder that a broken arm had been the worst of the damage these kids had suffered—at least the worst Joseph knew of.
Lyka stood at the sidelines, shouting instructions to the kids. After a few seconds, she put two fingers in her mouth and let out a shrill whistle. “Time’s up!”
The kids stopped what they were doing and scrambled to line up at attention. One of them was limping. All of them were bloodied, even the young girl who’d been fighting right alongside the boys.
Joseph’s first instinct was to rush over and see to their wounds, but he forced himself to stay where he was, out of Lyka’s sight. It was the only way he was going to see exactly what she did when he wasn’t watching.
Lyka strolled in front of the kids, studying them. She lifted the girl’s arm, inspecting her wounds. One of the boys raised the hem of his shirt to show her where he’d been bloodied. After she was done looking at them, she pointed at each of them as she counted. “Four, three, two, one.”
The boy who’d been labeled one thrust his fist in the air, jumping in victory. The girl beamed at her second place, while the other two boys were clearly unhappy with their ranking.
Lyka addressed the rest of the class. “What did Hank do right?” she asked. “Why did he win?”
The kids started discussing moves and strikes, but Lyka deftly steered the conversation more toward battle tactics and the combatants’ traits.
“He wasn’t afraid,” said one of the kids—a new girl who’d only recently arrived at Dabyr.
Lyka turned to Hank. “Were you afraid?” she asked. “Yes, ma’am. Mary’s got a wicked bite.”
The kids laughed, but Lyka kept going. “He didn’t let his fear make him lose. We’re all afraid sometimes. The key is not letting it control us. Fear is just a bunch of chemicals tricking your brain. The good news is they can make you stronger, faster. All you have to do is let them.” “But it’s not the same,” said a boy about ten years old, with a messy mop of dark curls. “Mary isn’t one of the Synestryn. They bite for real. And they’re poisonous.” “True,” said Lyka. “That’s why I tell you all to fight like you mean it. Don’t hold back, because one of these days, you might be fighting for your life. You get strong here so you can survive out there when no one is around to save you.”
Joseph braced himself, waiting for the kids to start crying, for their chins to wobble in fear or their eyes to shine with tears. Every one of them had suffered at the hands of the demons. Some had lost their parents and siblings. A few had been held hostage by the Synestryn for months, tortured and terrorized. Surely being told in such blunt terms that they might have to fight the demons on their own one day had to be scaring them shitless.
And yet not one of them so much as trembled. “When I get big,” said one little girl, “I’m going to chop their heads off with a sword, just like the Theronai do.”
Lyka grinned.“I’m sure you will, but for now let’s just stick to your bare hands and teeth. I don’t think the Sanguinar can reattach your classmates’ severed heads quite as easily as they heal teeth marks.” She turned back to the four kids who’d been fighting. “Speaking of which, Logan and Hope are waiting for you inside. Go get yourselves patched up.”
They took off, the limping boy trying to keep up like a trooper.
“The rest of you get a good dinner and go to sleep early. We have a lot of work to do tomorrow. Final exams are coming soon. You all need to be ready.”
The kids started to race off back toward the main building.
Lyka raised her voice, shouting after them. “And no fighting outside of class, or you’re benched for a week.” The kids all cleared out, leaving Lyka to pick up the rope that had been laid out to mark their sparring area. She hadn’t seen Joseph yet, and that was just as well. He had no idea how he was going to deal with what he’d just witnessed.
But he did have to deal with it. Shut her down. Keep her from upsetting more parents, or, worse yet, traumatizing one of the children.
A cold breeze swept past him, ruffling the hair at the nape of his neck.
Lyka sniffed the air and froze in the act of winding the rope around her forearm.
He wondered if she’d ever let him tie her to his bed with it, binding her there so he could get his fill of her without her darting off like a frightened rabbit. He could finally get close enough to see if she smelled half as good as she looked, if her skin was even close to being as silky smooth as it appeared. She’d fight him—of that there was no doubt—but once she wore herself out, he was almost certain he could find a way to make her purr.
As soon as the thought entered his mind, he banished it. The leader of the Theronai didn’t restrain and fuck the baby sister of the leader of the Slayers. Not unless he wanted an all-out war on his hands to add to the one he already had with the Synestryn.
Her gaze met his. Her shoulders tensed, moving up toward her ears. “Spying on me?”
“A little. There have been some complaints about your class. I wanted to check it out for myself.”
The clouds overhead parted, allowing sunshine to spill over her. He was once again stunned by just how beautiful she was. Her pale golden eyes caught and held the sunlight, making them look like they were glowing from within. Her pupils constricted until only a narrow oval remained, showing off proof of the Slayer blood flowing through her veins.
“And?” she asked. “What did you think?”
He’d always been a diplomatic man, but it was a stretch to keep his mind sharp and focused on his words when his body was responding in such an acute way. It had been a long time since he’d wanted a woman, but he was definitely making up for lost time now. As cold as it was outside, his blood was pumping hot, bringing a fine sweat to his brow as he struggled to keep his cock under control.
It took him several seconds to word his response carefully. “I can see why there was concern.”
She muttered under her breath. “Fucking pussy adult humans.”
She glared at him and spoke slowly and clearly. “Fucking. Pussy. Humans. If they don’t want their kids to get eaten, they should pull their heads out of their asses long enough to teach them how to fight. The Synestryn demons aren’t going to stand back while a kid runs off to let mommy kiss his boo-boos. They’re going to tear the meat from his bones and use them for toothpicks.”
The truth of her words only made them that much more appalling. “Is that what you told his parents?”
“Would you rather I have lied?”
Now he was stuck between agreeing with and encouraging her or lying himself. Instead he settled for, “That probably didn’t win you any points for Teacher of the Year.”
“Maybe not, but when I think about the work I do with these kids, I sleep fine at night.”
And just like that, he could picture her in her bed, her golden hair spread across her sheets, her long, sleek body stretched out naked and warm beneath the covers. With the coiled rope dangling from her hand, it was all he could do not to add that particular prop into the already potent mix of his inappropriate fantasies.
He had no idea what it was about this woman that made him ache for her, but he did. All the way down to his bones.
Joseph exerted his substantial will and dragged his mind back to where it belonged.“Those children got hurt, Lyka. They were bleeding. You can’t let it happen again.” “I made sure that there were two Sanguinar waiting
in the wings to heal them. I know the kids were in pain, but it will help toughen them up. Besides, they need to know how to fight, and no one else is bothering to teach them.”
“We make sure they get a good education.”
“Sure you do. They’ll all be able to do calculus in their heads while the demons rip their throats out. A lot of good it will do them.”
“You’re scaring the parents.”
“Good. They should be scared. Their kids are demon food. If these humans stopped for even one second and thought about it, they’d realize that what I’m doing is right. I’m trying to keep the kids alive. Give them a fighting chance.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you keep teaching them to fight like this. It’s too dangerous for them and too upsetting for their parents.”
“You said I could teach a class. If I got a sponsor to make sure I wasn’t brainwashing them into siding with we evil Slayers, you said I could do this. Are you going back on your word, Theronai?”
“I never agreed to this,” he said, waving his hand at the bloodstained dirt. “I can’t believe you found anyone who would think this is a good idea.”
Her pupils narrowed, giving her a decidedly feline appearance. “Are you calling me a liar?”
“Put away your claws, kitten. All I mean is that I’m wondering exactly what your syllabus looks like. Does your sponsor know what you teach?”
She took a step toward him before stopping herself. Her hands balled into fists, and her voice went lethally soft. “These kids have had their lives stolen from them. They feel weak and powerless. They’re trapped here, with no hope of ever leaving, and as nice as the accommodations may be at Dabyr, it’s still just a comfy prison. What I’m giving them is hope—hope that they might survive another run-in with the demons. Hope that maybe one day they can walk out of these walls and have some kind of a real life. If that bothers you or anyone else here, then that’s just too fucking bad. These kids need me, and I’m not giving up on them just because a couple of parents are too scared to see reality.”
“I’m not saying you can’t teach them. Just teach them not to break the skin. Stop leaving bruises and breaking bones.”
“That’s the way I was taught. Are you saying that our Slayer ways aren’t good enough for your precious humans?”
“These kids aren’t Slayers. They’re human. They don’t heal as fast as you do. They’re easier to break.”
“That’s why I’ve bargained with Logan to heal them.” The idea of Lyka giving anything to a man that stunningly beautiful rubbed Joseph the wrong way. “What was the bargain?” he asked, his voice rougher than he’d intended.
“None of your business.”
“Everything you do here is my business. You’re my guest.”
“Guest? More like your prisoner.”
“You agreed to stay of your own free will.”
“That’s a bit of a stretch. My brother convinced me it was the only way our races would survive. We form an alliance. You keep me here as a prisoner to guarantee his good behavior, just like Carmen staying with him guarantees yours. If I’d been even a little stronger and able to best my brother in combat, he’d be the one here and I’d be out there, running our people, free and happy.”
The thought that she was unhappy here gave him pause and deflated the head of steam he’d built up. “You’re not happy?”
“Everything I do is suspect. I’m constantly being watched by your men. And when they’re not around, there are so many damn cameras in this place, I feel like I’m getting a colonoscopy just walking down the hallways.”
“After what happened with Connal—”
She held up her hand. “I know, I know. There was a traitor in your midst, and you don’t want a replay. I get it. Just don’t stand there looking like I kicked your puppy when I tell you that I don’t want to be here. It’s not my home. It never will be.”
“I’ve tried to make it feel like home for you.”
“You’ve given me a beautiful suite, comfortable surroundings, all the food I can eat and something to do with my time. I’m grateful for that. Really, I am. But those things mean nothing to a woman who has no choice but to stay behind these walls. Like it or not, I’m your prisoner.”
“I don’t want you to feel that way.”
“Then stop watching my every move. Back off and let me teach the kids my way. If you give me a chance, you might even like the results. The kids sure as hell do.”
He knew he was making a mistake the second he opened his mouth, but the desire to see her content was far stronger than he could fight. “I’m not making any promises, but I’ll talk to the children, the parents and your sponsor. I’ll let you know what I decide in a couple of days.”
“Until then I can teach?” she asked, sounding hopeful.
“Teach? Yes. Allow them to shed blood? No.” “You’re just stringing me along, aren’t you? Pretending to consider it when you’ve already made up your mind.”
Joseph refused to budge. “Two days, Lyka. Come to my office and I’ll give you my decision.”
“And expect me to obey like a good little girl?”
He took a step forward, watching her nearly trip over her own feet to back away from him. “That’s exactly what I expect, kitten. You’re honor bound to follow my rule for as long as you’re inside my walls.”
Her eyes narrowed in fury. “You’re as bad as my brother.”
He grinned. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” “Don’t,” she said.“I nearly killed him once, and I love him. You, Theronai, don’t stand a chance.”