The Sentinel Wars, Book Six
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They are the Sentinels. Three races descended from ancient guardians of mankind, each possessing unique abilities in their battle to protect humanity against their eternal foes — the Synestryn. Now, a beautiful but damaged Sentinel may be a warrior’s last hope…
Jackie Patton has been rescued by the Theronai from her captivity and torture at the hands of the Synestryn. All she wants is to be left alone, but that isn’t possible — not when she’s a potential match for the Theronai warriors who need a woman to literally save their lives.
Forced to choose, she unexpectedly selects Iain, a cold-hearted warrior who doesn’t want to be saved. Iain is convinced that it’s too late for him — that his soul is already as dead as his former betrothed, killed by the Synestryn. Still, he is the only man Jackie feels a measure of peace around, the only one she wants. But is Iain indeed beyond saving?
The Sentinel Wars in Chronological Order
Burning Alive (May 2009)
Finding the Lost (November 2009)
Running Scared (May 2010)
On the Hunt – “The Collector” (February 2011)
Living Nightmare (November 2010)
Blood Hunt (August 2011)
Bound by Vengeance (February 2012)
Dying Wish (March 2012)
Falling Blind (April 2013)
Willing Sacrifice (March 2014)
Binding Ties (March 2015)
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Missouri, April 2
Jackie Patton was dressed to kill, and if one more of those burly, tattooed Theronai warriors tried to grope her, she was going to do just that.
Her red power suit was far too dressy for the occasion, but it made her feel better, almost normal. The thought sent hysterical laughter bubbling up from deep inside her. Normal was such a distant concept that she couldn’t even remember what it felt like.
Two years. That’s all the demons had stolen from her. She could never get them back, but she was free now, and determined to live that way.
She smoothed her hands over her suit jacket, ignoring the way they trembled. What little she had was already packed. She’d regained access to her bank accounts. Her house was gone — foreclosed and sold at auction — but she’d find another. She had enough money to live on while she found a job, and despite the tight job market, her résumé was impressive. A good position was just around the corner. She could feel it.
All she had to do now was let Joseph, the leader of this place — this compound — know she was leaving. Today. Right now.
Jackie went to the door of her suite, hesitating with her hand on the knob. She was safe here. There were no demons roaming the halls, no monsters lurking around the corner. But there were men out there. Suffering, desperate. Dying.
She’d been told she could save one. All she had to do was give up her life and dive into this world of monsters and magic.
They said it like it was no big deal, like she’d gain as much from this bizarre union as the man she chose would. Not true. She was free now. There was no way in hell she was giving up that freedom after having lost it for two years. She wouldn’t tie herself to any man. Not now, not while she was still broken and barely holding it together.
Don’t think about that now. If you do, you won’t leave your suite today. Again.
Jackie sucked in a long, deep breath and focused on her task. Simple. Fast. She’d be on the road within the hour.
That thought calmed her, and gave her room to breathe. She could do this. She had to. No one else could do it for her.
She grabbed what was left of her self-confidence and gathered it around herself like a cloak, holding it close. There had been a time when she could have faced a crowd and spoken to them without breaking a sweat, but those days were long behind her. Now simply leaving her suite made her shake with nerves.
She was a different person now, not the powerful, confident corporate exec she’d once been. She was a refugee.
No, a survivor. That sounded better. Stronger.
She left her suite, feeling moderately less miserable. She had almost made it to Joseph’s office when she rounded a corner and came face-to-face with one of the giant warriors who called themselves Theronai. As he towered over her, nearly seven feet tall, his gaunt body seemed to grow taller by the second. A shaggy growth of dark beard covered his wide jaw, and his amber eyes, shadowed with fatigue, lit up with the realization of who she was.
Jackie’s heart squeezed hard, flooding her body with adrenaline. Survival instincts honed in the caves where she’d been held captive kicked in. She went still, hoping he’d pass by and leave her in peace, as Joseph had ordered all his men to do. But this man didn’t pass. He slowed, coming to a stop only a few feet in front of her.
“You’re the one,” he said, his voice ragged, as if he’d been screaming for days.
“I’m late for a meeting,” she lied.
His long arm reached for her, and she jerked back. “Let me touch you. Let me see if it’s true.”
Panic exploded in her chest, but she was used to that. She’d learned the hard way to hide her fear and terror, and now that skill rose easily, allowing her to speak.
“Leave me alone,” she warned, trying to make her tone as stern as possible. It was a complete bluff. There was nothing she could do to defend herself against him. She was weak from her prolonged captivity, and even if she hadn’t been, his overpowering strength was so obvious, it was laughable she’d even consider fighting him.
Angry desperation filled his gaze as he stared down at her. “I don’t give a fuck about what you want. Grace is dying. If I claim you, we might be able to save her.”
The words left her cold, and sent her careening back into the caves where she’d been held. The monsters who’d abducted her had treated her like a thing — a trough from which they fed with no more concern for her than they’d have for the discarded paper wrapper from a fast-food burger.
She couldn’t do that again. She couldn’t allow herself to be used or she’d be all used up, with nothing left of herself to salvage.
But what about Grace?
Jackie had heard rumors of Grace. She was a human woman who’d sacrificed herself to save a Theronai warrior who’d become paralyzed. She’d taken on his injuries, freeing him, while she lay trapped and dying, her human body too weak to combat the poison that had caused his paralysis. No one had been able to save her. Not even the vampirelike healers these people called Sanguinar.
“Stay away,” she warned, working hard to make her voice firm and unyielding. Sometimes that tone had worked to keep the smaller monsters away. For a while.
She backed up, holding her hands in front of her to push him away if he got too close.
His eyes shut as if he was waging some internal struggle. When he spoke, his voice was gentler, pleading. “I’m Torr. I’m not going to hurt you. But I need you. Grace needs you. You may be her only hope.”
Jackie covered her ears before she could hear more. She didn’t want to be anyone’s only hope. All she wanted was to regain her life. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
The man lurched forward and grabbed her arms. He moved so fast, she hadn’t even seen it happen until it was too late. Violent, harsh vibrations battered her skin wherever he touched. They shook her bones and made her insides itch.
He stared down at the ring all the men like him wore on their left hands. A rioting swirl of colors erupted beneath the surface of the smooth, iridescent band. Jackie watched as his matching necklace did the same.
The luceria was what they called the jewelry. Two pieces linked irrevocably together by magic she didn’t care to understand. They were used to unite couples the way her sisters had been united to their husbands — to channel magic from the man into the woman. While that link allowed the women to do incredible things, Jackie wanted no part of it. This was not her world.
He took her hands in his and brought them to his throat, curling her fingers around his necklace. “Take it off. I need you to wear it.”
The slippery band felt warm. A cascade of yellows and golds rushed out from her fingertips, flying along the smooth band.
“No. Leave me alone.”
His lip curled up in a snarl. “I won’t. I can’t.” His grip on her hands tightened until her fingers began to tingle from lack of blood.
“Please,” she begged him. “Let me go.”
The frantic desperation in his gaze grew until his eyes were fever bright. He backed her against a wall, pushing hard enough to knock the wind out of her. “Do it!”
Jackie couldn’t bear to look at him and see his need. She knew he was in pain — all the men like him were — and she wanted to be the kind of person who would help, but she’d paid her dues. She’d been used for her blood, fed on for two years. She’d kept other women and children alive. Not all of them, but some. She couldn’t let this man or any other use her now, not when she was finally free.
His body pressed against hers. She could feel the hard angles of bones and muscle, feel him vibrating with anger. She didn’t like it.
Fear built inside her, but she was so used to it, she hardly noticed. Her fingers went numb and cold. She tried to shove him away with her body, but it was like trying to push a freight train uphill. He didn’t budge an inch, and her efforts seemed only to anger him further.
“Stop fighting me. I told you I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Then let me go.”
He let go of her hands, wrapped his arms around her, and lifted her off the floor. “We’re going to go see Grace. Then you’ll make the right choice.”
No. Jackie didn’t want that. She didn’t want to witness any more suffering. She’d had her fill of watching the pain and torture of others.
She kicked him, landing a solid blow against his shins. He didn’t even grunt. Instead, he tossed her over his shoulder. His bones dug into her stomach, and a wave of nausea crashed into her. She struggled not to puke over his back while she pounded at him with her fists.
“Put me down!”
A low, quiet voice came from behind them. “I suggest you do as the lady asks, Torr.”
Iain. She’d know his voice anywhere. Calm. Steady. It slid over her, allowing a small sense of relief to settle in between the cracks of her panic.
Torr turned around and eased Jackie’s feet to the floor. Her head spun, and she reached for the wall to steady herself. A hot, strong hand wrapped around her biceps, and she could tell by the vibration inside that touch that it wasn’t Torr’s. It was steadier, stronger, more like the beat of a heart than a frenetic flapping of insect wings.
She looked up. Iain stared down at her, his face stoic. The warmth of his hand sank through her suit jacket, spreading up her arm and down into her chest. She stood there, too stunned to speak or move, simply staring and soaking up that warmth as if she’d been starved for it.
His black gaze slid down her body and back up again, as if searching for signs of injury. When he saw none, he looked right into her eyes. The contact was too direct. Too intimate.
Like the chicken she was, she dropped her line of sight until she was looking at his mouth. His top lip was thin, with a deep delineation at the center, while his bottom lip was full, almost pretty.
That thought shocked her enough that her gaze lowered to his jaw, which was wide and sturdy, and then down his throat, where she hoped to find nothing intriguing at all. The luceria around his neck shimmered as it vibrated in reaction to her nearness.
That sight set her straight and reminded her that he was not a man. At least not a human one. None of these men were. Then again, she wasn’t human, either. Or so they said.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
Pride forced her to look him in the eye once more. She was not going to let anyone make her cower, not ever again.
There wasn’t a single hint of desperation in his expression, and when his gaze met hers, it was blissfully empty of the same frantic hope she’d seen in so many others.
“I’m fine,” she managed to squeak out.
Iain nodded and stepped forward, placing his wide body in front of her, so that she was safely out of Torr’s reach. He paused for a second, his powerful body clenching as if in pain. Then he continued on as if nothing had happened. “You can’t do this, Torr.”
The loss of his touch left her feeling cold and shaky. It was ridiculous, of course, just a trick of her mind or some kind of illusion inflicted upon her by the luceria. At least he hadn’t touched her bare skin. She’d learned that fabric muted the effects of contact with these men, and was never more grateful for long sleeves than she was right now. At least that’s what she told herself, even as her hand covered the spot his had vacated, trying to hold in the heat he’d left behind.
Torr’s voice came out pained, nearly a sob. “I have to claim her. She can save Grace.”
“You don’t know that,” said Iain.
“You don’t know she can’t.”
Iain’s tone was conversational, without accusation. “This isn’t how we do things. What would Grace say if she saw you throwing a woman around like that? Where is your honor?”
Torr’s amber eyes filled with tears. “Grace deserves a chance to live.”
“She made her choice. She saved your life. Don’t cheapen her sacrifice by being an asshole.”
“I can’t watch her die.”
“Then don’t,” said Iain, looking the taller man right in the eyes. “Leave. Come back when it’s over.”
Torr sneered and uttered through clenched teeth, “Abandon her to die?”
“She’s in a coma. She doesn’t know you’re there.”
Torr’s jaw tightened. “What if you’re wrong?”
“Then that’s even more reason to leave. If she can somehow sense your suffering, do you really want to subject her to that?”
Torr gripped his head in his hands and bent over. A low moan, like that of a wounded animal, rose from his chest. “I can’t do this, Iain. It’s too much to ask. I have to save her.”
Jackie tried not to listen. She’d already seen so much suffering. She didn’t want to witness Grace’s, too. It was selfish to wish for the bliss of ignorance, but she couldn’t save everyone.
And that, in a nutshell, was why she had to leave.
“You’ve done everything you can,” said Iain. “Let her go.”
“Obviously you’ve never lost the woman you love,” snarled Torr.
“Yes. I have. I know what it’s like — the pain, the guilt. You’ll get past it, eventually.” His tone was devoid of emotion, as if he were stating facts from someone else’s life.
Jackie almost wondered if he was lying, but something in her gut said he wasn’t. Iain didn’t look like the kind of man capable of love. He seemed too cold for that, too emotionless.
There’s no getting past something like this,” Torr nearly shouted.
“You can’t see a path forward now, but you will find one. Give yourself some time.”
“You’re a cold fucking bastard, you know that, Iain?”
“I know. And by the time you’re over Grace, you will be, too. For that, I’m truly sorry.”
Jackie stood there, unsure of what to do. This conversation had nothing to do with her, and yet she couldn’t bring herself to slink away like a coward without thanking Iain for stopping Torr.
She backed up, well out of arm’s reach. Torr stalked off, causing her to flinch as he passed by.
“I think he’ll leave you alone now,” said Iain. He didn’t move to touch her again, as so many men had. He stood still, just breathing, watching her with calm, black eyes.
He wasn’t as tall as Torr, but still nearly a foot taller than she was. His broad shoulders seemed to fill the hallway. Even though he was dressed in casual clothing, power emanated from him, radiating out in palpable waves. His arms and legs were thick with muscle, his chest layered with it. Faded jeans clung to his hips, the waistband tilted slightly with the weight of his sword, which she could not see, but knew was there.
She could still remember the way her fingers had tingled at his touch the night he’d pulled her from her cage. Every Theronai here who managed to touch her had the same disconcerting effect, but with Iain, it had been different. She wasn’t sure what it was about him that had the ability to straighten out her jumbled nerves, but whatever it was, she found herself soaking it in, hoping he wouldn’t hurry off as he’d done so many times before during their infrequent, chance encounters.
She looked at the ground, uncertain of what to say. “Thank you. For stopping him. He’s obviously not himself right now.”
“It’s polite of you to make excuses for him, but that’s not going to help him in the long run. He needs to face facts. So do you.”
Her spine straightened in indignation. She was the victim here. Who the hell was he to treat her as if she’d made some error in judgment? “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. You go traipsing around here, acting as if you’re not a catalyst for violence.”
“You think I asked for this? That I did it to myself? Torr was the one who went too far. I just left my room.”
“That’s all it takes. You’re torturing these men, making them think they have a chance with you. If you had any sense at all, you’d pick one of them and get it over with.”
One of them. Not one of us. She noticed the slight distinction and found it intriguing. Why wouldn’t he count himself among the rest of the men? He still wore both parts of his luceria, which meant he was available.
Maybe it had something to do with the woman he’d loved and lost — the one whose death had left him a self-acknowledged cold bastard.
She forced herself to look him in the eye while she lied, tipping her head back to make it possible. “I’ll pick someone when and if I’m ready.”
“Yeah? Well, let’s hope that no one gets killed while you take your sweet time.”
“It won’t come to that.”
“And just what are you going to do to stop it? These are big, armed warriors you’re dealing with, not pansy-assed suits, like the men you’re used to.”
How had he known? She hadn’t told anyone about her former life. She didn’t trust anyone enough to risk giving away more information than was necessary. “Did you check up on me?”
“I Googled you. I thought someone here should know who you really were, rather than daydreaming about who they wanted you to be.”
“Did you find a bunch of skeletons marching out of my closet?”
He crossed his arms over his chest, making his shirt stretch to contain his muscles. The tips of several bare branches of his tree tattoo peeked out from under his left sleeve. “You’re smart. Educated. A barracuda when it comes to business. People respected you. Feared you.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing.”
“In our world, it is. Of course, I don’t see any sign of the woman you used to be. All I see is a scared little girl who would rather hide than do the right thing.”
“I’ve been through a lot these last two years,” she grated out through clenched teeth.
“Who hasn’t? Life’s hard. Wear a fucking cup.” With that, he turned on his heel and left her standing there.
Jackie shook with anger as she watched him walk away. And there was only one reason she would have been as infuriated by his words as she was: He was right. She was merely a shell of her former self, and she didn’t like who she’d become. She didn’t like being afraid all the time — not just of the monsters, but of the people who lived here. And of her future.
She gathered herself and marched the last few yards to Joseph’s office. It was time to take back her life.
Normally, once Iain walked away from someone, he put the conversation behind him and let it go. He simply didn’t care enough to carry around other people’s baggage. But this time was different.
He couldn’t get Jackie out of his head. She lingered there, in the back of his mind, like a puzzle left unsolved.
His monster — the dark, enraged beast that lurked within him, always threatening to break free and kill — had perked up, its ears twitching with interest.
Even through the layers of clothing, he’d felt something when he touched her. Some deep, resonant vibration that seeped into the coldest parts of himself. His hand still tingled, and the pain pounding through his body — which had eased slightly upon contact with her — had now returned with a vengeance.
He was used to pain. It was part of his life. He accepted it the way he did his own skin, but since meeting her, he noticed it more.
Jackie had the ability to affect him when no one else could. Not that it mattered. She couldn’t save him. He’d stopped Torr from making a mistake. There was nothing left to think about.
And yet there she was, haunting a small corner of his mind with the memory of how warm she’d been, how delicate her arm had felt under his fingers. When he’d touched her, there had been something there — some subtle change inside of him. He couldn’t tell what it was, and even if he could, it wouldn’t have made any difference.
He was damned. Soulless. No one knew of his dangerous state but him. Even his luceria hummed when he got near Jackie, as if hoping for a reprieve from death. The thing apparently didn’t accept that it was too late for him.
But there was someone else who still had a chance: Cain.
Iain couldn’t save his brother’s soul, but he could sure as hell slow its death.
The black ring burned his hand with cold as he carried it through the hallways of Dabyr — the fortified compound that protected nearly five hundred humans and Sentinels. He could have shoved the ring into his pocket, but the pain reminded him of the danger of what he was about to do. One false move, and he and four other men — men he considered brothers — would be sentenced to death.
The Band of the Barren was the only refuge for soulless warriors, and Iain was the only man who knew who was in it. He’d recruited them all. And now there was one more he had to recruit, before it was too late.
He found Cain in the antechamber outside the Hall of the Fallen, staring at a worn sword mounted on the wall. A delicate band of shimmering gray was woven around the well-used grip.
Angus’s sword. Gilda’s luceria.
The couple had died a few weeks ago, and while Iain was beyond feeling any sort of grief for his friends, he remembered what grief felt like — how it crushed the breath from a man’s body and sapped his will to live. He remembered feeling like that after his betrothed had died at the hands of the Synestryn. The pain had been much worse than anything he had experienced in his long, long life, and yet somehow it hadn’t killed him.
For years, he’d wished that it had.
A sliver of the man he’d once been yearned to feel like that again, if only because it would mean some minuscule part of his soul was still alive. But the only emotion he seemed to have left was rage — the only thing that had survived the death of his soul.
Cain lifted his dark head in surprise as Iain entered the place of mourning and remembrance. The room was silent except for the crackle of a fire. The dark walls, soft carpet, and comfortable furniture were designed to make the room welcoming, but there was no happiness here. No hope.
Cain’s deep voice was gravelly as if from a prolonged silence. “I’ll leave so you can have time to mourn alone.”
Iain kept his expression neutral, hoping the other man would take it for some form of grief. He couldn’t let Cain know his secret — not until he was sure of what his instincts were telling him. “I was looking for you.”
Cain was a giant of a man, even among Theronai. Years of battle had hardened his body and etched themselves into his very skin. Small scars dotted the backs of his hands, as well as a few places on his face. Muscles bunched under his turtleneck as he shifted to face Iain.
A turtleneck was a bad sign among their kind. Each Theronai warrior’s chest was marked with a living image of a tree. As they grew, so did the lifemark, branching out and growing stronger each day as the magic inside them swelled — magic that could be accessed only by a female of their kind. A couple of centuries ago, their enemy attacked, killing nearly all their women. The men were left alone, struggling to contain the magic that continued to grow inside them with no outlet. As the power they housed grew, their souls began to weaken and die. Leaves fell from their lifemarks, each one marking a loss of what made them who they were.
The warriors became darker, angrier. The pain was too much for some, and they took their own lives.
Iain had considered doing the same more times than he could count, but one thing kept him holding on: He was the answer to the prayers of his brothers. He could save them.
He’d found magical artifacts that slowed the decay of their lifemarks and allowed them to cling to their souls for a few more years. His efforts hadn’t saved everyone, but he’d saved Madoc, who was now happily united with a woman who could wield his power and take away his pain. Nika had saved Madoc’s soul, but Iain had made it possible.
He hoped to offer Cain that same chance for survival.
The signs were all there. Cain had grown darker over the past month, quieter. His clothing had changed. So had his habits. He no longer dined with others. He sat alone, ignoring the rest of the men who offered to share his company.
Those were all signs that his lifemark was nearly bare, and that his time was almost up. He was distancing himself from the others, doing what he could to make his death easier on his brothers. Iain had seen it all before.
“Why were you looking for me?” asked Cain.
This was always the hardest part. Iain had to offer Cain a chance to slow the fall of leaves from his lifemark without betraying the fact that there were others like him — others whose souls were nearly dead. “I was worried about you. You seem . . . different lately.”
Cain’s face tightened with skepticism. “Did Joseph send you?”
“Bullshit,” spat Cain. “He won’t listen when I tell him I’m fine, so now he has you spying on me.”
“You’re not fine, and we both know it.”
Cain backed up and his hand moved to the hilt of his sword. A bit of magic made it invisible to the naked eye until it was drawn, but Iain knew it was there. He also knew that a man close to the end would have no trouble drawing a blade to use on someone he had once considered a friend.
Iain slipped the ring into his pocket and lifted his hands in surrender. “You don’t want to do that.”
“What I want doesn’t seem to matter anymore. My best friends are dead. Their daughter — the little girl who has been like my own child for centuries — has grown up literally overnight and no longer needs me. No longer wants me meddling in her life. That’s why she left.” His voice broke at the end and his throat moved as he struggled to regain his composure.
The man’s pain would have had Iain aching a few years ago. Now it was simply more data used to gauge his brother’s decaying status.
“Your duty to Sibyl was what you lived for. Now that she’s no longer a child, you feel lost. I get it.”
Cain glanced up, meeting Iain’s gaze for the first time since he’d entered the room. There was pain and desperation there. Mountains of agony crushing the soul from his body.
“I want to help,” said Iain.
“There’s nothing anyone can do. It’s too late. I’m done pretending. I’ll let Joseph know my intentions before I leave tonight.”
“You’re going to kill yourself.” It wasn’t a question.
Cain swallowed hard, and his big body shook with fear and regret. “I don’t want to die, but I’d rather walk calmly to my death than risk hurting Sibyl — which I will do if I follow her to Africa like some kind of overbearing father. Even if I pretend I’m only there to help rebuild the ruined stronghold, she’ll know the truth.”
“What if I could offer you another alternative?”
Cain let out a long, resigned sigh and then stripped off his shirt. His lifemark was nearly bare, with only a precious few leaves clinging precariously to the empty branches. “There are no other alternatives. It’s too late for me.”
Iain showed no sign of horror or surprise. It was just as he’d thought. “I’ve found another way, but before I tell you more, I need your vow of silence.”
Confusion wrinkled his wide brow. “What?”
“You must promise me that you will never speak to anyone of what I tell you here today.”
“I don’t understand, Iain. What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m offering you your life in exchange for your silence. Do you want to take the deal or not?”
Cain hesitated, but he wasn’t the first to do so. And Iain knew exactly which buttons to push to get the result he wanted. His brother’s life was worth more than the rules by which they lived.
“Think of Sibyl. She just lost her parents. What will it do to her to lose you so soon?”
Cain’s eyes slid shut and his mouth tightened in anguish. “She asked me to leave her alone. She left me behind when she went to join Lexi and Zach.”
“She didn’t ask you to die, did she?”
“There’s nothing anyone can do about that. Not even you.”
“What if you’re wrong? What harm is there in hearing me out? Worst-case scenario, you turn in your sword and go fall into a nest tonight if you don’t like what I have to say. Best-case scenario, you live long enough to see Sibyl united with one of our men, protected.”
Cain hesitated for a long moment. His gaze moved to Angus’s sword, where Gilda’s luceria was woven around it.
“Let me try to help you,” said Iain.
“No one can help me, but I’m fool enough to listen all the same.”
“Swear to me that nothing we speak of here and now will ever pass your lips.”
There was a long silence before he finally said, “I do so swear.”
The weight of Cain’s promise barreled down on Iain. He braced himself, suffering through the heaviness of his brother’s vow. It passed quickly, but the magic holding Cain to his word would not soon fade.
Iain looked right into Cain’s eyes, willing him to know that what he spoke was the truth. “There are a few of us, like you, who have come to the end of our time. Years ago, I began seeking out a way to save them. I discovered artifacts that had the power to slow the process.”
“Magical trinkets. Gilda’s mother spoke of them once when I was a boy. She didn’t know I’d overheard. I thought they might simply be a myth, but then I found one. It worked.” For a while. Nothing could hold back the flow of time forever, and Iain’s last leaf had long since fallen, but he’d bought himself enough time to learn what he needed to do to hide his barren state. He’d learned to pretend he had a soul, to pretend he had honor. Everything he did now was a carefully choreographed set of lies meant to fool everyone around him. And it had worked.
He’d passed this knowledge on to those who allowed him to help, just as he’d passed on the artifacts he’d found.
The black ring had been the first.
“How can that be? I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
“Those who created these devices didn’t want their existence known. If what they’d done had been found out, the people they were trying to help would have been put to death.”
“How do they work?”
Iain pulled the black ring from his pocket, ignoring the frigid burn of it, and held it out in his palm. “This one slows down the rate at which your leaves fall. It won’t save you forever, but it will buy you time to find the woman who can save you.”
Perhaps Jackie. She hadn’t chosen a man yet, but she would. Cain was a good man. She might choose him.
A low swell of anger rose up inside Iain, distracting him for a moment. He didn’t understand where it had come from, but it was there, burning deep in his gut.
The urge to draw his sword and lop off Cain’s head slammed into him. In his mind’s eye, he could see his brother’s blood arcing across the wall as he fell to his knees. He wanted that. Needed that. Cain couldn’t touch Jackie if he were dead.
Iain’s fists tightened as he fought back the bloodlust. His hand ached to draw his sword.
Cain was his friend, and while he felt nothing more for the man than he did the leather armchair to his left, he had once felt something. A fondness, perhaps. It was hard to remember now, especially with anger pounding at him to act, to kill.
Pretend you have honor.
That was what he told his men. It was all he had to do now. It wasn’t that hard. He’d done it a thousand times before. He’d been a good man once. It was his duty to behave as if he were that same man now. Perhaps he’d kill Cain later, but not right now.
The thought eased him somewhat, giving him the strength to take control of himself. He shoved down the last flickering embers of his rage with a force of will, returning his focus to his brother and what had to be done.
Cain flashed him a skeptical look. “How many of you are there?”
“You don’t need to know that. Only I know, and if you agree to join our Band of the Barren, I swear I will never reveal you as a member, just as I will never reveal who the others are to you.”
Cain stared at the ring, hope plain on his face. “What do you ask for in return for saving my life?”
“Only that you live by the code I set for all of us. Our lives depend on secrecy. If Joseph were to find out, he’d have us sent to the Slayers for execution. We must lie well, my friend. You must act as though you are fine, as though you have honor, no matter how dark your thoughts become.”
“What’s in this for you?”
Iain wasn’t sure anymore. At first he’d simply wanted to save his brothers, but now even the satisfaction he gained from that was a distant memory. His actions were merely habits now — doing things because he’d always done them, without thought of why.
But that answer was not what the members of the Band needed to hear. They needed hope so they could hold out for a while longer, fighting back evil as they were sworn to do.
“What wouldn’t you do to save one of your brothers?” asked Iain. “We’re in this together.”
“It’s against the rules.”
“We need all the warriors we can get if we’re to have even the slightest chance to win this war, even if it means breaking a few rules.”
“You said it slows the progress?”
“How do you know when it’s too late? How do you keep yourselves from hurting others because you wait too long to give up the fight?”
“I keep a careful eye on everyone. If you’re too far gone, or if you do anything to jeopardize the others, I’ll kill you myself.”
So far that last resort hadn’t been necessary. Even Madoc, who had been worse off than most, had managed to find salvation in time. Only Iain had held on too long, and there wasn’t enough of the man he used to be left for him to care that he should have gone to his death long ago.
If he died, who would recruit those nearing the end of their time? Who would watch out for them? He couldn’t give that burden to someone else. He alone was strong enough to resist his darker urges. His absolute commitment to his brothers had kept him going for years. His devotion to rules he created for himself had hidden his condition, even from the other members of the Band. None of them knew his soul was dead, only that he was nearing his end.
One day he’d go down fighting, but he refused to give up. He might not still have the gentler emotions that made up what passed for a conscience, but he had his honor. He remembered what it was like to love someone so utterly that nothing else mattered.
Serena was long gone, but his brothers had filled the void, giving him a purpose to replace the hope he’d lost so long ago.
Cain nodded and held out his hand. “Okay.”
Iain extended the ring. “It burns like hell.”
“I’m used to pain.”
“When you find your woman, be sure to take it off and return it to me. You won’t be able to bond while wearing it. You may not even be able to detect compatibility.” Madoc had worn that ring and had learned that bit of information the hard way.
Cain slid the ring onto one thick finger and clenched his hand into a fist. If he felt the cold burn coming off the metal, he hid it well.
“Good. Now sit down and let me tell you what you need to do — what will keep you from being sent to the Slayers.”
Torr stood at Grace’s side. She’d grown so thin, so pale. All the beauty and vitality that had once filled her every movement was now gone. With every passing day, she slipped further away from him.
The machine that breathed for her hissed quietly, breaking the silence of the room.
Torr held her hand, refusing to voice his anger at her actions. She’d done this to herself. She’d saved him, thinking he was more important.
She couldn’t have been more wrong. The world was full of people, but few had souls as pure and good as Grace. Her limitless kindness was now gone, and the world was a darker place for its loss.
Logan came into the room with his woman, Hope, at his side.
“What did you find out?” Torr asked.
Logan’s bleak expression said it all. Even the unearthly beauty of his kind couldn’t mask the ugly truth. “I was unable to locate help. I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tynan is the strongest healer among us. There are only two more in the world whose skills surpass his. One died a few days ago. The other is sleeping.”
“Then wake him up.”
“It’s not that easy, Torr. He went to sleep because he was too weak to continue.”
“I’ll give him my blood. He can have it all.” He didn’t care if he died, so long as Grace lived.
“It’s not enough. I’m sorry. You have to let her go.”
Torr’s grip on Grace had grown too tight, and he had to consciously relax his hold on her delicate fingers. “No.”
“It’s cruel to leave her hooked to these machines. She gave you a gift — one which you are squandering with your thoughtlessness.”
“I want her to live.”
“She’s human. Even if the device hadn’t paralyzed her, she would have died in a heartbeat of time.”
“A brief, human lifetime. Your suffering is inevitable. The sooner you let her go, the sooner her pain can end and your healing can begin.”
Torr was never going to get over what he’d let Grace do to herself. Even if she survived, he’d live with his guilt until his last breath. It was his job to protect humans. He’d taken a vow, and yet she’d been the one to risk her life to save him.
Torr barely kept control over his anger, keeping it out of his voice in deference to Grace. “You sound like Iain. You act as though she’s a thing I can easily toss away. You’re wrong. If I lose her, I won’t survive it.”
Logan’s mouth bowed with pity. “You will. You can’t see clearly now, but I’ve seen it before. This is the nature of things.”
Torr sprang up, balling his hands into fists to keep from wrapping them around Logan’s pretty neck. He stared at the new woman. “I’ve heard you can see auras — that you can read people.”
“I can,” said Hope.
“Is she in pain?”
Hope’s gaze moved past him to where Grace lay on the bed. “She’s confused. Sad.”
“So she is still in there?”
Hope nodded, making her blond ponytail sway. “Barely. She’s weak.”
“She’s a fighter. She’ll make it through this. We just have to find someone strong enough to heal her.”
Logan sighed. “What if there is no one? How long will you force her to stay here, tethered to this place?”
Determination rose up inside him, like a fortified wall no one could tear down. He gave Logan a hard stare, warning the leech to back off. “As long as it takes.”
As soon as the door shut behind Logan, Hope pulled him to a stop. The sorrow haunting her eyes was nearly too much for Logan to bear. He wanted to wipe it away, to make her smile again. He wasn’t quite ready to reveal his surprise for her, but perhaps it was better to tell her sooner rather than later. Anything to see her happy.
“You mustn’t do this to yourself,” he told her. “Promise me you won’t come back here and witness Torr’s suffering.”
“I want to help. I need to help.”
“There’s nothing anyone can do. We’ll console Torr when Grace has passed. He’s going to need us.”
She shook her head. “It’s just so sad, you know? So unfair.”
Logan pulled her into his arms and held her tight. Seeing Torr reminded him of how lucky he was, how precious Hope was to him. If anything ever happened to her . . .
He couldn’t even think about such things. They made dark, evil feelings swirl deep inside of him, threatening to break free. Hope was fine. She was his. All was well.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of Torr, but I think I might have an idea.”
Logan pulled back enough to peer down into her lovely face. So sweet, his Hope. He’d never tire of looking at her. “What do you mean?”
“My memories of Temprocia have continued to come back.”
Temprocia, the world where she’d been born and raised. Her memories of the place had been removed for her protection, but they’d been returning slowly ever since she’d taken his blood.
“How does that help Grace?” he asked.
Her blond brows drew together in concentration. “I don’t remember everything, but I remember a woman, a healer. I can’t recall her name, but I can see her face. She had no wrinkles, but there was a wisdom there — a kind of timeless intellect, as if she knew all the secrets of the world. I remember looking at her and knowing she could do anything. What if she can help Grace?”
Warnings sounded in Logan’s head. Hope had proved she was more than willing to put herself in harm’s way to save another. He didn’t want her anywhere near danger ever again. “Perhaps she could, but since there’s no way of reaching her, it’s best if we don’t mention this in front of Torr.”
Hope pulled her gaze away from his and stared at the floor. “What if there is a way?”
“The fact that you won’t look me in the eye when you say that tells me that it’s far too dangerous to even consider. Grace is dying. We have to accept that and move on.”
“I can’t. I have so much. My life is full and happy. What kind of person would I be if I didn’t try to give that chance for happiness to someone else?”
That was just one more reason why he loved her.
Despite the fact that he knew he’d regret asking, he did anyway. “What were you thinking?”
“I came here through the Sentinel Stone in the Tyler building.”
“The one I had relocated here, just in case any more women like you come through.” He desperately hoped that they would, too. His fellow Sanguinar were starving, and there was something special about Hope’s blood that took away that hunger. At least it had for him.
She was what his kind should have been if they hadn’t been cursed before their birth. She had no thirst for blood. She could walk in the sun. And while Logan wished that he, too, had such freedoms, there was no other person he’d rather see happy than Hope.
“What if we can somehow get a message through the Stone? We could call for help.”
“Assuming we can, how would that help?”
“I am having flashes of a memory — just little bits that keep teasing me. There’s something there, and if I can uncover it, I think I’ll know how to operate the Stone.”
“Gateways are tricky things. Dangerous things.”
“I can do this, Logan. I just need your help.”
He didn’t like it. He didn’t like anything that put her in possible danger. But he knew better than to deny her. If he didn’t help her, she’d find someone who would. She wouldn’t let this puzzle go — not while Grace’s life hung in the balance.
Logan nodded. “If you wish, I’ll help you, but you have to promise me that you won’t do anything without me.”
She smiled, and Logan’s entire world brightened. “I promise.”
Her vow settled gently over his shoulders, comforting him. “Mention this to no one. If Torr gets even a hint of our purpose, he will be relentless. I won’t have him pushing you beyond what’s safe.”
“I agree. We’ll do this alone. If it works, then we’ll tell him.”
And after they determined the outcome of this attempt to save Grace’s life, then he’d tell her what he’d done and give her what he hoped would be her wedding gift.
* * *
Jackie entered Joseph’s office, and he immediately rose to his feet. She averted her gaze, seeking out anything that would distract her from the hope she saw spring into his expression with her mere presence.
The room was cluttered with maps and papers, photographs, and a stack of unopened letters. Weapons hung on the walls, and she was certain that they were for more than mere show. A cluttered conference table had been pushed against a wall, the chairs filled with rolled maps, cables, and a few spare electronics. The large window behind his desk offered a clear view of the grounds outside, including the outdoor workout area where several men lifted ridiculous amounts of weight. Judging by their size and the trees marking the bare chests of some, she guessed them to be Theronai.
Jackie stopped dead in her tracks, freezing as she caught sight of them. If they could see in, they might come here and demand things of her that she wasn’t willing to give.
Joseph must have realized her problem, because he turned and lowered the blinds, blocking out the possibility of being seen.
“Thank you,” she managed, despite the tightness in her throat.
“Sure. Please, have a seat.”
She did, perching on the edge of the chair on the opposite side of his desk.
“You look nice,” he said.
Suddenly, her suit felt more like a costume than something she had always been comfortable wearing. “Thank you,” came out polite and automatic.
“Is there something you need?” he asked. “Has someone been bothering you again?”
She wasn’t about to tattle, so she kept what had happened with Torr to herself. “No. I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Then . . . what can I do for you?”
She pulled in a breath for courage. “I’m leaving. I just came to tell you.”
“Who’s going with you?”
“No one. I need to rebuild my life. Alone.”
Joseph began shaking his head before she’d even finished speaking. “No. We’ve discussed this. I’m sorry, but that’s out of the question. It’s too much of a risk for you to live outside of these walls.”
“It’s not your decision.”
“Is this about Samson? Because if it is, I can make some kind of arrangement.”
An ache radiated out from deep in her heart. Samson was a half-demon baby that Iain had delivered a few weeks ago. The child’s mother had died giving him life, and despite the odds, he’d lived more than just the day or two that most children like him survived.
She’d grown attached to him in a short time, but he’d been taken away to live with foster parents outside the walls of Dabyr. Joseph had claimed that his presence was too much of a risk to the other children here, that there was no way to know if he’d turn evil and attack.
Some of the less human offspring of the Synestryn demons had done just that. She’d seen it happen.
“He’s just a baby,” she told him for what felt like the hundredth time.
“He’s half-Synestryn. Until we know what that means, I’m not taking any risks with the people under my care. We’ve been through this, Jackie. I’m not changing my mind.”
She understood. She missed the little guy, but she couldn’t blame Joseph for being careful. There were so many people — so many children — here who depended on him and the decisions he made. Having been in a position of power herself, she understood how difficult that balancing act could be.
“This isn’t about Samson. I need to leave. I’m stronger now. I need to find a life. A real one, not one filled with monsters.”
Joseph seemed to bow under some unseen weight. “You can never go back to the way things were before you were abducted.”
“I can try.”
“All you’ll do is get yourself killed, and I’m sorry, but I can’t let you do that. We need you too much.”
Anger spiked through her, making her tone sharp. “You need something from me that I’ll never be willing to give.”
“I think you’re wrong. I think that once you get to know us better, once you’ve healed, you’ll change your mind.”
“I am healed.” It was a lie, but one she would keep on telling until it was the truth. Despite her weakness, despite the nightmares and the scars left behind, she would be fine. Eventually.
He lifted a skeptical brow. “Really? Is that why you’ve been hiding in your suite for weeks?”
“I don’t like the way the men look at me. The way they touch me.”
“There’s only one way to stop that. Pick one.”
He let out a long sigh. “If you leave, the Synestryn will come after you. They’ll find you. You’ll be right back in a dark cave somewhere, hoping one of us comes to the rescue. And that’s if they don’t simply kill you outright.”
Bleak, violent memories threatened to steal her breath. Fear crushed her lungs. Her vision dimmed, and she swayed in her seat. All those poor children being hurt. Used. She couldn’t face that anymore. She’d rather die.
It took Jackie a moment to beat those memories back, and the effort left her shaking and weak. She’d come a long way over the past few weeks, but she had a long way to go to get back to the woman she’d once been. If she didn’t stand on her own two feet now, she feared she’d never be herself again — that she’d end up depending on these people for the rest of her pitiful life.
She couldn’t meet Joseph’s eyes. “What choice do I have? I can’t live here. I don’t want to be a part of your world.”
“I’m sorry, but what you want is irrelevant. You are part of our world. You were born into it — you just didn’t know it until now. Whatever natural protection your ignorance afforded you is gone. If you leave the safety of these walls, the Synestryn will come for you.”
Denial rose up in a swift, hot wave. Her words came out through clenched teeth. “I’ll fight them. I won’t let them take me alive.”
“So . . . what? You’re ready to die?”
“Of course not, I just — ”
“You’re just willing to let a good man go to his death because you’re too selfish to do the right thing.” His biting tone took her aback.
“It’s not like that.”
“No?” he asked, rising to his feet. “That’s the way it looks to me. We saved you. We sheltered and fed you. All we ask is that you step up and do what you were born to do.”
“I wasn’t born for . . . this.” She waved her hand at the weapons and maps.
Joseph shrugged. “You’re making it hard for me to have any sympathy for you. My men are dying. You can save one. I really don’t care whether or not it’s what you wanted to do with your life.”
“Is it really that simple for you?”
She let out a frustrated sigh. “You saw what happened when I tried to go out and lend a hand with Paul and Andra. That didn’t exactly go well.”
“You weren’t bonded then. You had no power. And despite that, you found Samson.”
“No, Iain found Samson, or should I say he found a thing he was willing to kill. There’s not a bit of warmth in him anywhere.”
“He’s possibly the best warrior I have. I don’t ask for warm and fuzzy. I ask that he gets the job done.”
Jackie was certain he did that. She’d seen him in action the night he’d pulled her and the others out of those caves. She’d seen the lethal violence that he was capable of. And when he’d stood between her and the monsters, she’d never felt safer.
“You don’t want me to leave. I don’t want to hide in my suite all the time to avoid being pawed by strange men. What am I supposed to do with myself?”
Joseph crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. “Pick one of the men. Then I’ll let you go out. You can even go see Samson if you like.”
She stared at him for a long, shocked moment. “You’d really play dirty like that?”
“I’m not playing.”
She could see that. His posture was closed, his expression hard, and there wasn’t so much as a hint of a smile anywhere.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
“I need you to give the men hope. They’re good men. Whoever you pick would give his life to keep you happy and safe. Hell, even the ones you don’t pick will.”
“It’s not what I want.”
“I thought I’d made it clear that I don’t give a fuck about what you want. We saved your pretty little ass and kept it safe for weeks now. I’d say it’s time to pay up.”
“I didn’t realize my rescue came with strings attached.”
“Damn it!” He scrubbed his hand over his head, mussing his dark hair. When he spoke, he sounded exhausted and used up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it the way it came out. You’re welcome here for as long as you like, no strings attached.”
“But you won’t let me leave.”
“No. You’re too precious to risk. If you want out, you go with a Theronai — one you’ve chosen.”
“I’m not picking.”
“You will. Eventually, you’ll get tired of men fighting over you. I just hope that they don’t kill each other in the process.”
The thought horrified her. “They wouldn’t do that,” she breathed.
He moved around the desk and got too close. She surged to her feet and took a step back, putting the chair between them.
He scowled at her action, but didn’t try to get closer. “You can’t possibly understand what these men are suffering — what they’d do to make the pain stop.”
“Don’t tell me I don’t understand suffering. I spent two years in caves at the mercy of those monsters while they tortured and killed innocents.”
“I’m not trying to diminish what you’ve been through, but at least now your suffering is over. Ours isn’t. You can’t change that for all of us, but you can change that for one man, save one soul. Is that really too much to ask?”
It wasn’t. She knew deep down that her hesitation was more about fear and selfishness than about doing what was right.
“What if you’re wrong? What if I pick the wrong man? How can you ask me to choose whose life to save, knowing that the others may die?”
“You still don’t get it, do you?” he asked. “You may choose only one man, but your decision will give hope to all the others. It will help them hold on longer. Keep fighting. Resist giving in to the pain.”
“How can I give anyone hope when I’m so messed up?”
Joseph shook his head. “I don’t know. All I ask is that you try.”
She’d fail. She wasn’t cut out for this kind of life. She really only had one option.
Jackie sighed in defeat. “If I do as you ask and pick one of the men, will you stand aside and let me leave?”
“Promise me.” She knew their promises were binding, and that once he gave his word, he couldn’t go back on it.
Joseph looked her in the eyes. “I vow that if you choose one of the men to be your partner, I will allow you to leave.”
A heaviness bore down on her and she scrambled to grab the desk before she collapsed.
She could hear the smile in his voice. “I’ll gather the men right now. You won’t regret this, Jackie.”
She already did, and as soon as he figured out what she was up to, so would he.
The moment word got out that Jackie was choosing a man, Dabyr descended into a state of chaos. Men ran through the halls, pushing and shoving to get their spot in line. Iain made sure Cain and the rest of the Band had a front-row seat to the ceremony, hoping Jackie would choose one of them. He found himself a nice, empty spot in back, and settled in to watch the show.
The velvet-draped auditorium was rarely used, but the formal setting was fitting for what was about to take place.
Helen led Jackie on stage and whispered a few quiet words to her sister. Now that they were standing together, Iain could see a resemblance in the women — proof of the Athanasian father they shared.
Whatever Helen had said, it had made Jackie’s face go pale. Her wild, gray eyes roamed over the crowd, and he could see the fine trembling of her hands.
Helen stepped up to the microphone, and flipped her twin braids over her shoulders. “You all know why you’re here, so I’ll be brief. My sister Jackie has agreed to choose one of you. I want you all to remember that she can only pick one, so most of you will be disappointed.” She pointed a finger in stern warning. “Do not let that turn any of you into jerks, or I’ll be forced to take action. I doubt you’ll enjoy the outcome. Understood?”
There was a general rumble of assent among the thirty or forty men present. Iain didn’t recognize all of them — men had been coming from the far corners of the world after hearing rumors of Jackie’s presence.
“She’s going to accept a vow from each of you, and then make her decision. So please file up in an orderly fashion.”
Drake, Helen’s husband, stood guard at the stairs, doing crowd control. His sword was out and visible, as a warning to any who might consider causing trouble.
On the opposite side of the stage stood Andra. Her black leather, combat boots, and readied stance didn’t fool Iain. If the green tint to her skin was any indication, she was nervous about these proceedings. Paul was at her side, his hand low at her back in a protective gesture. Apparently, he was worried about her as much as she was worried about Jackie.
Madoc scowled at the men from his post near the rear doors. Nika stood in front of him, staring off into space, her head cocked to the side as if she were listening to something no one else could hear. A faint smile curled her lips for no obvious reason.
One by one, each warrior filed up to offer Jackie his vow. The first man in line was Nicholas, his horribly scarred face so full of hope that it almost made Iain wince. He was a good man, but he wasn’t exactly the most handsome man around, and Jackie didn’t have a whole lot to go on. Looks would matter, if only in a small way.
The moment Nicholas stepped up, bare chested and smiling, Jackie looked up and flinched. It was a small movement, covered up in milliseconds, but Iain saw it and knew Nicholas was out of the running. Poor bastard.
Still, he knelt, sliced a shallow cut over his heart, and offered her his vow. “My life for yours.”
Jackie’s gray eyes widened as she saw the blood. She swayed on her feet, and Helen put an arm around her shoulders to steady her.
Cain was next, and Iain hoped that the leaf tattoos he’d given the other man — the ones that would help disguise his lifemark’s lack of leaves — were no longer red and swollen, thanks to their natural ability to heal fast.
No one seemed to be looking at Cain’s chest. All eyes were on Jackie. Good.
“Nice ring he’s wearing,” muttered Madoc from behind Iain.
“Leave it alone,” warned Iain. “You owe me that much.”
“Yeah, yeah. My fucking lips are sealed.”
Iain nodded, letting the matter drop.
The line progressed, and with each man who bled for her, she seemed to lose a bit of color. The weight of all those promises seemed to crush her until her breathing was fast and shallow.
Iain made his way to the end of the line, pretending like he wanted this as much as the rest of them. No one knew it was too late to save him, and he had to keep it that way, even if it meant going through this ridiculous charade.
Samuel was in front of him, and he took his turn kneeling at her feet and offering to die for her. The ring portion of his luceria was pristine against the scarred flesh of his left hand. As he neared her, the colors in his ring began to move, swirling with yellows and golds.
Iain’s ring no longer contained any discernible color. It had faded to a pale, snowy white with age. So far he’d found no way of disguising it, but several of the older men’s rings were also washed-out, so he simply pretended that it wasn’t a problem, and everyone else took their cues from him. As long as he kept his monster in check, didn’t try to hide his lifemark, and pretended his honor was still intact, no one would question his soul’s status.
Samuel rose and moved away, his face alight with hope.
Iain could find none. He couldn’t even find the sorrow that his hope had died long ago.
Shrugging away the thought, he stepped up to Jackie. Her eyes were wide, and her pupils had shrunk to reveal paler gray rays among the darker ones. Her hair was shiny and clean, unlike the first time he’d seen her. She’d cut away the dirty, matted clumps, and styled it so that it curled around her jaw. A pale scar bisected her left eyebrow, and he found himself wondering how she’d been injured. Had it been some childhood accident, or had that been done to her during her captivity?
A slow, feral rage expanded beneath his ribs at the thought of her being hurt. The monster inside of him rumbled in warning, rattling the bars of its cage as if testing for weakness. Iain tightened his control on the beast and pushed thoughts of her injury aside before he lost control. With an audience like this, there could be no mistakes.
Instead, he focused on her mouth, which she’d colored the same deep red as her suit. Her lips were full, the bottom one wavering the slightest bit in trepidation.
“What are you staring at?” she asked.
“Nothing. Just committing this moment to memory,” he lied.
Before he could raise any suspicion, he drew his sword, knelt in front of her, and cut himself. “My life for yours, Jackie.”
She stumbled, but Helen held her up. Iain waited until the weight of his vow evaporated before he rose to his feet and left the stage without looking back.
As he made his way to the back of the room, he saw dozens of faces staring up at her. So much hope. He didn’t know why they bothered when they knew that all but one of them were going to be disappointed.
“Take your time,” he heard Helen say to Jackie.
He wanted to slip out, but that was too risky. He’d have to explain why he was willing to walk out on the best chance of living any of them currently had. It was better not to draw attention to himself. Pretend he cared. Pretend he had hope.
“I don’t need any time,” said Jackie. “I just want to get this over with.”
“Okay. I understand. Which man did you choose?” asked Helen.
Iain swore he could hear the men draw in their breaths in anticipation.
He settled in his seat as Jackie’s wavering voice filled the auditorium. “I want Iain.”