Joseph was still in his office, working, long after sundown. He should have stopped hours ago, but his mind kept going back to Lyka, making every task he did take twice as long as necessary. Because of that, he still had hours of work left to do before he could rest.
His stomach rumbled, reminding him that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. The drawer where he usually kept snacks was empty, telling him that he’d been skipping far too many meals lately.
Not that he had much choice. There was so much to do to keep a place like this running. Even the help he had from a dozen humans wasn’t enough to keep everyone here clothed and fed. On top of that, he was fighting a war against the Synestryn, working to lead his men to where they needed to be. One wrong move on his part, and countless humans would die.
The map on the far wall reminded him of just how much ground they had left to cover. Even though they cleared the demons out of every cave they found, collapsing each behind them so no more nasties could find shelter from the sun, it was never enough. There were always more caves, always more demons to kill.
The threat that the walls here at Dabyr would be breached was a constant worry. Even though Lexi had magically reinforced the stone perimeter that kept the Synestryn at bay, she was only one woman, fueled by one man. Their combined power was formidable but not limitless.
After centuries of sterility, Theronai babies were once again being conceived. They would be born here soon, and that meant there could be no more breaches in security. More now than ever, Dabyr was a tempting target. If he were the enemy, he’d be searching for some way past the walls.
Or through them.
Explosives had been used against Dabyr before. There was no way to know just how much damage the walls would take before they buckled, even with Lexi’s efforts. On top of that, Joseph had just learned that one of his men had just been zapped away through a portal. Nicholas had seen Torr disappear with his own eyes. No one knew where he’d gone, who’d stolen him or whether he was even alive. He was completely out of reach, leaving Joseph helpless to offer any kind of assistance.
It was that sick sense of helplessness that made him wish he could be out there fighting rather than trapped behind a desk, dealing with all the things that kept hundreds of people clean, clothed, fed and protected. What he did here was important, but without some kind of physical outlet for his magic, he wasn’t going to survive much longer. The leaves on his lifemark—the living image of a tree that stretched across his chest, shoulder and down onto his thigh—were falling faster every week.
Once his lifemark was bare, his soul would rapidly decay, twisting him into a selfish, violent shadow of his former self. He’d end his life before it got that bad, but he knew that doing so would only leave one of his brothers in this position: burdened by duty, bound by honor and tied behind a desk with no hope of finding the woman who could save his life before he, too, succumbed to the destructive power of the magic he housed.
Joseph’s skin tingled in warning an instant before he heard the light knock on his open office door. Lyka stood there, a food tray in hand.
She was so beautiful, all golden and glowing, that he forgot to breathe.
“I didn’t see you at dinner,” she said. “I thought you might have been stuck here, working late again.”
His mouth watered, but not for anything that was on the tray. He wanted her. Bad. In that intense kind of way that would render him stupid if he wasn’t careful and completely in control of his emotions.
“Thank you,” he said, letting none of his want come through his tone. He was polite, but that was it. Calm. Cool. Not fighting a raging hard-on at all. “That was kind of you.”
She stepped over the threshold and he caught a glimpse of golden skin beneath her skirt. It was modest, falling well below her knee, but that didn’t change the fact that her legs were obviously bare beneath the fabric. He’d never seen her in anything other than long pants, so this change of attire was both surprising and ridiculously arousing. He could imagine the warmth of her skin beneath his palms if he got the chance to slide his hand over her knee and up her thigh.
Not that he’d ever indulge in such fantasies. Down that path lay one pissed-off Slayer brother with the power to inflict far too much damage. No, thank you.
“Come to bribe me with food?” he asked, teasing.
She smiled as she set the tray on the conference table that filled one side of his office. “It is steak. What else could it be but a bribe?”
“You should have opted for a salad. Way less obvious.”
“I’ve never been a subtle kind of woman.” She shrugged one slender shoulder, drawing his eye to the delicate line of her collarbones. The shirt she wore wasn’t cut low, but it did show off more skin than he’d ever seen before—smooth, golden skin that appeared too flawless to be real.
He forced his eyes up to hers before she could catch him leering.
She removed the metal covers from the plates, revealing dinner for two.
“You’re going to join me?” he asked, shocked that she’d want to be this close to him.
“I’m trying to win you over. I can’t exactly do that from my suite. Unless, of course, my absence is worth something to you?” She sounded hopeful, as if she wanted him to dismiss her.
“Not at all.” He watched as she positioned two chairs as far apart as the space would allow. “But I have to warn you that while I appreciate your efforts, I can’t be bribed. I’ll make my decision based on what I think is right, not on what you feed me.” Or what you wear.
“Would you rather I leave? I’m happy to go if you’d rather eat alone.”
“No.” He rushed toward her, everything in him demanding that he keep her here for as long as possible. The pain behind his eyes was easier to bear when she was here. He didn’t understand why that was—some kind of innate Slayer magic, no doubt—but he accepted the gift gladly and refused to let it go until he had no other choice.
She shied away, retreating to the open door before he reached her.
Joseph stopped dead in his tracks and raised his hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you away.”
Her spine straightened until she was standing tall and proud. “You couldn’t scare me on your best day, Theronai.”
“Then why do you always back away when I get close? Do you think I’m going to hurt you?”
She snorted. “I’d like to see you try.”
He sighed. “Sheathe the claws, kitten. You don’t have a thing to prove to me. Let’s just sit down and pretend you can stand to be in the same room with me for more than two minutes.”
She looked longingly at the door for so many seconds that he thought she might just bolt and be done with it. Instead, she surprised him by coming to the table, smoothing her skirt, and sitting down as if the disastrously cluttered confines of his office were the finest restaurant in the state.
“You know I only came here so I could convince you to let me keep teaching my class, right?” she asked.
“I assumed as much.”
She picked up her steak knife and gripped it in her fist. He could see her wavering on the edge of indecision, as if she had something she wanted to say.
“Just spit it out, Lyka. Whatever you’ve got to say, say it.”
She stared at him for a second, sucking him into the glowing depths of her eyes. He got so lost looking at her, he was almost surprised when she finally spoke. “I was told to dress like this and put on makeup and perfume so you’d want to fuck me.”
He choked on the bite of steak he’d taken, coughing to clear his throat. “Wow. Okay. Points for honesty, Lyka.”
“I thought it was a stupid idea, too.”
It wasn’t stupid. Not even close. In fact, whoever had given her that advice had probably seen Joseph watching her. He was going to have to be a lot more careful about letting his desire for this woman show in public. “I can’t let you sway my mind, no matter how beautiful you are.” “And I can’t sit here and suck up to you, leading you on and letting you think you’re going to score.” She hit him with a hard, golden gaze. “You’re not.”
“I honestly never thought it was a possibility.” Though he wished like hell it was. Maybe sex would help him release some of his building power and ease his pain just a little. It worked for some of the men.
And sex with Lyka? It would probably blow him away. He’d wanted her for too long, and despite his best efforts, had built up quite a set of fantasies about her. They were all wildly inappropriate, and more than one of them was doubtlessly illegal, but he couldn’t seem to purge his thoughts of her.
She rose to her feet. “I’ll go and let you eat in peace, then. Sorry for wasting your time.”
“I’d like it if you’d stay.”
She frowned. “Why? I already told you I’m not going to fuck you.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t stay, does it? You are capable of sharing a meal, knowing that’s all it will be, right?”
“Then sit and eat. Tell me about your work with the kids. I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like with them these days. It would be nice to hear how they’re doing from someone who is pathologically incapable of sucking up to me.”
She stared at him for a moment, considering his request. Slowly she set her plate down and lowered herself into her chair. “You want the truth?”
She gave him a nod. “Okay. You got it.” She went on for an hour, giving him a detailed report about the strengths, weaknesses and progress of every child that had crossed her path. She outlined which ones she thought were emotionally stable and healthy, and which ones were on the verge of collapse or explosion. She explained her strategy for helping each one of them grow stronger and more confident.
By the time she was done talking, he was impressed by how much thought and care she’d put into her teaching. She wasn’t just using her class to pass the time. She really wanted to help these kids. Her methods were different from what he was used to, but maybe there was some value in her way of doing things, however violent. “What about the injuries?” he asked. “Isn’t there some way of teaching them without damaging them?” “They need to learn to deal with pain. They need to know they can push though it and keep functioning even after they’re hurt. It might make the difference in a life-or-death situation.”
“I hate knowing that they’re in pain.”
“So do I, but we have to face facts. These kids are never going to lead normal human lives. They’ll always be one step away from being some demon’s snack. And they know it. Every injury they get and work through teaches them that they can take more. Be tougher. Keep going. If you start adding in pads and helmets, they’ll always think they need them to fight and freeze up if they’re not available.”
“But they’re so young. If you were only teaching the teens, it wouldn’t be as hard to swallow.”
“And waste all those years helping them learn what they’re capable of?” She shook her head. “By the time they’re teens, it’s too late.Their hormones are raging.They either think they’re immortal or wish they were dead. Teaching them is like trying to teach a crazy person with no ears and genitals for brains.”
They’d had more than one teen kill himself inside these walls—the ones who couldn’t deal with the terror of what was done to them. Poor little Tori had been half-mad—violent and deranged—from what she’d suffered. And she’d had the benefit of being a Theronai—stronger than a human child would have been—but even she’d had to be sent away in the hopes that beings more powerful than the Sentinels could purge the demon blood from her veins and heal her.
“I’m not reinventing the wheel here, Joseph. This is how I was taught. We were forced to push our limits, take the pain, grow stronger. All the Slayers learn the same way.”
“But these kids are human.”
“So? If you stop telling them that’s a limitation, maybe it will stop being one. I know you’ve taken a vow to protect humans, but if you just stop and think about it, you’ll see that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“Your ways are violent.”
“But they work. Generations of Slayers have been raised exactly like this. And we’re survivors. Fighters. Just like those kids need to be.”
“What would your brother say?” asked Joseph.
She rolled her eyes. “Who cares? I stopped worrying about his opinion the minute he dropped me off on your doorstep.”
“I care. He’s the leader of your people. He was the one with the guts to walk into the home of his enemy, completely unarmed and naked, asking for a truce.”
“With me draped over his shoulder,” she added. “Don’t forget that part. The bastard.”
No chance of that. She’d been naked, too, though Andreas had gone to the trouble of wrapping her up in a sheet. To this day, Joseph still regretted not insisting that they unroll her and check for weapons.
“The point is,” said Joseph, “that your brother is not the kind of man I want to piss off. I don’t know a lot about him, but I’m fairly certain that if anything happened to you, it would be my balls getting ripped off first.”
“A trick he learned from me,” she said. “You should remember that.”
“Is that a threat, kitten? Care to have a little sparring match of our own? Prove who has the bigger pair?” What the hell was he doing? He couldn’t spar with her. What if he hurt her? What if he got his hands on her and couldn’t let go?
“You think you can beat me?” she asked, teeth bared.
He couldn’t seem to stay quiet. His mouth dug a deeper hole. “I know I can.”
“You’re out of practice. You spend all day sitting on your ass, doing paperwork and listening to people whine. Face it, Theronai. You’ve gone soft.”
Joseph normally kept a tight hold on his anger. It didn’t serve him well in his position of leadership. But right now he was furious, his blood heating with more than mere lust. He knew it was a mistake, but she got under his skin, and before he could stop himself, he was rising to her bait. “I’ll show you soft.”
He reached for her, planning to grab her hand and force her to feel his body. Sure, he spent long hours behind a desk, but his body was still toned, thanks to a set of kick-ass magical genes and the few sparring sessions he managed to fit into his schedule. And even if he didn’t have a genetic advantage, he never would have let himself go soft and weak. Too many lives depended on him being able to protect them with fast, brutal violence when needed.
Before he could so much as wrap his fingers around her wrist, she darted away, scurrying out through his office door. “Don’t you touch me. Don’t you ever fucking touch me.”
Joseph immediately realized what he was about to do and let his hand fall to his side. “I’m sorry, Lyka. I lost my head for a minute. It won’t happen again.”
“Damn right it won’t.” She inched down the hall, backing away from him. “Let me teach the class or not— I don’t care anymore. If you want those kids to die, then it’s on your head, not mine. I’ve done all I can unless you get out of my way.”
Once she was out of reach, she turned and ran, her skirt flying out behind her.
Joseph went back to his office and slumped into his chair. He wanted to run after her so badly his guts ached, but he knew that if he did, he’d probably just freak her out more. Though, honestly, he wasn’t sure how that was possible.
Had something happened to her that made her detest being touched? Or was it just Joseph she didn’t want touching her?
That thought was like a kick in the balls.
He scoured his memory for some kind of pattern, and it became clear that it wasn’t just him. She didn’t let any of the grown men touch her.
The list of things that might make a woman skittish like that wasn’t very long, but it was grim. Just the idea of someone hurting her was enough to make his hand stray to the hilt of his sword.
He needed to talk to Andreas. Find out what had happened to her so he could . . . what? Help her heal? Keep her from panicking? Warn the other men to stay the hell away from her?
He liked that last one. Too much.
Jealousy was a bad sign that his attraction to her had gone off the rails somewhere. It was one thing to think she was beautiful or even sexy as hell. It was a much different thing to want to possess her all for himself.
Not going to happen, he reminded himself for the hundredth time. Put your dick in a drawer and get to work.
His dick didn’t cooperate, but he moved to the next stack of demands waiting for him and went to work.
Tomorrow, when she was calm, he’d apologize again for losing his temper and reaching for her. He would find some way to appease her so she could be happy here and maintain the peace between their peoples. And, last but not least, he would learn to look at her without wishing his cock was buried in her as deep as it could go.
It took less than fifteen minutes for him to realize that tomorrow wasn’t going to be soon enough. He couldn’t concentrate knowing she was upset. He had to go to her now. Make peace.
He shoved away from his desk and the mountain of work waiting for him and went to find Lyka.