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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 warrior must protect his onetime enemy—without succumbing to his darkest desires.
Lyka Phelan is a Slayer, sent to live among her enemy to guarantee lasting peace with the Theronai. Yet she has a secret—and it could make her a slave to their power. But when a pack of Synestryn destroys her home and captures her packmates, Lyka realizes her freedom is a small price to pay for the safety of her people. So she strikes a bargain with the leader of the Theronai—one that reveals her true identity and binds her to him forever.
Joseph thought he knew better than to tangle with the beautiful, hot-blooded Lyka. One misstep could send their races straight back to war. But now he has no choice other than to help her. Forced to protect her with his life, Joseph finds himself increasingly drawn to Lyka. As they risk everything in their fight against the demons, he realizes he must convince her to surrender to him completely—otherwise she will never truly be his.
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.”
The second Joseph had left Lyka alone, she let out a long sigh of relief.
She’d survived another close encounter with the man and managed to keep her distance. He hadn’t touched her. He didn’t know what she really was.
She didn’t know how much longer she could keep her secret, but every day that went by without one of the Theronai learning, it was another victory. She’d take every one she could get.
She watched him walk away, admiring the way his jeans hugged his muscular ass. She couldn’t see the magical sword strapped on his belt—it was invisible until drawn—but she could detect the slight dip in his waistband where its weight hung. The Theronai were deadly with their blades, and that was the kind of thing that made a girl like Lyka squirm with want.
It didn’t help that Joseph was nearly six and a half feet of hard, kick-ass warrior. Sure, he was their leader and spent most of his time behind a desk, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t deadly. She was certain that if the shit hit the fan, he’d use every bit of that muscular bulk he carried around to thwack some demon heads clean off.
It was enough to make Lyka wake in a sweat at night, wet and desperate for those rough hands of his to ease her need.
As if she’d ever let that happen.
The man got under her skin, making it itch and tingle. She kept having to remind herself that he was the enemy—or at least had been until very recently.
Sure, it was a bad idea to be fighting a war on two fronts. And yes, things were easier now that the two races had teamed up, but that didn’t mean she had to like it. Everyone else got to enjoy the benefits of the shiny new treaty while she was stuck here, unable to fight alongside her people.
Not fair. Not even close.
But that was life for you. Nothing was fair, which was exactly why she was pouring her heart and soul into teaching those kids how to survive. Fighting wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t civilized. What use was it trying to make the kids pretend that it was?
Then again, there was some value in pretending. She’d been doing so for weeks and it had served her well.
She finished picking up the gear and headed inside.
The unbelievably beautiful Logan and his even more stunning wife, Hope, were waiting inside the doors. The kids had all been tended to and had gone on their way, which meant that two Sanguinar were waiting for her.
Not a good sign. “What’s up?” she asked.
Logan threaded his fingers through Hope’s in a move so casual, Lyka didn’t think he was even aware of the act. “Joseph wasn’t pleased that we were healing the children. Or, more accurately, he wasn’t pleased that they needed healing.”
“I know. His royal highness already expressed his displeasure with me.”
“We can’t afford to upset anyone right now,” said Hope, sliding her honey-blond hair behind her ear. “Everyone is too uneasy about what Connal did.”
Logan’s expression darkened with anger. “Even we Sanguinar still can’t believe what he did. Stealing a child? It’s unconscionable. But she’s right. We have to ease the fears that run rampant here. Nothing we do can upset anyone.”
“So you’re just going to bend over and do what Joseph says?” asked Lyka.
“Aren’t you?” said Hope.
“I want to make nice, but it’s hard to do when he’s so very wrong.”
“He told us he would let us know his decision in a couple of days,” said Logan.
“And he expects us all to sit on our hands until then?
I don’t think so.”
“Whatever you’re planning isn’t worth a war,” said Logan.
“I’m saving lives. Every lesson those kids learn might be the one that keeps them alive someday.”
“And what about all the lives we’ll lose if the treaty between your people and the Theronai is broken? What about all the young Slayers who will be down one powerful group of allies because you couldn’t wait two days for Joseph to think about what you’re doing and realize you’re right? Give the man a chance to see your side of things. Convince him to rule in your favor.”
As much as Lyka hated it, Logan was right. She hadn’t thought her actions all the way through. As usual, she was letting her hot-blooded Slayer side rule her emotions. “How am I supposed to do that? I’ve already stated my case. He knows where I stand. The ball is in his court now.”
Logan scoffed. “Hardly. If you think you’ve made all the moves available to you, then you have a lot to learn.” Always open to learn new strategies, Lyka asked, “What do you suggest?”
“He’s a man. You’re an attractive woman.”
“And?” asked Lyka.
Hope hid a grin. “He’s telling you to use your feminine wiles to sway Joseph to your way of thinking. A man is much more inclined to do what a woman wants if he thinks it might get him laid.”
Lyka let out a bark of laughter. “Really? That’s your big play? Let him fuck me?”
“That’s not what she said,” said Logan. “I’d never suggest exchanging sexual favors for a ruling on your behalf. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it. I’d simply never suggest it, for fear such advice would come back to haunt me.”
Lyka shook her head. “I’m not sleeping with Joseph just to get my way.”
“You don’t have to. Just make him think you might.”
“Hell, no,” said Lyka. “I’m not teasing him or leading him on, either.” She couldn’t get that close. He might touch her. She didn’t know if he’d be able to tell what she
was if he did that, but she wasn’t taking any chances. “It’s not like that,” said Hope. “All you have to do is befriend him. Make him like you. He’ll want to make you happy if you’re friends.”
Lyka shook her head. “It’s no wonder everyone is suspicious of you guys. You ride that gray area pretty hard.”
“There’s nothing wrong with what we’re suggesting. And, as you said, what you’re doing is saving lives. Is spending a few hours with Joseph really such a hardship that it’s not worth the lives of those children?”
“Now who’s playing dirty?” she asked. “Why the hell do you care so much whether or not I get to teach my classes? What’s in it for you? You do all this healing without asking for my blood to fuel your efforts, and all I have to do in return is make sure that it’s either you two or Tynan who patches them up. Aren’t you supposed to demand payment in blood?”
“Hope and I sustain each other now. We have far less need for blood than the rest of our kind.”
“That doesn’t answer my question. What’s in it for you?”
The two shared a secret look that spoke volumes—volumes Lyka couldn’t even begin to understand.
Finally, Logan spoke, but it was clear he was choosing his words carefully. “Most of these children are wounded beyond what you can see. Their emotional scars run deep. Every time we heal their bodies, it gives us the chance to touch their minds and work toward healing that part of them as well. It’s a slow, delicate process— one made much faster by the sheer frequency of opportunities to heal that your little lessons provide. Baby steps, as it were.”
“That’s it? You’re doing all of this as some kind of magical therapy?”
“These children are blooded. The lives of our kind depend on them growing up and having children of their own. Without a continuation of their bloodlines, the Sanguinar will starve. Emotionally damaged children do not tend to live long enough to become parents. And those that do often pass on their scars. If we heal them now, we prevent all of that pain and loss.”
Lyka stared at the couple. “There’s more to it than that. What aren’t you telling me?”
“Part of our arrangement with you was that you don’t ask a lot of questions. This is where that clause activates.”
“Fine. I’m being too nosy. I get it. Just promise me you’re not doing anything that will hurt the kids.”
“I swear it,” said Logan.
“So do I,” added Hope.
The weight of both vows settled over Lyka, reassuring her. They were bound to their word now. That alone was enough to put her mind at ease.
“Okay. Let’s go back to the problem at hand. Clearly you two know Joseph better than I do. What do I do to sway his decision without resorting to naked time?”
Logan smiled, and it made him almost too beautiful to look at. “That, my dear, is simple. If you do what we say, he’ll be putty in your hands by midnight.”
The idea of getting Joseph in her hands was far more appealing than she dared admit, which was all the warning she needed to tread carefully.
One misstep and she could singlehandedly send their races back to war against each other. And she would be trapped behind enemy lines.
At sundown, Tynan eased from his bed in his suite beneath Dabyr.
He was ravenous. His bones felt ancient and brittle. His vision was clouded over with a hazy red film that nearly blinded him. His skin was fever hot, burning with fatigue that no amount of sleep could remedy.
He needed blood. Gallons of it. Oceans of it. He needed to gulp it down and let it ease the grinding hunger that prowled through his limbs, weakening him.
He swayed on his feet, flailing to find something to grasp.
“Easy, brother,” said Logan, grabbing his arm.
Tynan hadn’t even known his Sanguinar brother was here. His senses had dulled to the point that he couldn’t even detect the presence of one of his own kind a few inches away.
Logan eased him back to sit on the bed. He pressed his wrist against Tynan’s mouth and willed his skin to open.
Sweet, hot blood flowed over his tongue, rousing the hungry beast within him. He grabbed Logan’s wrist, holding it tight enough to break bone if the man tried to pull away. Power surged through him, relieving the parched cells rattling around in his veins.
“That’s enough,” came a soft, feminine voice. Hope. Logan’s mate.
His skin closed, blocking the flow of blood. Tynan tore at the man’s skin with his teeth, but he wasn’t fast enough. Wasn’t strong enough.
Logan ripped his arm away, flinging Tynan down onto the bed.
Both men were panting. Tynan’s vision had cleared enough for him to see his brother slumped on the floor. Hope was over him, her delicate throat pressed to his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” said Tynan, once again himself.
Sadness shone in her clear eyes. “We understand.
You’re doing all you can.” And he was.
Joseph had ordered him to scour the mind of every Sanguinar housed under Dabyr’s roof, searching for signs of treachery. Most of his kind abhorred the violation of their privacy, resisting his efforts. Some intentionally. Others without even realizing just how thick and wide their mental barriers were. In both cases, the sheer power it took to overcome those defenses left Tynan weak. Utterly depleted.
If not for Logan’s daily dose of blood, Tynan would have already failed in his task. And if he did that, his people could be banished from this place of refuge with nowhere to hide from the sun.
He feared that if that happened, the weaker members of his race would succumb to the lure of the Synestryn and the power their tainted blood could provide.
Logan stood, positioning himself between Tynan and his mate. “Is it enough?”
He nodded, giving no voice to his lie. “Thank you.”
“Two more of our kind returned home after you retired. They’re waiting for you in their quarters.”
Tynan had no choice but to do his duty, but he couldn’t face it yet. “Any other news?”
“I checked on the Theronai pregnancies. All is well there.”
“That is a relief.”
“Madoc isn’t pleased. He thinks we’re meddling.”
“Madoc is never pleased. As long as he doesn’t break your neck, assume he still likes you. What else?”
“Ronan still seeks the woman who saved his life. He regrets his inability to return.”
“Did you tell him it wasn’t a request?”
“I did. He didn’t seem concerned.”
“Do we know anything about this woman he’s seeking?”
“She apparently enjoys fast cars. Ronan is unable to catch up with her.”
“But he can still sense where she’s gone?”
“We need to find her. If she’s anything like Hope . . .”
Logan tightened his hold on his mate. “Ronan is aware of the stakes.”
“Anything else? Any sign of Torr?”
“No. He is still missing. Many of the Theronai have been searching for him ever since his disappearance.”
Tynan ran his fingers through his hair. “Have you heard anything from those working on Project Lullaby?”
“No. Everyone is being particularly cautious since Connal’s betrayal.”
With good reason. If the Theronai found out that the Sanguinar had been matchmaking blooded humans and encouraging them to produce offspring, they wouldn’t be pleased. With as little Athanasian blood as there was left on the planet, the Sanguinar had no choice but to resort to some unorthodox methods to strengthen the remaining bloodlines. They saw it as necessary coercion, ensuring that the humans they convinced to help them lived long and happy lives filled with many children.
The Theronai would doubtlessly see it as interfering with the free will of humans and react accordingly. In their centuries-long history together, more than one Sanguinar head had rolled for lesser infractions.
“We can’t slow down our efforts,” said Tynan. “There is no time to waste.”
“We’re all aware of the giant ticking clock, brother. I’m sure that the men are doing everything they can to further our efforts. That may be why some of them have refused to communicate with us. Once they do, they know you’ll be forced to order them home for interrogation. That will waste valuable time and energy that none of you have.”
Tynan nodded, praying Logan was right. “I’m scheduled to meet with Joseph tonight to report on my progress.”
Hope smiled. “You might want to arrive a little late.”
“Why is that?”
“Joseph has a date.”
Tynan blinked. “Excuse me?”
“It’s not really a date,” said Logan.
Hope lifted her brows. “Yes, it is. Haven’t you seen the way he looks at her?”
Ah. Lyka. “But she hates him,” said Tynan.
“Hate is a strong word. And he now has something she wants. We simply gave her some pointers on how she might get it.”
“You know this will end badly, don’t you?” asked Tynan.
“It’s possible,” said Logan.“But I, for one, plan to enjoy the show.”
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.