Gray and Jewel shopped for several hours, buying clothing, weapons, trinkets and food. After devouring three meat pies, or whatever they were, Gray felt stronger than he had in days. And he needed his strength. His backpack probably weighed a hundred pounds, stuffed as it was with Jewel's purchases.
He'd watched her skip and laugh from booth to booth like an eager child, simply enjoying her, loving the way her eyes sparkled, the way her cheeks glowed from peaches to strawberries.
So many times he'd come close to jerking her aside and ravishing her mouth, desperate to taste her. One taste, that's all he wanted. One taste, that's all he needed. Just one taste -
Would never be enough.
The words slammed into his head, but he shoved them out with iron-edged determination. Denied them. One taste would have to be enough because that's all he could allow himself. He simply couldn't risk more.
"I want this, and this, and this," she sang. "Oh, look at this. I want it."
I want you. Only once did he deny her something she wanted. She asked to return to the first table, the one with the jeweled armband. He didn't want her to buy it for herself; he wanted to buy it for her. He wanted to surprise her with it.
"We shouldn't go back to that area," he said, the excuse lame but all he could come up with.
She accepted his refusal with an adorable pout before racing to a stall overflowing with silks and lace. He scanned the crowd around her and found no hint of their enemies.
"I'll be right back," he said.
Her only reply was a slight nod. He shook his head and grinned wryly. If the woman had to choose between shopping and him, he had no doubt which would emerge the winner. And it wasn't him.
While she haggled over the price of a sexy gold-and-white robe, he snuck off and bought her the armband, burying it at the bottom of his pack so she wouldn't see it.
If she realized what he'd done, she gave no indication as he approached her side. She had moved from the clothes to a table piled high with large, painted rocks. The rocks appeared to be ordinary pebbles found off the ground, but the brilliant colorful scenes painted on their surfaces gave them a breathtaking beauty.
The seller, a female with the face of a bull and the body of a human - God, he might never get used to looking at these bull creatures - wore a dirty robe and paint stained her very human fingers. She didn't try to talk them into buying, just let them look at their leisure.
"I want one," Jewel said.
"They're amazing." Gray was still surprised at the ease with which he spoke the Atlantean language. "Thank you," the woman muttered demurely.
"You did them yourself?"
She nodded. "I take great joy in my art."
As she spoke, Gray encountered the oddest sensation. Suddenly and shockingly, he smelled her blood. Actually smelled the sweetness of her blood - and he wanted to taste it. Not in a sexual way. His mouth watered like he needed water. His gaze flicked to the woman's neck, at the pulse thumping there.
He ran his tongue over his teeth, repulsed by the desire and trying fervently to squelch it. But her sweet scent remained strong in his nostrils and the need for a taste, a single taste, intensified. What the hell was wrong with him?
He whipped to Jewel, intending to tell her he'd wait for her at a distance. Then he caught a whiff of her blood. She smelled of goodness and innocence, too, but also of power and passion. Hunger ate at him, consumed him, this need holding an undercurrent of sexuality and making it all the more intense.
That quickly, he almost attacked her. Almost leapt on her and sank his teeth into her neck, filling his senses with her essence. Sweat poured from him as he purposefully locked his muscles in place, holding himself in check.
His wounds were responsible for this craving. Yesterday he'd lost a lot of blood, therefore his body wanted to replenish. That's all there was to it. Still...
Get the fuck out of here, his mind screamed.
"I'll be right over there," he said, the words a mere croak. "Scream if you need me." He slammed several drachmas on the tabletop and stalked away.
Confused, Jewel stared over at him. He stood a good distance from her, but remained within sight, keeping guard over her as always. His silver gaze now churned a stormy gray, fierce and hard. Taut lines formed around his eyes, and his body vibrated with some kind of pent-up energy.
Had she angered him?
"Your man - tell him I cannot accept so much money," the seller said.
Jewel tore her attention from Gray and met the woman's warm, worried gaze. Unbidden, she smiled. Hearing Gray referred to as her man was... heady. "I've never seen such beautiful work as these. You deserve every bit of money he gave you. Please - what is your name?"
"Please, Erwin, take it with a happy heart."
Her thin lips grew into a smile as she placed the drachmas in her pocket. "Take as many rocks as you'd like."
Jewel nodded. She studied the rocks. Some had waterfalls, some had forests. Some had creatures painted on the surface. Each scene appeared to be alive, as if it were actually happening, as if the creatures were truly moving.
One had two sapphires painted in the center, and they caught Jewel's eye. She lifted the stone and gasped, realizing it was her face she was seeing. In the portrait, her eyes held sadness and her mouth dipped in a wistful frown. She looked sad and alone and vulnerable.
"Do you like it?" Erwin asked hesitantly.
"Why - why did you paint this woman?" She held up the rock, showing the minotaur the features decorating the surface.
"Look at her. She represents the suffering of all of us, desperate to escape the life she was born to."
How true. Except for these last few days with Gray, Jewel couldn't recall a time when she'd been happy with her life. She'd always prayed for a day, a single day, where she could be as normal and unaware as everyone else.
"Maybe one day the woman and I will find our escape," the minotaur added. She reached out and drew a finger over the surface, and as she did, her fingertip brushed Jewel's palm.
Jewel jerked as a vision raked her mind.
A little boy, a minotaur, was ripped from a woman's arms. This woman's arms. The seller's. Night had fallen and shadows danced all around a small hut that had been built under a tree. Both mother and child were crying and screaming, but the demon army carted them both away, seeing them merely as a food source.
Jewel blinked her eyes and shook her head, clearing her thoughts. Her heart was slamming inside her chest, and a cold sweat had broken out all over her body.
"You live nearby," she said.
Erwin paled, her furry bull-face becoming pallid. "That is none of your concern." "You have built a shelter under a tree for you and your son."
She gasped and stumbled backward, her hand fluttering over her heart. "How did you - "
"Very soon, the demon queen will march her army past your home. They will take you and your son and both of you will die."
"What? How can you - "
Jewel knew the woman would never believe her, not without proof. Not knowing what else to do, she reached up and pushed back her hood, letting the light shove away the shadows and reveal her features. Erwin gasped again, this time shock and horror dripping from the sound.
"You!" she breathed, both hands cupping her mouth.
"Please," Jewel said, replacing her hood. "You wish to escape your life, as did I. I have done so. Do not take it away from me by yelling out now."
The woman nodded, her eyes wide.
"You know now that I'm telling the truth. You know that if you do not move out of the forest, you will lose your life and your son."
She nodded again. With shaky fingers, she began gathering her things and closing her table. "I will take us both to safety," she whispered, horror coating every word. "Now. Right now."
Jewel's hand relaxed at her sides. "All will be well now," she assured her. "I know it. And I thank you for the rock."
With that, she went to Gray, craving his nearness, his heat. The daylight was beginning to thin, the air to cool. Darkness would soon fall. It would be best if they were ensconced inside a rented room and not wandering the streets. Or had he wanted to return to the forest?
She didn't want him to know what she was doing, so she threw her arms around him, and while he was distracted, dropped the rock inside his bag.
He hugged her back, lingering a moment, before pulling from her. "What were you two talking about?" He no longer appeared angry. His expression was relaxed, his body at ease. "The woman looked sick and ready to faint."
"She realized her son was in danger and went to remove him from harm's way."
"Is that so?" There was a wealth of meaning in that one sentence, and Gray was able to deduce the entire story. Jewel had a vision of danger and had told the woman. The woman had rushed to save her child.
Jewel... amazed him.
He'd seen her lower her hood slightly and had almost run to her and dragged her back to the forest. But he had remained in place, curious about what she was doing. She'd put herself in danger, risked being seen and stolen by God knows what, to help a woman she didn't know. Such kindness was as wonderful as it was foolish.
"I think you've seen all the shops," he told her. "It's too late to return to the glen, so we'll need to get a room. Are you done shopping?"
"I'm thirsty. For water," he added for his own benefit His bloodlust had thankfully calmed, but now his mouth felt dry and parched. "Drink first, room afterward."
"There's an inn about a mile away. We can have dinner there, as well as stay the night."
"What kind of creatures stay there?" He wrapped his arm around her waist, and they padded down the cobbled street, circling around other shoppers.
"Centaurs and sirens. They are known allies, often protecting one another. If we keep our hoods over our heads, I can pretend to be an average siren and you can pretend to be a - "
"Nymph." He stroked two fingers over his jaw. "I think I'd make an excellent nymph."
Jewel chuckled. "They reek of sex and you, well, you smell of delicious human. Besides, you would have a line of women behind you if you were a nymph."
He gave a faux, mournful sigh. "So I have to be... what? A one-eyed Cyclops? A snake-headed Gorgon?"
"Perhaps you can pretend to be a god," she said thoughtfully. "Pretend?" He snorted.
"Years and years ago, the gods visited us once a week, always taking a different human form and mingling among our ranks. It's been a long time, but you are tall and handsome enough. As a god, you would be worshipped and no one would dare attempt to harm you."
"That's a plan I can go along with." He hefted his backpack higher on his shoulder. "I've always wanted to be worshipped. How much further is the inn?"
"About a mile. If we hurry, we'll make it before dark."
He caught the undercurrent of anxiety in her tone. "You afraid of the dark, Pru?"
"This area of the Inner City is for all creatures, but it branches off into different sections, one for each race. If we're in the wrong area at the wrong time... Once we reach the area designated for centaurs, we can relax."
He had to admit, his body was aching, his wounds throbbing, and he was more than ready to find a bed. Hell, he might have signed up for a week-long excursion in Demon Town if it meant catching some Z's soon.
"I already miss the agora," Jewel sighed. "The people, the smells, the food."
"You know," he told her. "When I'm gone, you'll have your freedom. You'll be able to visit the market anytime you want. Shop whenever you want."
Her shoulders straightened; she kept her gaze straight ahead. "That is something to dream and hope for, yes."
He was beginning to understand how she operated. She couldn't lie for whatever reason, so she manipulated her words to tell the truth, but also make the listener assume something completely different. "So you can dream about it," he said, "but you can't actually have it? Is that what you're telling me?"
Jewel's eyes widened. She hadn't expected Gray to fully realize what she was doing. Suspect, yes, but not call her on it. "What's to keep another ruler from stealing me? What's to keep someone who thinks I'm dangerous from killing me?" she added in a whispery, hollow tone.
A muscle ticked in his jaw. "You need to learn self-defense. You need to learn how to evade your enemy."
She snorted. "Evade an entire army?"
"It can be done. Believe me."
"I've seen many of your missions, and I doubt I will ever learn to fight and evade as you do."
"You'll do what you have to do to survive." He squeezed her hip, rubbing his thumb along the curve of her waist.
"I was sent to Gillirad, a planet rife with magical wars. Their armies had spells for everything, from freezing someone in place, to spells of sickness. They were destroying each other, and I found myself in the middle."
"Why were you even there?" she gasped, horrified.
"OBI sent me in. I was to do recon, nothing more. To observe them, find out how they practiced such powerful magic, and leave. I had a team of psychics with me. When one of the Gillradian armies spotted us, they cast some kind of spell over my group, a spell that killed everyone but me."
She grabbed his hand, linking their fingers. "What saved you?"
"I think it was the fact that I was the only nonmagical being there. I had no magical qualities, so their magic didn't stick. They realized that and chased me all over the planet. I overhead one of them say they wanted to study me, to experiment and use me against their enemies."
"How did you escape?"
"The same way I survived when I first arrived in Atlantis. It's all about blending into your surroundings, knowing when to strike and when to back away."
"My face is recognizable. One look at me, and everyone knows who I am." "Maybe you need to disguise your face. Color your hair."
Her shoulders slumped, and she fought back a wave of gloom. Some part of her had hoped he'd ask her to return to the surface with him. Another part had yearned to hear him vow to stay with her always. "That is no life, hiding my true identify. That is not freedom."
"Is there no one you trust to help you, then? To fight in your behalf?" "I trust you"
His hand slid up, up, to the edge of her breast. A lump formed in her throat, and she gulped. Fire licked through her, heating her blood.
"Besides me," he said, his voice suddenly hard. "Someone who knows Atlantis and its people."
She tumbled the question through her mind, then shook her head sadly. "I could go to the dragons, I guess, but it wouldn't last long. Someone would sell my location and I would be stolen."
"What about your father?"
"As I told you, I have yet to find him. And when I do, I can't be sure he'll be able to help me." Gray was silent for a long while. Finally he said, "I'll think of something. I won't leave you helpless." She paused. "You could take me with you."
Gray liked the idea. A lot. A whole hell of a lot.
He liked the idea of having her in his house, in his bed. Just thinking about it got him primed; it hardened and excited him. He could strip her every night, sink into her warm wetness. He could enjoy her at his leisure.Be her first man.
His hand fisted at his side as pure, undiluted desire rocked him. He'd teach her the way he liked to be touched, and he'd learn the sensitive spots on her body. They'd make love in every position imaginable - and some positions that weren't.
God, he was tempted. So tempted.
No matter how much he might want her with him, however, he was going to leave her here. OBI would find out about her, take her, experiment on her, and lock her away, just as the people of her own world did. There was simply no way to get her through the portal without their knowledge. They had men stationed outside of it twenty-four hours, seven days a week.
"Sorry," he told her, forcing his tone to be as unbending as steel. "I can't do that. You have to stay, and I have to go."
Her eyelids squeezed shut for a brief moment, and she let out a shaky breath. He knew he'd hurt her, and he hated himself for it. "I wish I could, Jewel, but it's impossible."
"I understand," she said softly. "I do. You don't have to explain."
Frustrated, he raked a hand through his hair. Pain oozed from her voice, and he realized he would rather kick his own ass than hear that again. "You would face the same dangers on the surface as you do here, if not worse. Here, at least, the kings and queens do not hurt you physically."
"Sometimes I think that would be better than the emotional pain I'm forced to bear."
God, she was tearing him apart inside, and she didn't even realize it. "Like I said, I'll teach you to defend yourself. We've got the next three days together. I can whip you into a fighting machine in that time."
They came to a white stone building, music humming from the doors, a soft melody that seduced. No one was entering or leaving the place, so Gray couldn't get a look past those doors. Intrigued, he stopped and read the sign. "The Happy Hoof."
"A centaur bar," Jewel supplied. "With dancing." His silver gaze whipped to her, just as his stomach clenched. Electric currents raced through him as he imagined holding her in his arms. Pulling her close, meshing her breasts into his chest, swaying with her to the gentle melody. He forgot about his aching body in that instant, his arms itching to hold Jewel, his palms burning to caress her. To sweep away her sadness. "I promised you dancing lessons, sweetheart, and I'm a god of my word."
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