Page 35


“What kind of protection?” Nathan asked.


Zael indicated the silvery crystal he wore on the leather thong at his wrist. “This is crafted from a larger source of energy belonging to our people. The colony has one, and so does Selene. At one time, very long ago, the realm had five of these crystals, much larger than this small, harvested piece. The crystals are sacred to the Atlantean people. They shielded us from the world outside and kept the realm safe from enemies who would want to destroy us.”


Beside Jordana, Nathan studied Zael’s bracelet with narrowed scrutiny. “That material’s nothing found on this Earth.”


“No,” Zael said. “My people, like the Ancients who fathered your kind, the Breed, were from somewhere else. The two races were at war, in fact. Even before fate brought them here.”


Nathan swore under his breath. “Is that why another of your kind, Reginald Crowe, recently boasted before he died that the Atlantean queen has been plotting a new war—one against both mankind and the Breed?”


“Selene is a bitter queen.” Zael grunted. “Worse, she’s a scorned woman. I can’t say what she’s plotting, but it’s rare that she’s not looking for reasons to fight or enemies to destroy. It wasn’t always that way with her.”


“What happened to make her that way?” As much as Jordana feared the woman who had driven her mother to suicide and ordered her soldiers to hunt down and execute Jordana’s father, she felt compelled to try to understand something about the queen if she could.


“Selene changed after our first settlement was destroyed,” Zael explained. “Two of the realm’s crystals were stolen, and our enemies—your Ancient forebears,” he said to Nathan, “used the crystals’ power to annihilate us. Selene fled Atlantis with as many of our people as could escape the destruction of all we’d built and the giant wave that swallowed up the rest.”


“Just like the myth,” Jordana whispered. “That story has been in place for thousands of years.”


Zael gave an acknowledging shrug. “More or less. And Selene’s had little but mistrust or hatred for anyone since that day.”


Nathan frowned. “So the colony has a crystal, and the queen has one also. Two were stolen before the attack by the Ancients. And the fifth?”


“No one knows for certain. It vanished about twenty-five years ago.” Zael glanced at Jordana. “There were rumors Cassianus had taken it with him when he fled with you …”


“But you don’t believe that?” she asked.


Zael’s brows lifted in contemplation. “Cass would’ve had the balls, that’s a given. But to make off with an object with that magnitude of power? To keep it hidden all this time would’ve been quite a feat. He’d have had to shield it somehow.”


“The way he wanted to shield my power with a blood bond,” Jordana said. “Would he have any reason to take something like that with him when he left the realm?”


“Anyone who understood how valuable the crystal was would have reason to want it for himself.” Zael thought for a moment, then chuckled softly as he looked at Jordana. “Or for someone else, if he thought it might prove useful in some other way.”


“A bargaining chip,” Nathan suggested. “Leverage against the one other person who wanted it the most. Wanted it maybe more than anything else.”


Zael grunted. “Well, even if Cass did take it, he can’t tell anyone where to find it now. The missing crystal is most likely lost forever.”


Regardless of whether Cassianus escaped with a valuable Atlantean treasure or not, and regardless of any motivation he may have had to do so, Jordana felt a wave of renewed sorrow for the father she never knew. She mourned her mother too, for the love she lost and the family she never had the opportunity to enjoy.


There was even a small part of Jordana that pitied her grandmother. After all, what kind of lasting emotional pain must it require to turn a woman into the kind of unfeeling, destructive monster Selene seemed to be?


Nathan looked to Zael in question. “If Cass worried so much about Jordana and her safety, why not take her to the colony as an infant and stay there with her? Why would he risk her future—Jesus, why risk her life—by leaving her to grow up among the Breed and mankind?”


“Because if he brought her to the colony, Cass understood that like the others who live there, she’d have to remain under its veil for her entire existence. He didn’t want to make that choice for her. Exile to the colony was a last resort, only if the worst should happen and time was running out. Cass wanted to give his daughter the chance to find her own path.”


Nathan’s dark gaze settled on Jordana. He’d never seemed uncertain, not in all of the time she knew him. But now there was a hesitance in his eyes. A quiet dread in his voice. “If I hadn’t come here to find you tonight, what would you choose?”


“She already had chosen,” Zael interjected gently. “Jordana decided even before you arrived. We were preparing to leave around the same time you came in.”


Nathan’s head drew back slightly, doubt flickering across his typically cool, controlled features. “I came that close to losing you?”


She shook her head, emotion nearly choking her. “Zael was going to bring me back home to Boston. Everything that matters to me is there … and right here in front of me.”


His exhalation sounded heavy with relief. “I came to find you because you’re everything that matters to me.”


On her tear-thickened, happy laugh, Nathan pulled her into his arms.


When he spoke next, his voice was reverent and solemn, his hands on her the tenderest they’d ever been. “I will protect you with my life, Jordana. Always. And I’ll protect you with my blood bond, here and now, if it means men like the ones who came for you tonight will never find you again.”


That he would make such a promise moved her deeply. She loved him for that alone.


God help her, she loved Nathan for that and a thousand other reasons.


Jordana could hardly summon her breath as he gently stroked her cheek, his stormy gaze flecked with a galaxy of amber stars.


“Don’t think I’m offering this out of duty or anything half as noble. You know I’m a selfish bastard who demands things go his way. I don’t settle for anything less than what I want. And what I want right now, forever, is you.” His eyes glowed bright with tender emotion. He held her face in his hands, searching her gaze with an intensity that made her blood heat beneath her skin. “I’m offering my bond because I love you. Because I need you, Jordana, and I don’t want to know what life without you will feel like ever again.”


He kissed her hard and deep, so passionately she lost herself to the overwhelming power of the moment, unaware that Zael was even still in the room until the Atlantean awkwardly cleared his throat.


Nathan released her, only to utter a growl and take her mouth again in another hungered, but brief, kiss. She was laughing as they separated and both turned to face Zael.


While they’d been caught up in passion, he’d collected the soldiers’ remains and now belted their sheathed blades around his waist. “I must go,” he said. The crystal at his wrist was starting to glow. “I’ll take the dead with me and scatter them far enough away from here or Boston to throw anyone else off their trail. Whoever Selene sends next will have to start all over again. And if you’re blood-bonded by then—”


“She will be.” The dark confidence in Nathan’s voice sent a jolt of fire through Jordana’s veins.


Zael smiled. He held out his hand to Jordana. In his palm was a leather thong like the one he wore. One of the dead guards was missing his. “For you, should you ever need it. If you’re ever in trouble, it will take you anywhere you can picture in your mind.”


“But only me,” she said, recalling that he’d explained the crystal would only transport those of Atlantean blood. She glanced up at Nathan, before looking back to Zael and giving a shake of her head. “There’s nowhere I’ll ever need to go if not with Nathan.”


She reached for Zael’s strong golden fingers and curled them around the gift she wouldn’t accept. “Thank you for being a friend to my father Cassianus. And to me.”


Zael bowed his head low, reverently. “Godspeed and a very happy, long life to you, Princess Jordana.”


Zael held out his hand to Nathan. The two immense males—one golden and godlike, one dark and dangerous as night itself—clasped each other’s hands in a solid, if unspoken, gesture of friendship.


With that, Zael strode over to the fallen Atlanteans and knelt down beside the bodies. He took the wrist of each one in his hands as the crystal on his bracelet glowed brighter and brighter still.


Light exploded from it in all directions—a lightning-quick blast of pure energy.


When it went out an instant later, Zael and Selene’s dead guards were gone.


28


NATHAN HELD ON TO JORDANA AS THE VILLA WENT QUIET IN THE wake of Zael’s departure, leaving the two of them alone with the weight of all they’d just seen and done and heard.


The battle with the two immortal guards had been harrowing, hard won. Zael’s many revelations before and after the fight had been astonishing, even mind-blowing.


But nothing had leveled Nathan so much as Jordana’s declaration that she loved him.


That she would have given up a guaranteed asylum to return to Boston—return to him—even before he’d come to find her was a sacrifice he could hardly fathom.


Then again, yes, he could.


Because as he held her under the circle of his arm in that moment, he knew with a certainty deep down into his marrow that there was nothing he wouldn’t give up if it meant forever with Jordana.


When he might have held her against him even longer, content simply to feel her beside him, Jordana drew back. “Your wound, Nathan.” She glanced down at her hand, which had been resting against his abdomen. The palm was stained red. “It’s still bleeding. Let me take care of you now.”


The injury was already healing. He knew it would mend soon enough on its own, but he didn’t resist as she took him by the hand and led him through the villa, into a lavish bathroom adjoining the large master bedroom suite.


“Sit there.” She pointed to the white marble edge of a deep soaking tub. As he obeyed her soft command, she went about gathering a supply of clean washcloths and towels. When she returned, she set them down next to him, then carefully untucked his body-hugging black shirt from his pants. “Can you lift your arms?”


He did as she asked, realizing only now that this was the first time in his life that anyone had cared for him in such a way.


The only time he’d ever permitted anyone to care for him like this.


Or wanted it so fervently.


A dark memory tried to push through his subconscious as Jordana gently drew his ruined shirt away from the sticky mess of his injury. Her hands were so tender, so light on him after she laid the shirt aside and knelt down to inspect the wound.


She ran water onto one of the washcloths from the tub faucet, then wiped away the worst of the blood with aching care. The cloth was cool against his torn flesh, a balm almost as soothing as her sweet attention.


Yet in the back of his mind, Nathan felt the bite of a lash. He heard the clamor of chains. Smelled the oily stench of blood-soaked metal and stone.


He had to battle every instinct he had not to shove her touch away.


Jordana must have sensed the tension in him. Glancing up now, her lovely face was pinched with concern. “Am I hurting you?”


“No.” The word came out strangled, thick with restraint.


She went back to her careful ministrations, hesitantly now. She watched him too closely. She had to feel the rigidity of his muscles, the torment in all of his senses, as he struggled to hold back the ugliness of his past while she touched him so lovingly.


“Nathan, if you don’t want me to touch you … if you want me to stop—”


“No. Fuck, no. I’ll never want that.” He reached out to caress her face, gutted that she would think he’d reject any part of her now, after all they’d been through together. He uttered a harsh, low curse, hating that his ugly past had invaded here. “You’re not doing anything wrong. It’s just …”


He couldn’t hold her innocent gaze. He didn’t want her to see through him to the Hunter he’d never totally managed to leave behind.


He didn’t want her to see the scars that had never fully healed, despite that his Breed genetics had hidden all outside traces of them.


Jordana reached up to grasp his fingers where they lay against her cheek. “You can tell me when you’re ready … or not at all. I’ll love you either way.”


Her promise was so sweet, so patient, any words he might have offered just then got strangled in his tight throat.


What would she say if she knew what his handlers had done to him, how they’d eventually broken him?


What would she think if she knew what he’d done to survive?


As she went back to tending him, the memories flooded in. He couldn’t stop them.


And he knew that if he didn’t spit them out, his past would always stand in the way of the future he hoped to have with Jordana.


“In the program, they had tests to cull the most viable Hunters from the rest,” he murmured, his voice sounding wooden in the quiet of the bathroom. “They tested things like physical strength, linear and abstract thinking, problem solving. They tested endurance, and the ability to withstand pain. All kinds of pain.”


Jordana’s hands stilled. Slowly, she sat back on her heels in front of him, listening in utter silence, a quiet dread in her eyes. “Nathan …”

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