Jewel stood at the edge of the river, her robe tucked into her waist, liquid lapping at her ankles, her hands wrapped around a long, sharp stick. She'd removed her shoes, and moss-covered rocks supported her feet. The dome above stretched hot fingers over the land, making her sweat through the thin material of her clothing. She stared down at the clear, dappled water, watching, waiting for a plump fish to swim past She'd never done this, had never lived off the land before. She only prayed she was successful.
Soon a long, fat swirl of iridescent color darted between her ankles. Her heart skipped a beat. Finally! Her hand tightened around the stick as the fish continued to swim around her, nipping at her ankles. When it tired of playing with her nonresponsive legs, its rainbow fins spanned and flapped, ready to bolt.
She threw the spear.
The succulent thing darted away to safety. "Damn it," she growled, sounding very much like Gray.
Over the next half hour, four more delicious-looking fish swam past her, and she missed each one of them, her spear falling uselessly into the water.
"I can do this. I can."
Another fifteen minutes passed. Finally, a plump, incandescent beauty came within her sights. She stilled, even her breathing grinding to a halt. One, two, she mentally counted. He was about to swim... three! She tossed the spear.
Success! The tip of her spear cut into the target.
"I did it," she said, jumping up and down, splashing water in every direction. "I did it!" She grinned, holding the stick up for inspection, feeling proud and accomplished as she eyed the flopping treat. No more energy bars today, thank you very much.
She skipped back into camp and leaned her stick against a tree. Gray was still sleeping. His features were relaxed, giving him a boyish quality that warmed her. His pale hair fell over his forehead, and he had one arm over his head; the other rested over his bare chest.
Her hands itched to reach out and trace the hard planes of his abdomen, the ropes of muscles that led down, down - she gulped, forcing herself to gather twigs and grass. After building a sufficient mound, she used Gray's lighter to create a fire. Once the flames crackled with heat, she cleaned the fish as best she could and held out the stick, cooking the meat until it flaked into her hands. Unfortunately the outside charred.
A little while later, Gray yawned and stretched, grimacing as his wounds protested the sudden movement.
Then he stiffened, his eyes darting in every direction before settling on her. He pulled himself to a sitting position.
"I didn't mean to fall asleep. Sorry."
"You needed the rest. You look better already."
"I feel better. What's that?" he said with a chin tilt to the fish.
"I've never cooked before, but I have seen it done, so you'll have to tell me how I did." Using a large, firm leaf as a plate, she scooped some of the fish on top, and handed it to Gray.
He accepted with a raised brow. "What if I'm not hungry?"
"You'll eat it anyway, because you don't want to hurt my feelings after I went to the trouble of catching and cooking it."
"Good answer." He took a tentative bite, chewing slowly, his expression unreadable.
She was just about to ask him what he thought, when something in his backpack started speaking. A real, human voice. Jewel jumped, her gaze going impossibly wide.
Gray set his plate aside and dug inside the pack. "Christ," he muttered. He tangled his free hand through his hair. "Check in time."
"Ah, your communicator," she said, when he withdrew a small black box. She'd seen him use the box on several of his missions. People from his work were able to speak with him, and he to them. Her apprehension faded.
"Mother, this is Santa." He spoke directly into the box. "Go ahead."
"Where are you?" a deep male voice said.
"Pickup has been delayed," Gray responded.
"Should we send another courier?"
He rubbed a hand down his face. "No. I have scheduled a pickup within the next few days. Copy." "Copy. Over."
"Over." Gray shoved the box into his backpack and picked up his plate. He took a bite, acting as if he hadn't just had a conversation with his box. Or boss. Or whoever. His expression remained blanketed as he chewed.
She decided not to ask about his work; she could guess. The package: Dunamis. What she couldn't guess was how he felt about the food. She waited beside him, rising on her haunches, ready to hear his praise. "Well?"
"Tastes like chicken," he said, and he didn't sound glad.
"Oh." Not what she'd wanted to hear because she remembered how he'd complained about chicken in one of her visions. She'd hoped for delicious, scrumptious, or savory. "It's good for you, so eat it whether you like it or not."
She filled a leaf for herself, sat back and nibbled on the burned flakes. Not wonderful, but not as bad as that energy bar either. "I wish we had pizza delivery here. I've always wondered what one of those gooey round things taste like."
His hand froze midair, hovering just in front of his mouth for a split second before he lowered it. "First you knew about the Hoover, among other surface items, then you knew about my sister Katie, and now you know about pizza, yet you don't know what it tastes like. I know you said you don't want to talk about this, but I have to know. How can you know of them, but not have experienced them? You said you never visited the surface."
She didn't want to answer. She could walk away from him again - she doubted he had the strength to follow - but he'd just bring it up the next time he saw her. Determination seeped from his every pore.
He'd been upset with the thought of her reading his mind, so how would he react to knowing she'd watched his life unfold all these many years?
No matter the answer to that, he deserved to know.
She closed her eyes and gathered her courage, then forced the words to emerge. "I've had visions of you
for years." There. She'd confessed, and the rest spilled from her. "I watched you grow from boy to man."
"What? How?" Those simple single-word questions whipped from him, lashing out. "I didn't see your entire Me," she assured him, "but merely glimpses."
A moment passed in heavy silence while he absorbed her revelation. "Glimpses of what, exactly?" Now his tone was devoid of emotion, and somehow that was all the more frightening.
"I saw your family, your home. Your," she coughed and glanced away, "women." "That seems like more than a glimpse to me." Still, no emotion.
"I had no control over it. I tried to stop them, to close my mind to them, but the harder I tried, the more visions I received."
His eyes narrowed. "I don't like being spied on."
"I didn't spy on you," she ground out. "I wish to the gods you'd had visions of me, so that this wouldn't seem so one-sided and wrong."
His eyes widened, and his mouth fell open. "That's it. That's where I've seen you." "What?" Her brow furrowed. "Where?"
"I've seen you before. I told you that. Remember, I asked you if we'd met before?" It all fell into place, and Gray's fish settled like lead in his stomach. Why hadn't he recognized who she was immediately? He'd known she was familiar to him the first moment he saw her.
Over the years, he'd dreamed of her. He'd thought nothing of the dreams at the time, thought they were merely products of his overactive imagination and the weird things he'd encountered, but now he replayed some of them through his mind.
Jewel chained to a wall, her body draped in a blue robe, her black hair streaming around her. Men and women were paraded in front of her, some killed afterward, others spared.
Jewel being held down while someone chopped off her hair. A punishment, the one-armed, knife-wielding bastard said, for omitting details.
Jewel, trying to escape a tower, falling to the ground and breaking her leg.
He shook his head, the images alone sparking fury. Dark, potent fury. This was so hard to take in. Almost impossible, really. He only prayed he was mistaken, that he hadn't dreamed of her actual life.
"Let me see your leg," he demanded softly.
Her face scrunched in confusion.
"Show me your lower right leg." He remembered how the bone had popped through the skin, how she'd cried in pain and hours passed before anyone found her. And then she'd been punished, forced to watch an innocent man slain. Her physical wound somehow and miraculously healed days later, but a scar had remained. "Please, sweetheart. Show me your leg."
Surprise flashed in her eyes, but she stood and lifted her robe.
His lungs constricted, and he scrubbed a hand down his face. There, on her shin, was the scar. His childhood dreams had been real. He'd actually seen glimpses of her life, and he hadn't been able to stop them, either. He'd tried, though. God knew he'd tried anything and everything to rid himself of the haunting images of the dream woman's tragic, tortured life. Therapy. Hypnosis.
Jewel had known one cruelty after another. It had been bad enough when he assumed they were merely dreams, but knowing they were real, that Jewel had truly lived those horrible things, he wanted to gather her in his arms and keep her safe for the rest of her life.
"I've seen enough," he said, his tone cracked. How had she survived? How had she retained such innocence? How could she still see beauty in the world?
She dropped her robe and sat back on the ground, picking up her plate, resuming her eating. "What was that all about?"
"It isn't one-sided," he told her, his tone flat.
She paused, looked at her leg, then at him. "You saw glimpses of me?"
Her cheeks bloomed bright with color, and her mouth formed a small O. "What did you see me do?"
Obviously she didn't like the knowledge that she'd been watched, either. "This and that," he answered vaguely. "What was happening when I saw you that first time as flesh and blood? Those people were being paraded in front of you, then carried away or killed by the demons."
Going pale, she set her leaf aside. "You know of my ability to read minds." He tensed, because he suddenly knew where she was going with this.
"Whoever owns me at the time brings me their citizens and enemies alike and commands me to ferret out any betrayers. The first time I refused to do this, I had to watch a man die horribly. I've tried to lie, to protect the people, but I can't. Lying cripples me for a reason I don't understand, the words frozen in my throat, so at times I'm forced to admit things about people that I do not want to."
"I'm sorry," he said, reaching for her, wishing there were more soothing words he could give her.
"So many times I wished they would have simply punished me instead. That I could have withstood, but no one wanted to hurt the very one who held the answers they so desired."
"Have you always had this ability?"
"Was your mother or father - were they like you?"
"Not my mother. She was part of the siren race, and while she was powerful, she could not read minds or tell the future. I'm not sure about my father."
"So you are siren?" Gray searched his mind, but didn't recall any glimpses of Jewel's childhood or family. That explained the sexiness of her voice, though.
"Part siren. I'm not sure what the other half is. My mother and I, we lived in a village of peace-loving creatures and any one of those creatures could have been my family."
"Why aren't you still living in that village?"
"A human army marched through, slaughtering everything and everyone in its path."
"I'm sorry," he said again, helpless to do anything more.
His brow furrowed. "A human army, did you say?" When she nodded, he said, "How did they get here?" "The same way you did: through portals. Most Atlanteans believe the gods sent them."
"Are we close to a portal now?"
She nodded. "The dragons now guard them, killing anyone who dares enter."
Gray remembered the guards that had stood at the ready at the palace he'd entered. They'd been big and strong, but had looked human, not dragon. Not like the winged dragon-creature who attacked him in the forest.
He forced down the rest of his fish, even though it had grown cold and tasted like refrigerated ash. He set his leaf aside. "I wondered how the people here seemed to know so much about humans, yet I hadn't seen many. What happened to them?"
"For the first time since the creation of Atlantis, every race banded together to fight and destroy the enemy, but even if those humans had not invaded our land, we would have known about humans. As I mentioned before, sometimes the gods send us humans they wish to punish. Those criminals serve as a food source for the demons and vampires."
"That explains why I've been so hated and on everyone's shit list." Gray shuddered, recalling all too easily that he himself had been on the menu. "How did you survive the attack?"
"I'm not sure." She laughed, but the sound lacked humor. "I can predict everyone's fate but my own. After the attack, the dragons found me roaming the woods. They raised me for many years before I was stolen by the vampires."
"And what of your father? Did he die, as well?"
"I never really knew him, and my mother rarely talked about him."
Sadness colored her voice and gleamed in her eyes. He knew what it was like to miss a parent, to ache for them. His mother had died when he was barely a teenager. It had been a long, painful death as cancer ravaged her body. He'd tried to be a man about it for many years and pretend it hadn't affected him. But at nights, when he'd been alone with his thoughts, he'd remember her voice, the way she'd sung him lullabies, the way she'd read him stories, and he would cry, wishing her soft arms were around him.
He'd weakened once and tried to talk to his dad about it, but his dad had gone on a weekend, drunk. After that he'd never let his dad see his pain, nor had he let his brothers and sister know. He was the oldest child, and he had to be strong. Even if his dad hadn't given him the reminder over and over again, he would have known that he was supposed to be the rock. The man they could lean on and count on to see them through.
To this day, though, he missed his mom with everything inside of him.
"My father will be strong and wonderful," Jewel said, cutting into his thoughts. "And he'll be happy to see me."
Desperate, hollow hope infused her tone. She wanted him to agree, not tell her that the man had wanted nothing to do with her or he would have found her - no matter the obstacles. "I'm sure you're right."
Her shoulders relaxed, her facade of faith restored. "I wonder if I look like him. My mother had pale hair, green eyes, and skin so translucent it glowed."
"Okay, I honestly hope you look nothing like your dad because that would make your dad one hot babe, and that's just not right."
A tinkling laugh escaped her.
The sound of that laugh heated his blood and reminded him of the kiss they'd almost shared earlier. "You mentioned when you saw glimpses of me, you saw me with my women."
Jewel's expression lost all traces of humor. She pressed her lips together and nodded, her eyes taking on a weary haze.
"What was I doing with them?"
She colored prettily again, and this time the color spread to her neck - and under the collar of her robe. "You talked with them and laughed. You danced and did, uh, other things."
He grinned, the corners of his lips slowly inching upward. There was something about that prudish tone of hers that amused him. "You sound scandalized. Have you never danced before?"
Her back went ramrod straight. "For your information, no, I have not."
"Are we talking about dancing or having sex?" He had to smother a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing.
"Both," she answered on a growl.
His smile disappeared. "You're telling me you've never danced with a man?" "That's right."
"Never been held by a man? Never gotten naked with a man?"
"No." She looked away.
Possessiveness consumed him, joining ranks with his desire. He knew he shouldn't feel that way, knew he should feel sorry for her. God knows, she'd missed out on a lot of stuff. But he couldn't force pity past the need to be her first. He wanted to be the one to teach her, well, everything. Wanted to be the first man to lick her breasts, the first man to taste the passion between her legs. He wanted to be the first man to hear his name on her lips as she came.
Of course, he wouldn't allow himself to actually sleep with her, no matter how much he might want to, but damn if he wouldn't introduce her to everything else in between. No harm in that.
"On our way to find the Jewel of Dunamis," he said, the words hoarse, "will we go into a town?" "Yes." She sucked on her bottom lip.
His body hardened at the sight. "Does this town have a bar? Music?"
"Yes." This time she drew out the word, letter by letter.
How hesitant she sounded, as if she knew where he was going with this line of questioning but didn't dare hope. He didn't have time for what he was about to suggest, but he could no more shut himself up than he could ignore the ever-persistent General Happy.
At ease, soldier. "We'll stop at the bar, and I'll teach you." Blue eyes widening, she said, "Really?"
"Really. How long will it take us to get to the city?" "Not long. We are on the edge now."
"What about the temple?"
"Two days. Maybe three."
A surge of anticipation nearly electrified him. In a few hours he'd be holding Jewel in his arms, teaching her a few of the naughtier pleasures of the flesh. And in two or three days, he'd be holding Dunamis in his hand. Whether he'd destroy it or take it to his boss, he didn't yet know.
Whichever he chose, it would be mission accomplished - on both fronts.
Gray pushed to his feet, wincing at the sharp ache in each of his wounds.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, standing. She rushed to his side, wafting a gentle breeze of sunshine around him.
"I need to work out the stiffness from my body, then pack up so we can head into town." "You haven't healed yet."
"We need some supplies. Food, more clothing. Weapons."
"Yes, but - "
"No buts. It's my turn to win. You won the last argument. You were stubborn, remember, and refused to relax against me in the water. It's my turn."
She waved aside his words. "We don't have any money. How do you propose we buy those things?" He held up his hands and wiggled his fingers. "We don't need any money."
"We can't steal. Those creatures work hard. They need every cent."
"And we need the nutrition and the protection. I'll do whatever is necessary to keep us fed and strong."
"I'll fish some more."
"That will take more time than I have to spare. Stop arguing. It's wasted breath."
She hissed in frustration. "Fine. You go stretch or whatever it is you need to do, and I'll clean up camp."
"See how easy that was?" He grinned and lumbered to a nearby tree, throwing over his shoulder, "I'm glad you're starting to see things my way."
Jewel burned their leaf plates, spread the ashes and embers with a stick. All the while she watched Gray. His skin had more color, so the fish had helped. He had his palms on the tree trunk, his body leaning backward, stretching his arms and sides. When he finished that, he slowly straightened and twisted each vertebra in his back. His blond hair hung around his forehead and temples in complete disarray, that green and black cloth head-covering long forgotten.
Just watching him made her chest constrict with longing. Knowing he wanted to teach her to dance made the sensation all the more intense. She hadn't asked him; he had offered, true desire etched in his voice.
"Have you ever seen the Jewel of Dunamis?" he asked, keeping his back to her.
The question rattled her, but she tried not to show any reaction. "Many times. Why?" "I'm curious. What does it look like?"
She scrambled for the right words. "Some say it resembles sapphires." Truth. Her shoulders lifted in a mockingly casual shrug. "Others say it resembles a black storm cloud." Truth.
He arched his brows at her cryptic words. "Some say... but what do you say?" Gauging her response very carefully, she said, "I say it looks sad and vulnerable." "I've never heard a gemstone described that way."
"One day you will have your own opinion about what it looks like." When the fire died completely, she gathered the backpack and satchel, stuffing the latter inside the first, along with everything else they might need. A few sharp rocks, a handful of berries she discovered growing on a nearby bush.
The only thing she didn't pack was the canteen. That, she hauled to the river and filled with water, then strapped it around her neck. She and Gray were truly going into town. The shock of it swept through her, and her hands shook with nervousness; her heart pounded with excitement.
She'd always passed through the cities under cloak of darkness, surrounded by guards of whatever ruler possessed her at the time. The scents and sounds had always amazed and tempted her, those from the taverns most of all. They always bustled with music and laughter.
And now she was going to enter one. Now she was going to dance. With Gray. Her pulse fluttered. "I'll need a hooded robe," she said. "Otherwise I'll be recognized."
He cast her a quick glance before motioning to the ground he'd laid on only moments before. Something hot burned in his eyes. "Wear mine."
"You'll be recognized as human without it."
"Baby," he said, mouth twitching in a grin, "I stole two."
"Oh." Jewel dug back inside the bag and sure enough, there was another robe, this one a light, fine yellow. She pulled it free and settled the material over her head.
"We have to remember to be careful. We trust no one but ourselves, understand?" She nodded.
"If we see a demon or vampire, we haul ass back into this forest. As much as I'd like to get a room in town and get us out of the elements tonight, I'd rather deal with the weather than with those bastards from hell."
Gray finished stretching and closed the distance between them. He took the bag and dug out his weapons. Perhaps she shouldn't have packed up quite so efficiently. He strapped a knife to his waist and one to his ankle, then draped the dark blue robe over his shoulders. She was a little worried about his trekking through the forest, but the man was stubborn and there would be no changing his mind.
He looked at her and their gazes met, a charged moment of awareness filling the space between them. "Let's do this."