What the hell was happening to him?
The panicked thought tumbled through Gray's mind with dizzying speed. He tried to search his surroundings, but he couldn't open his eyes. He couldn't fucking open his eyes.
The knowledge hit him, and his body jerked; his lungs seized. Sharp needle-pricks stung his chest, and he realized he didn't even have the strength to draw in a single molecule of air. My God, he was going to die.
Every survival instinct he possessed screamed for him to fight, to take action. To do something. Anything. All he needed was one breath. As seconds passed, the lack of oxygen seared him with fire. The flames ate at him, consuming him. Devouring him. Colors flashed through his head, so many colors, all too bright in their intensity.
But with the colors came calm. Not acceptance, never that, but a sense of knowing his pain would vanish completely if he sank into the never-ending void of darkness that awaited him, beckoning. How beguiling the void was, like the last cold beer in the Sahara.
A part of him longed to simply fall into the peaceful abyss. The other part, the part that refused to be a failure... failure - was that Jewel's voice he heard? He fought to reach her, grinding his teeth together, clenching his muscles, and squeezing his hands into fists.
Where was she?
Hissing voices and grunts of fury suddenly echoed in his ears, claiming his focus; his own death dripped from each timbre, the evil sounds chilling his every cell. And with the sounds, a need to taste blood, warm and living blood, grew inside him. He yearned to drink sweet, crimson nectar from someone's throat. Yes, he needed to, would die if he didn't.
What the hell was happening to him? Around him? Inside him? His eyelids remained heavy, too heavy to open and look. He heard the clang of... swords? Claws? The louder the intonations became, the weaker he became. His chest constricted, making him all the more aware he needed to breathe.
"Gray." The gentle beseeching drifted above the chaos encompassing him, drowning out the horrifying battle sounds. "Gray."
He recognized her sexy accent. She seemed closer than before. Reachable. The need for tasting blood abandoned him, replaced by a need to see Jewel. With every ounce of strength he possessed, he finally managed to pry open his eyelids - no, not his eyelids, but his mental eye - the very act more excruciating than taking a bullet.
In a flash of white light, Jewel materialized.
Dark walls surrounded her, and he realized they weren't in the forest. They were in some sort of shadow land.
"Your mind," she said. "We're inside your mind."
He saw her float toward him, her hips swaying seductively. Her sheer white robe whispered around her ankles, a vivid contrast to the silky black hair cascading down her back. She looked like an angel.
Her rose-petal lips eased into a sweet smile. "Gray," she said again. "Breathe with me." Can't, he wanted to tell her. His mouth refused to obey.
"Breathe with me," she repeated, the command sharp. "In. Out. Open your mouth. In. Out."
Never had anything been so impossible. The paralysis affected both mind and body, leaving him completely frozen.
"Perhaps there is another way, the way you helped me in the water." Jewel closed the remaining distance between them, crouched down, and pried his mouth open with her fingers. She fit her soft, soft lips over his. Her hair hung like a curtain around them as she blew her very essence into his mouth. The sweetness of her breath seeped down his throat and little by little, his lungs accepted the oxygen.
The fragrance of sea-storms and magic wafted to his nostrils. Jewel's scent. So lovely. So necessary. "In. Out. In," she said when he began breathing on his own. "You're doing wonderfully."
With her face hovering over his, his lips tingling from the touch of hers, he couldn't help but remember how turned on he'd been when she'd talked about having sex on a waterbed - how he'd wanted to be the man doing those naughty things to her, touching between her thighs, sinking his fingers into her hot, wet sheath. Bringing her to climax while she shouted his name.
Two hissing black plum clouds flew past his shoulder and slammed into the far wall of his mind. The moment they hit, Gray's body jerked, his muscles spasming. The little bit of air he'd managed to draw in evaporated, and darkness once again crept insidious fingers around him. Images of Jewel faded.
"What's happening?" he croaked.
"Don't worry about that right now." She smoothed a gentle hand over his brow. "Concentrate on me."
Yes, Gray thought. Jewel. Think only of Jewel. His gaze met hers, silver against fathomless blue, and he was overwhelmed by a compulsion to do whatever she asked. She was his lifeline.
In an obsidian swirl of sulfur and blood-scented evil, the dark clouds whirled and gelled until two separate creatures formed, circling each other. One vampire - fangs elongated, saliva dripping from its mouth. One demon - claws sharpened, eyes glowing bright red.
Shock chilled him from head to toe.
The two creatures leapt at each other, oblivious to everything except the other's destruction. As they sliced, bit and kicked, it was Gray who experienced pain. Gray who felt the sting of each blow.
Their combating forms maneuvered toward Jewel, and for a long, protracted moment, she was wrapped in a cloak of malfeasance, shielding her from his view. When Gray lost sight of her beautiful face, his body cramped horrendously. Sharp. Like knives slicing him. He fought against the pain, determined to save Jewel.
Growling low in his throat, pushing past his injuries, he leapt to his feet and attacked full force. He used the only weapons he currently possessed - his fists and legs. But each time he punched or kicked, the cloud darted away with a violent, taunting laugh.
"Step away from them," Jewel commanded.
"Get out of here." As the battling pair whizzed past him, he jumped onto the demon's back, wrapping the winged creature in a chokehold.
"Gray," she shouted, frantic. "You cannot beat them alone, but I can do nothing while you are in the middle of them. Let me help you."
The demon threw him off. Gray immediately sprang up and launched himself atop the vampire, ripping at its throat. All the while teeth and nails sliced at his back. His breath grew ragged, unsteady. His limbs shook with increasing lethargy. He'd spent his entire life protecting those weaker than himself, first prowling the streets of Dallas as a police officer, then as a detective, then stalking other worlds as an OBI agent.
He wouldn't stop now. He'd kill these hell-bound bastards if he had to die to do so. "Please," Jewel cried, the sound distant. "Please step away from them, and let me help you."
Her desperation and fear penetrated his killing rage, but he refused to do as she asked. If he released the creatures, they might attack her and that he would not allow. Not knowing what else to do, he used the last of his mental strength to shove her out of his mind.
He would not risk her.
"Leave. Now!" he shouted.
A burst of white light erupted, and she disappeared.
A hint of sadness lingered where she'd been, making his chest constrict. His deepest male instincts wanted only her happiness. Wanted to grant her every wish. But if her wishes put her in danger, he'd refuse her every time.
Using his distraction to their advantage, the creatures closed over him, cutting at him, drawing blood. Abruptly Jewel jolted upright.
Panic thundered inside her, panic she could not subdue. Gray had actually shoved her from his mind, and she'd been unable to maintain her hold. Right now his physical body lay at her side, jerking every few seconds as the creatures ravaged him.
The golden stick still glowed, chasing away lingering hints of night's shadows. As she forced her heartbeat to slow, she studied him. His skin carried the greenish hue of sickness, and several cuts on his face and chest bled profusely. Bruises curved under his eyes.
How much longer he had, she didn't know. Not long, though. The dire warning echoed through her. Not long.
Hand shaky, she reached out, wrapping her fingers around his wrist. His skin was cold, his pulse weak. Before her eyes, a cut appeared on his forehead, slashing from brow to hairline. Every wound he received internally appeared externally.
All her life, he'd been her anchor and her only source of happiness. Watching his life unfold had been her greatest joy. If she had any hope of helping him, she had to find a way back inside his mind.
Think, Jewel. Think. How could she burst past his mental shield?
There was no magical answer, really, she realized a moment later. She'd just have to try harder, to force her way back inside, through the one method guaranteed to get his attention.
Jewel drew in a deep breath and as she released it, she eased herself on top of him, her legs straddling his waist. She tangled her fingers in Gray's pale, silky hair, and the pulse at the base of his neck leapt. He sensed her touch!
She closed her eyes and dragged in another breath. The air boasted summer scents, dewy foliage and blooming flowers. Mocking, all. Very slowly, she lowered her head until her lips met his. Her tongue pushed past his teeth and into his mouth. His masculine flavor consumed her senses, caused her blood to heat, her thighs to ache.
His nostrils flared, his mouth widened, and he kissed her back.
As their tastes blended, her sense of awareness traveled into Gray like a storm cloud moving from one city to another. Physically, her hands and feet grew cold, her stomach numb. Spiritually, she grew warmer. On a soft, almost glowing exhale, her conscious mind abandoned her body completely. On a strong, forced inhale, it entered Gray's.
Jewel swept into his mind for the second time, tearing at the barrier piece by piece. Her eyes widened as she watched his essence combat the creatures. He was noticeably weak, his punches and kicks ineffective as he swayed on his feet.
"Gray." She had to get him away from the combatants.
He spun around, facing her. "Jewel." His gaze narrowed. "Leave. Before they come after you."
"Come here," she said, using her most seductive voice. "I told you to leave, woman!"
"Come here." She licked her lips, mimicking an action the women of his world used to draw a man's attention. "I want to kiss you."
"Now is not the time." He shook his head and turned back to the dark fog, slapping at it with his fists.
"Kiss me. Now is the perfect time." She moved toward him. "I thought your philosophy was anytime, anywhere. And right now I want your tongue in my mouth."
Something hungry and hot flickered over his expression. Something cold and hard at the same time. Then the creatures swirled and laughed around him like naughty children, and he kicked out his legs. He missed, earning another laugh from his enemies.
"You're in danger here," he growled to her. He sounded stronger, more like himself.
"My nipples are hard just thinking about our kiss. There's an ache between my legs, and I need to feel you there, touching me."
He sucked in a breath, and for a moment he stopped fighting and turned his back on the fog, leveling her with a hot gaze that traveled the length of her body, lingering on her breasts, on the juncture between her thighs.
He took a step toward her, then stopped himself. "No. No." With a growl, he spun back to the battling vampire and demon, tendrils of their darkness wrapping around him. He swung out his arms and slammed his fist into the demon's face.
The creature flew at him, tossing him backward, chomping for his throat. Jewel gasped and almost fell to her knees. Thankfully the vampire launched himself into the demon, rolling him away from Gray. Saving Gray's life.
"Soldier," she called desperately. "I command you to kiss me."
Former military, the urge to follow a commanding officer's commands was ingrained. Her tone gave him pause, and he shook his head, as if trying to clear his thoughts, to focus. He stood. The fight continued around him.
"Everything feels surreal." He massaged his temples. "Illogical and out of sync." "I can make it better. You just have to trust me."
He grimaced and grabbed his side, hunching over, suddenly gasping for air. "It's almost like... I'm viewing a Dali painting where the world... of reality melts and turns inward on itself. What's real? What isn't?"
"I'm real. Touch me and see."
"I want to, God, I want to, but I can't," he said raggedly. "I can't. Must... stop them. I'm an OBI employee and I will... fight to protect you."
She curbed the urge to drop to her knees and cry. His protective instincts were buried so deep, she might never breach them. And he would die. Desperation clamped sharp claws around her, cutting deep. Her eyes narrowed. He could resist her promise of a kiss, but could he resist a naked female form?
She quickly untied her robe at her shoulders. The material fell to her waist, revealing her breasts, her beaded nipples, and the flat plane of her stomach.
Gray's eyes widened. "You're flashing me. You're seriously flashing me." "Touch me."
"No, I'm an OBI employee and I will fight to protect you. I'm an OBI employee and I will - stare at the most beautiful pair of breasts I've ever seen." He shook his head, but his gaze remained locked on her.
"I'm an OBI - your breasts will fit perfectly in my hands." Her skin warmed. "Why don't you make certain?"
He slowly closed the distance separating them, limping the entire way but never stopping. When he was in front of her, his arms reaching out to caress her breasts, Jewel shivered with anticipation. She wanted so badly to accept his touch, but she couldn't. Not yet. And so, she did something she never thought she'd do. She hooked her leg around Gray's knee and shoved him, hard. Weakened already, he fell, his expression shocked as he landed. He winced, staying on the ground, trying to catch his breath.
With Gray out of the way, she closed her eyes and raised her hands, willing the creatures to slow. Battle sounds receded, the air around her thickened and ceased all movement until there was only utter stillness.
Her eyelids fluttered open, an astonishing scene greeting her. The demon and vampire continued to war with each other, yes, but they moved in slow motion, their every action sluggish. A drop of black blood trickled from the demon and splashed onto the floor. She saw every inch of movement.
"Now, Gray," she shouted. "Kill them now." She was afraid to move her arms and help him up, afraid the creatures would leap back into lightning speed.
Gray rose determinedly, albeit shakily, to his feet. He rubbed a hand over his eyes in an attempt to clear his vision before he hobbled to the creatures. Then, with a deft, ingrained ability, he attacked. The creatures hissed and bit at him, even drawing more blood, but he fought, snapping both their necks and dropping their bodies.
He stood there, sucking in breath, his wounds open and bleeding.
Wave after wave of relief and joy swept through her. "You did it," she said, awed, her hands dropping to her sides.
"No, we did it."
Her lips lifted in a grin, and a sudden flash of desire filled his eyes - eyes that were staring at her chest Her own desire sparked to life - it had never really died - and she gasped, realizing her breasts were still on display.
"If I'm remembering correctly," he continued, stronger by the second, "you promised me a kiss before dropping me on my ass."
She ached erotically at the thought of his lips on hers. Of his hands moving over her. Perhaps rolling her nipples between his fingers. "You're not too weak?"
"For a kiss? Never." He stalked three slow steps toward her. "Are you too weak?" "Of course not."
He chuckled at her affront. His skin color was growing rosier, more bronzed. "You once said humans demand proof in everything. Well, you were right. Prove it. Prove you're strong enough to handle me."
She gulped, not knowing where to begin. By touching him? Tasting him? Perhaps both? Her words might have been bold today, but she'd never been with a man before. Her fingers itched to move all over him. Her mouth watered, yearning to lick every inch of him.
"Are you going to kiss me or not?"
"I don't know where to begin," she admitted.
His liquid silver eyes radiated the very hunger that rocked her. His head lowered. "We'll start here," he said, tracing his fingertips over the seam of her lips, "and work our way down." Two of his fingers circled her nipples, making them harden all the more.
Her lips parted on a gasp of sheer pleasure.
And then he was there, his arms locked around her waist, his lips meshing into hers. Because her mouth was open, he easily swept his tongue inside. He tasted of heat and man and the flavor intoxicated her.
She liquefied against him, his shirt deliciously abrading her chest, his touch fueling her dreams. Forging her fantasies.
"Kiss me back," he muttered.
"I don't know how. Exactly." She whispered the confession, unable to look at him. She'd seen kisses, but never experienced one herself.
He pulled slightly away, tilted her chin up, and stared into her eyes. Possessiveness radiated from him. "Just move your tongue against mine. Suck on it. Lick it."
Erotic shivers danced through her. The image his words elicited was heady, enthralling. Moistening her lips, she dropped her gaze to his mouth. "I'm ready."
"You sure?" He uttered a strained chuckle before softly brushing a kiss against the tip of her nose, her chin, the edge of her mouth. Each touch scorched her, weaving a seductive web in her mind.
"Let me have your tongue again," she said, desperate. Achy. Needy. "I want to suck it, just like you said."
"God, I like an eager student." He complied and once more his tongue swept into her mouth.
She moaned at the first touch. His erection rubbed between her legs, thick and hard. She wanted him; she'd always wanted him. He'd become an obsession over the years and now his very closeness wrapped her in a cloak of sensuality.
As their tongues danced and sparred, she arched against him. He kissed her as if he was completely absorbed in her, as if nothing else mattered but holding her and giving her pleasure. His hands found her breasts and kneaded them. Pure heat lanced to her deepest core. Her blood electrified. How she longed to shout her love for him, but too easily did she recall his reaction when surface women had done that. He hadn't been able to get away fast enough.
"See. They do fill my hands."
"Take off your clothes," she whispered. "I want to feel your skin against mine."
This time, he moaned. Her desire became more intense, drowning her with sensations sweeter than the richest honey. Then...
His thoughts filled her mind. I want her. God, I want her. She tastes so damn good. I need her. I - What the hell are you doing James? She's not for you. Push her away. Push her away, she's dangerous.
Jewel jerked from his clasp, her breath ragged. The words she's not for you, push her away echoed in her head. Hurt, she covered her swollen, moist lips with her hand, then quickly tied her robe, shielding her nakedness. Gray's pending rejection stung and battered her pride. If they'd been flesh and blood just then, she might have slapped him - or kneed his precious General Happy.
So many times she'd watched him kiss other women. He'd never pulled away - never thought to pull away. He'd always lingered and savored, moving slowly, prolonging the pleasure for as long as possible.
Why could he not be the same with her? Why?
His hands gripped her forearms, his breath just as ragged as hers. "Why did you stop? I'm not done with you."
So he wouldn't see her hurt expression, she turned away from him. "You will live now, Gray. Your body has already begun healing. It's time for me to leave this place."
Silence so heavy it weighed upon her shoulders. No protest, no begging her to fall back in his arms. Why did she have to love this man? Why did he have to mean so much to her, when she obviously meant so little to him? He thought her dangerous, of all things. As if she would ever hurt him.
"My God," he gasped, releasing her completely and stumbling back.
There was such horror in his tone, she whipped around, gaze dragging over him. "What's wrong?" His eyes were wide, the lines around his mouth taut. "I can read your mind."