Jewel trailed behind Gray as he barreled his way past the double doors and inside the bar. The soft sounds of a flute drifted through the laughter and chatter that permeated the room. Centaurs were scattered in every direction, some sitting at tables, resting on their haunches, others prancing on the dance floor in a tangle of chestnut, blond and carmine fur. Several sirens were also present, their skin glowing incandescently, their dark hair silky and flowing. Then -
Everyone stopped, paused, and turned toward them, staring. Even the music ceased, cutting to quiet. Jewel shifted uneasily on her feet.
Gray stepped forward, and several people gasped, muttering, "Human."
As he jumped wholeheartedly into his role of god, his brows arched into his forehead, and his lips dipped into an imperial frown. He waved a hand through the air. "I have arrived," he said, his superior voice cutting through the silence. "Why do you not bow? Do you dare disrespect me?"
The fluidity of his words, as if he'd spoken her language his entire life, still amazed her. She'd never before considered the abrupt syllables sensual, but when Gray spoke them, a hungry shiver traipsed along her spine.
"You can't truly expect us to bow to you, human," a huge centaur snapped, darting forward menacingly. His arms were tanned and thickly muscled, his chest bare and laced with scars.
Jewel's mouth went dry. The centaur planned to snap Gray in half like a twig. She read the thought so clearly in his mind.
"I am Adonis," Gray said, layer upon layer of power in his voice, "and you will bow."
That voice... compelling and enigmatic, hypnotic, laced with an all-encompassing authority that left no room for argument. Half of the people in the room gasped and stepped toward him, wanting to touch the god who had stepped into their midst. Hope filled them. It had been so long, they thought, their excitement growing, and they hadn't been forgotten as they'd supposed.
The centaur wavered in his surety that Gray was nothing more than a human, but retained a firm grip on his doubt. "Prove it," the horse-man snarled.
His name is Bradair, Jewel whispered in Gray's mind. She hadn't been able to reach him this way since his sickness, and she had no way of knowing if it worked this time.
"Shall I strike you down with a lightning bolt, Bradair? Shall I turn your flesh to ash?" It had worked! Why, she didn't know. She was only glad that it had.
Color drained from the centaur's bronzed skin, revealing a fine trace of blue veins. "How did you know my name?"
He f ears snakes, Jewel added.
Gray never missed a beat. "Shall I toss you into a snake pit?" "I - I - "
Ready to end this, Jewel closed her eyes and projected her thoughts into the patrons' minds, willing all of them to think Gray was floating, that fire crackled from his head, and lightning sizzled on his fingers.
Bradair fell to his knees, babbling, "I am so sorry for my doubt, my lord. Please forgive me. I am a foolish man, and I will despise myself for all eternity for daring to question you."
"You are forgiven. Make sure it doesn't happen again."
"Yes, yes. Thank you, thank you."
"Table, chairs." Gray clapped, obviously enjoying his role. "I have immediate need of them."
Centaurs and sirens rushed to please the man, or rather god, beside her. A table was quickly cleaned, the contents swept to the floor with giddy eagerness, and two chairs dragged in front of it. "Your table, oh Lord of Lords."
He strode to it with an arrogant swagger, everyone he passed reaching out to touch him. He helped Jewel into her seat, then plopped down next to her. No one seemed inclined to leave; they hovered around the table, their expressions rapt. A female centaur with a silky mane of carmine hair stepped forward. Her chest was bare, and her large breasts bounced with her movements.
Jewel's hands fisted at her sides as she fought to the urge to cover Gray's eyes. "Please allow me to serve you, Divine One. It will be my greatest pleasure."
"Two of your finest." Gray flicked Jewel a glance and noticed her chair was several inches away. He grabbed the edge of her seat and scooted her closer, until their thighs brushed.
She gasped at the hot, electric contact. Her gaze locked with his, and his lips slowly teased in a half smile. Every time she looked at him or touched him, she felt as if her soul were exposed. As if she were raw and vulnerable, and oh so needy.
"That's better," he said to her, then to everyone else, "Continue about your business." Gradually, reluctantly, they obeyed, though everyone kept a reverent eye on him.
"I never expected you to announce your godliness like that. I thought we'd mention it, that's all." She paused. "You're always surprising me."
"Then we're even."
Jewel tore her focus from the hot intensity of his gaze and glanced around. The walls were painted with beautiful murals of frolicking centaurs, lush meadows, and blooming flowers. The wide array of colors was breathtaking, from the brightest azure to the palest pink.
Their drinks were deposited on their table a moment later. "Is there anything else I may get for you, Glorious One? Anything? Anything at all?" As she spoke, the centaur's finger traced the outline of her nipple.
"Nothing else," Jewel snapped. If anyone was going to invite Gray to bed, it was her. Jewel. Expression crumbling, the female trotted away.
"What was that about?" he asked, lips twitching.
"As if you don't know. Pervert!"
"Sheath the claws, Blaze. There's only one woman I'm interested in at the moment."
Her stomach clenched deliciously, but she barely had time to explore the wonderful sensation before he was pushing a glass at her and saying, "Drink up. We really can't stay here long."
Curious and unsure, she sipped tentatively at the amber liquid. The icy liquid was sweet with an apple flavor. "Mmm." She drained the rest and despite its coolness, it warmed her inside out.
Gray gulped back a drink, then paused and grimaced. "What is this stuff?" He held up his glass and eyed it suspiciously. He even sniffed the rim. "It's like pure sugar."
"I've never tasted anything so delicious."
His gaze dropped and lingered on her lips, intoxicating and heady.
Her cheeks warmed with a blush, that one look affecting her as strongly as a caress, moving along her skin. Her nipples hardened. What would it be like if he licked her there? What would it be like if his fingers delved between her legs, spread her moisture and glided inside her?
What would it be like to clasp his penis in her hand and gently stroke up and down? Tasting the bead of maleness from the tip? So many times she'd dreamed of those things, prayed for them. Been desperate for them. Would he ever give them to her? Would he ever truly want to give them to her?
Her gaze strayed to the centaurs dancing in the middle of the buildings. Their arms were clasped around each other, their hooves swaying left and right, their tails swishing, and a deep pang of longing rebounded.
"You ready to begin your dancing lessons?"
"I've been ready for years," she said, then pressed her lips together. She hadn't meant to say that out loud. She didn't want Gray to know how she felt about him. He claimed he preferred relationships over quick, forgotten entanglements, but she'd seen the number of women who had fallen in love with him only to watch his back as he walked away.
He was not a man who accepted ties easily.
Pushing to his feet, he intertwined their fingers and tugged her up. The calluses on his hand ignited an inexorable friction. Everyone watched as he ushered her onto the dance floor. He turned, facing the crowd, his back blocked by a corner, and spun her. He drew her into the hard embrace of his arms.
Her lashes fluttered down. She lay her head on his shoulder and breathed in his scent. Her hands wound around him, anchoring on his lower back, right above his buttocks and beneath his bag. She felt the strength of his muscles, the heat of his skin, and never wanted to leave that spot.
The music continued to play, soft and slow, and they swayed to its seductive beat. It felt so wonderful to be in his arms. So... perfect.
"You're a natural," he praised, his voice thick. He buried his nose in the hollow of her neck, inhaling deeply. "Hmm, you smell good. Ever heard of dirty dancing?"
"Want me to show you?" His legs spread slightly, fitting hers between them, and his hips began to rock forward, brushing and retreating, his erection straining against her core.
Shock waves of pleasure shot through her, sizzling like the lightning Gray had threatened to use against the centaur, and she gasped. Every point of contact seared her.
"Move your hips against mine."
She did, moving in the opposite direction and connecting in the middle. "It's - it's - " The words caught in her throat, suspended on a jolt of pure carnality. Faster and faster they rocked, arching into one another.
"Perfect. God, I know." One of his hands strayed to her buttocks, gripping, and the other lifted to her neck, tangling in her hair. He pulled her deeper into his embrace until their mouths were only a breath apart. Gazes locked together with sultry intensity, he moved one of his legs so that the apex of her thighs straddled him.
"Oh, gods." Another gasp slipped from her. If they kept this up much longer, she was going to explode. Already her body rushed toward completion. A coiling of pleasure. A search for release.
"I want you tonight," he said. "I shouldn't, but I do. I want you so much I'm aching with it. I told myself I wouldn't take you all the way, just play a bit, but that's not going to be enough. Not nearly enough. Right now, I can't make the consequences matter. I want you tonight," he repeated.
I want forever with him, she thought dazedly. Her taste of freedom today had broken something inside her. An acceptance, a passiveness. She deserved a Me all her own, a life of love and happiness. Different she might be, but she possessed a very human heart. She wanted Gray in her life now and always. Wanted to strip him down and welcome him inside her body, over and over, night after night, their limbs tangled together.
He wanted only tonight.
"What do you feel?" Gray asked her, the words a whispered caress. "How does being in my arms make you feel?"
"Fire. I feel like I'm burning all over."
"That's good. Real good." His eyes were liquid silver, alive with... something she was almost afraid to name. It was a look she'd never seen from him, in her visions or in reality, almost brutally tender.
She moved her palms to his chest, placing one over his heart. His heartbeat thundered, strong if a little offbeat. Fast.
"You're begging to be kissed, sweetheart, you know that, don't you? But we can't. If I kiss you, I won't be able to stop. You're a hell of a distraction, and even though these people think I'm a god, I can't afford to be distracted in here." His hand kneaded the back of her neck. "No one else has ever smelled like you, like moonlight and storms."
"You said I couldn't go with you, Gray, but maybe... maybe you can stay here." She tightened her grip on him, her cheek nuzzling his. "Stay here with me."
His eyelids fell to half-mast, and his lips traced her jawline, his tongue flicking out in hot, determined strokes. "I can't. OBI will send in another agent, perhaps more, and those men will die or kill the people here. I want you, Jewel. I do. More than I've ever wanted another woman, but I will leave you. No matter what happens, I'm going home. Never let yourself think otherwise."
There was pure honesty in his voice, a bone-deep conviction. He didn't harbor a single doubt about his words; he believed them with his whole heart. If she allowed him, he would kiss her, perhaps make love with her tonight, but when his mission ended, so did their association.
They would never see each other again. Never speak with each other. That knowledge cut deeper than any knife.
She'd known he would deny her, of course. The moment she'd spoken, she had known his reply, but hope was a strange, foolish thing, and she'd been unable to hold the words back.
Only two options presented themselves. Embrace the time they had together or keep him at a distance. Either way, she would end up with a broken heart. One would leave her with beautiful memories that could destroy her. The other would bring regret, but she would survive.
"I've been honest with you from the beginning," he said, softening his tone to ease the sting of his previous words.
"I told you before that you don't have to explain your reasons to me." She tried to mask her hurt, but didn't quite succeed. "I'm very aware of what you're like."
He studied her face. Whatever he saw in her expression angered him because he scowled, grabbed her hand, and hauled her back to the table. His scowl remained as he signaled for two more drinks. He didn't speak until they arrived and the server disappeared.
News of Gray's presence must have spread, because the bar fairly burst with centaurs and sirens, eating away at the space. Every few seconds, someone fingered his hair or caressed his shoulder. For the most part, he ignored them.
"What do you mean, you know what I'm like?" He propped his elbows on the table and leaned forward while she sipped at the ice-cold sweetness.
She met his gaze dead on, eyes narrowed, blood surging with her own sense of growing fury. "You get rid of your women very quickly."
"That's a lie, honey. I don't do one-night stands."
"Not in your mind, no. You keep women around for a while, but you never give more of yourself than the barest glimmer. The moment they start to get close to you, you leave them."
Gray's nostrils flared. His last girlfriend had lasted six months. Six months of monogamy and commitment. He'd liked her, had enjoyed spending time with her... but the night she told him she loved him was the last night he spent with her, he realized.
He blinked, doing a quick mental replay of his other girlfriends. Goddamn it, Jewel was right. In the beginning, his last girlfriend had been content to see him the few days out of the month he was home and talk to him sparingly on the phone. They'd had a great sex life, one where they both found enjoyment. Then she'd started hinting that she wanted more. More of his time, more of him. She'd begun leaving clothing at his house. The shit exploded, however, when he found tampons in his medicine cabinet. Tampons, for God's sake. It had only been at that moment, as he stared at the feminine products, that he'd realized he was in a hard-core relationship.
He'd sweated for a couple days, but hadn't stopped seeing her. He'd wondered, though, why he felt no compulsion to tell her about his life. And why he hadn't wanted to introduce her to his family. If he had, maybe the "I love you" thing wouldn't have sent him flinging over the edge.
He hated one-night stands, or so he'd always told himself. Basically, that was all he'd ever had. One-night stands that lasted several months. He'd never told a girlfriend he loved her, never lived with a woman, either. Never told a woman about his life, his job, or his family. He shook his head in disbelief.
It wasn't like he wanted to remain a bachelor for the rest of his life. He actually liked the idea of marriage, children, and happily ever after. So what was the problem? Why did he refuse to allow himself to fall in love?
Only one answer sprang to mind. He hadn't met the right woman.
He frowned, considering the validity of that thought. If that disgusting cliche was true, it would mean there was only one person, one true love, for everyone. His dad and mom, he'd thought, had been soul mates. Then his mom died, and though his dad remained single for a long time afterward, he had found another woman - one he loved more than he'd ever loved Gray's mom.
Gray didn't resent his stepmom, Francis, for that, but it had rocked his views of love. Was he waiting for a deeper connection than he'd had with any of his women? Had he somehow known he couldn't get it from them?
Could he with Jewel?
Yes, roared inside his mind. He quickly stamped it down, one of the most difficult things he'd ever done. They were from two different worlds, and he could never let himself forget that. They were not destined to be together. There were just too many complications.
He couldn't deny that he wanted her, though. God, did he want her. Bad. She fired his blood, made him hot and hungry. Made him sweat, willing to beg for it. Made his hormones surge. For her. Only her.
Only Jewel seemed to excite him now. Her kindness continually rocked him. Her smile continually brightened him. He was more aware of her than he ever had been of another. He wanted to protect and coddle her. He wanted to possess her, brand her.
He wanted to keep her.
Gray scrubbed a hand down his face. Fuck, shit, damn. He wanted to keep her with him, now. Always. He wanted to wrap himself around her until he was all she knew. The most primitive part of him demanded he mark her with his essence so she'd never forgot exactly which man she belonged to. So every man would know who she belonged to.
No. No. He wouldn't allow that to mean more than a few nights of pleasure. He'd have her - there would be no stopping that, he realized that now, but he wouldn't keep her. Tonight, he would claim her body, satisfy the hunger that ravaged them both, and purge her from his system.
"It's getting late," he bit out. "And it's too crowded in here." The thought of having her was already exciting him, heating his blood and consuming his senses. On the dance floor, he'd been close to coming in his pants like a teenager. She'd felt so damn good, a perfect fit against him. God knew how much better she'd feel naked, under him, her legs wrapped around his waist. "We should go."
She lifted her glass and drained the contents. He dropped several drachmas on the tabletop, then stood, Jewel following suit. He didn't dare touch her right now. He wanted her too much and his control teetered precariously on total annihilation.
Out of habit, his gaze searched for menacing movements and creeping shadows as he stalked to the
door. Since joining OBI, he'd lived his life that way, always searching for those who meant him harm. The proclivity had saved him on several occasions.
"Return whenever you wish," someone called.
"I'll make a sacrifice in your honor," someone else shouted.
Outside, he kept his gaze intent as he scanned the empty street. Night had fallen completely. Stone torches glowed from jagged walls.
"The inn is over there," Jewel said, pointing to a building that looked more like a stable than a hotel.
He would have preferred a bed of silk and satin for his first time with Jewel, but he'd take whatever he could get. Besides, he thought hopefully, maybe it wasn't as primitive on the inside as he'd feared.
As he stepped over the threshold, his boots sank into a thick layer of hay. The scent of sweat and animal enveloped him. An aging male centaur with a long silver beard manned the area.
"I'd like a room," Gray told him, sliding the last of his drachmas over the scarred wood surface that separated them.
"You're Adonis," the man gasped. "They said you had come, but I didn't believe them. I beg forgiveness for my doubt."
His money was slid back to him. "It is my greatest honor to house you, great lord. Please, please. Follow me. If you have need of anything, you have only to ask and I will personally see that it is yours. If you wish a morning ride, I will gladly seat you on my own back."
He showed them to a large, cozy room. There was an actual bed, complete with soft blue sheets. There was a bathing pool and enough pillows strewn across the floor to use as a trampoline.
"You may leave us," he said.
"As you wish." The centaur backed out of the room, bowing low. "Thank you, sweet lord. Thank you."
Jewel's gaze shifted nervously from Gray to the bed, to the pool, to Gray again. He looked her up and down, imagining his hands everywhere he looked.
She gulped. "Are we going to bed now?"
Instead of answering, he said, his voice rough with the force of his need, "Why don't you take a bath here, while I have a look around." He needed to map an escape route, just in case, and she needed time alone. If her sudden nervousness was any indication, she knew what was going to happen, wanted it, but needed time to accept.
When he returned, they were going to put their desires to bed. Several times.