“Tell me why my half-brother frightens you so badly. Tell me your name. And tell me why this little key is so important to you that you would defy the strictest laws in the city to break curfew to get it.” While he spoke he was pulling the cloak free from her shoulders. When he was finished he tossed it to the floor. The girl had a scarf characteristic of her people tucked into the pocket of the tunic.
He pulled it out and ran his hand over the serviceable fabric. It was the exact same color as the girl’s eyes and hair.
He would not mind tying her to the bed again with the scarf at some future point. “Why?”
She shook her head again.
“Then we must bargain. I am a demon, after all. And Incubi. We love to bargain. Especially with beautiful females. And you, kitten, are a very beautiful example of your Kind.” And she was. At first, he’d thought all Dardaptoan females were molds of each other. But there were differences.
This female was more delicate than the rest of the females of her Kind. His brother Ren’s gamata was of her Kind, as was his brother Rathan’s. But Ren’s was a taller girl than this one and far sturdier. Rathan’s gamata was delicate and gold like this one, though. But not quite as small as the female Joru had caught.
The feline features were more pronounced on this little creature. And there were sunspots on her cheeks. The lips were small and pink. He would not mind seeing if they tasted like berries. “Tell me, kitten, with what do you have to bargain this night?”
Pain of the emotional kind crossed her face. “Nothing. All that I have that matters is that key.”
He did not want some little key. But he wanted answers. And he would have them. And he wanted a taste.
He had to have a taste of this little creature. “You have much to bargain with.”
“That would be a good place to start.” He brushed a hand down her spine after he pulled her to a seated position. “I am Incubi and I have not fed in weeks.”
She shivered. In fear. His hand slipped into the golden hair and he held her immobile.
“I will not feed you.”
“Perhaps that is the bargain I wish to make? This little key for a little bit of your time in my bed. We would both get what we wanted. Why is that wrong?”
“I will not ever feed a demon.”
“But why not? I can sense that you hunger for blood. If I give you what your body craves, why should you not return the favor?” And she did hunger. Desperately. He wondered that she did not feel that.
Perhaps the fear was just too great.
“Maybe you simply need a taste of what I am offering you? You feed me, I feed you. I’ll give you your little key, and kitten…I am one of the few with the keys to the world of the goddess. I shall take you to her…but first, you must give me what I want. And I want a taste.” He would taste her because he was an Incubi and it was his due. But when he had her close, he would compel the girl to drink from him.
She needed, and he would provide.
He wrapped his hands around her small waist and pulled her closer, until he had her in his lap.
A forced stillness hit the girl’s body. “What are you doing?”
“Tasting you. I will not hurt you, kitten. But I will taste. And then we will decide what we do together next…”
He covered those pink lips with his own. Lightly. So as not to frighten her. He did not want to frighten her, despite his teasing. He wanted to treat this female gently. Like he hadn’t a female in a very long time. Most females he had consorted with had been demons of the Succubae race. Strong and fierce enough to go for what they wanted. It had been all he could do at times to keep up.
But this was his first Dardaptoan female. And he would be mindful of how fragile she actually was compared to him.
The instant his lips touched hers he understood how his two brothers had become so captivated by her Kind. Her lips were pure silk and honey beneath his. Addictive.
He felt huge and coarse and like a brute. Felt like he held a goddess of his own in his arms. He had never felt that way before.
Joru pulled back and just looked at her. “Kitten, I wish to know your name.”
Wide gold eyes looked at him. “Alaun.”
“Pretty. You will call me Joru.” He wrapped one large hand around her head and pulled her closer. He did not stop until she was straddling his lap.
And her face was pressed to his neck. He slipped into her head, and compelled her to lean closer. “Drink from me. Take what you need, female. I will provide.”
He wanted this female addicted to him.
She didn’t want demon blood running through her veins. The scent of the demon’s skin was too intoxicating to resist. Alaun had never fed from a living host, always Ambrea provided blood from a glass. Feeding direct was for when one found her mate, they had all been taught by their mother. Or in dire medical emergencies. Others may feed indiscriminately, but not their family.
She barely knew how. But his skin…
Dear goddess, this was her mate. Shouldn’t she have at least one taste of him to remember? Or would that make it all the more worse when she escaped him?
She already knew what his kiss was like.
And it hadn’t terrified her. Not like the kisses Elshuk had forced on her.
Elshuk’s hands had bruised, he’d struck her, and then he’d held her against the wall and forced his kiss on her. Before he had beaten her.
But even though Joru held her immobile, he had not hurt her.
She could smell the blood beneath his skin. Fierce hunger took over her.
Alaun pressed her lips against his neck. Her fangs sank deep. And she fed from her Rajni for the first and only time.
The girl’s defenses were down. Every emotion she felt ran through his head, as well as her own. The anger, and fear, and pain and confusion were at the forefront. This girl truly did believe that the goddess she served had chosen Joru for her.
And the girl did not want him.
The thought of tasting him now and then running from him forever dominated her heart.
The rejection stung, but he felt what she felt. And the girl so greatly feared what he was.
Because of his brother.
He would find Elshuk and kill him. The memories of his brother’s tormenting of her were fresh. The nightmares.
His brother’s threatening promise to find her and finish what he had started.
It was no wonder little Alaun feared demons. He had been told by his brothers about the members of his own Kind that had attacked and threatened females of the Dardaptoan Kind. And he had been tasked with finding out how many of the Dardaptoans were now missing because of it.
That his own brother was involved infuriated him.
“I will never let him harm you again, Alaun. I make this oath to you now.” And a demon’s oath was as good as anything he could ever offer. He may not want to be her Rajni, but he would ensure his world was as safe for her as he could. “Take what you need from me. I give it willingly.”
He would feed this little female, he would ensure her safety as she traveled to her goddess—and then he would hunt.
His own brother would pay.
He let the female feed until he sensed she was tiring. She needed rest. He could feel the fever starting to burn within her.
And the coughing earlier had concerned him.
Dardaptoan females did not cough as she was. Not without good cause.
He had read a medical book on their Kind when he had taken this position. As he had read their histories and sciences, as well.
Joru understood the importance of having information. Reading was one of his few private pleasures.
It had served him well in his life. When she pulled away and closed her eyes, he lowered her to his pillow. “You are ill.”
“No. Just…when we were in the rubble, there was a mist. It hurt my throat. My lungs. Once I get the key to my goddess, I will seek the healers. Once I do what Ambrea has asked.”
“Tell me of this key,” he ordered. Joru fought his concern. He did not want this girl to be ill. Endangered in any way.
He wanted her protected and cared for.
Even if he had to be the one to do it.
It had been foolish to feed from him. But the way he had tasted and felt—it had seemed so right. So like she wasn’t alone for a minute.
And now that the hunger was gone, some of the fear had lessened.
He hadn’t fed from her yet, though she could sometimes almost feel him in her head. “Are you going to feed from me?”
“I may. You taste like perfection.” He leaned her back into the pillow, and then shifted next to her. “Silk and honey and sweet. I know you will be quite delectable.”
She shook her head. “I just want to take the key to the goddess and get back to my sisters. Ambrea…”
“Tell me of this sister of yours.”
“Our house…something burned through the floor and the house shattered around us. But we were trapped within. Ambrea was hit by shards of flying rocks. She’d wrapped herself around my youngest sister. Alleah is only eight. She was hit in the head, but she’s going to be fine. Kellis took care of her while I tried to stop the bleeding. But I’m not a healer, and I couldn’t fix her.” As she spoke, the words began to just pour out of her. It didn’t matter that he was in her space, that he was large and looming and half naked. He was warm and strong and for the first time in far too long she actually felt like she didn’t have to be constantly afraid. “I need to do this. Ambrea…Ambrea rarely asks for anything from me. Or any of the others, really. But we all know what we have to do to survive. Even here. I need to do this for her. She said…only I could do it. None of her male’s brothers or my sister Kellis. Kellis is the strongest and bravest. The best with a sword. I am not good with a sword at all.”
She looked at the seven-foot sword he’d wielded so casually. “I am not good at anything in this world. Not this one. I have to do this. If my sister dies…I can’t disappoint her. I can’t.”
The tears of fear and grief and helplessness took over before she could stop them.
Poor little kitten. Every protective instinct he possessed as a warrior and as an Incubi predisposed to small, defenseless females triggered, Joru knew he was not letting this female get away from him. Not when she needed a strong male to care for her.
And she did.
The girl had been starving and terrified, ill and injured, and close to being harmed by those damned youths when he had found her.
If he had not found her this night, she would most likely have been greatly harmed. Or killed.
The world would be a darker place without the sweet souls like hers in it. Whether she be demon or not.
He ran a soothing hand over her back until she calmed. “You will feed from me once more, and then we will go. Seek out this goddess of yours. I will take you to her and you will give her the key. You will not go alone.”
He would stay by her side forever if that was what it took. Joru leaned his head to the side, exposing the side of his neck without bite marks. “Come, feed from me. Take what you need. I gladly provide.”
Alaun complied, more easily than she ever would have thought possible. But his blood was far more addictive than her earlier research had ever indicated. She wanted more of him.
More of her male.
If only for this little while.
When she was finished her eyes closed. But she could not sleep.
Her bones felt heavier than they should and fire was burning beneath her skin. “Is it from your blood?”
“This feeling? I do not feel well.”
He stiffened against her. “My blood should not make a female of any Kind ill.”
“Then why do I feel…”
She fell back against the bed as a powerful rush of pain filled her.
Joru swore as the girl convulsed next to him. He threw the blanket around her shoulders and lifted her into his arms.
She was not the only one with a key. Only his opened barriers between worlds.
He opened the world between Relaklonos and Levia, word of the gods and goddesses and stepped through.
The convulsions stopped but the girl remained unconscious in his arms. He tried to connect with her in her head, but couldn’t.
Now it wasn’t just a wall between them. It was a complete darkness.
It terrified him.
The entrance he’d opened took him straight into the sun god’s home.
Where the gods and their mates sat discussing some trivial matter that would change worlds.
He had no respect for these creatures that were no more powerful—or wise—than demons of Joru’s own age. He could create worlds if he chose.
He just chose not to because of the ramifications of changing worlds were far too great a price than he wanted to pay.
“Malickus?” the wolf god, mate the Dardaptoan goddess was there. “What is the meaning of this?”
“The girl. She brings a key to your goddess. And she is…” He shifted her closer, as the words formed in his mind. As they always had to when he spoke the language of the gods. “She was near the epicenter of the rising in Thrun. Said there was an odd mist. This is the result. I will give your goddess the key the girl was tasked with bringing. In exchange, the girl will be healed.”
“What key? And who is this girl?” the wolf god moved in front of the Dardaptoan goddess. The goddess had the same eyes as this little female in Joru’s arms.
It hurt to even look at her.
“She is Alaun. I do not know more. The key is quite old. I will show you once I have a place to put her.”
The goddess stepped around her mate. “She is Alaun Woald. One of seven sisters.”
“Her sister Ambrea struggles for life now,” Joru said. “It is she who tasked Alaun with bringing this key to you.”
The girl stiffened in his arms and her eyes opened. She recoiled, seeing those staring at her. Joru leaned closer. “You are safe. I have brought you to your goddess.”
She slumped against him. “Thank you, I am greatly in your debt.”
“There will be no debt between us, little one.” And there wouldn’t be.
Nothing had ever terrified him more than seeing her convulsing in his arms.
He looked at the goddess. “She believes you fated us together.”
The goddess touched one hand to Alaun’s face. “She is not wrong. I did. I never know why the name comes to me, but as I spoke your brother’s for Aureliana, I spoke yours for this sweet girl’s. She burns with fever. Come, bring her.”
Joru followed. “If you spoke the words, then this female is mine.”
He understood the power of this female goddess’s words.
“As you are hers.”
“Then I claim her as gamata, before you and the wolf god as witnesses. My soul will tie to hers for eternity.”
The words came from him because they were right. Not because he felt the goddess had the right to force him to mate one of her people.
But because this was the moment he had known would come his entire life. He had never taken a gamata before, because none of the females had been her.
“Come. We will care for her now, and then we will speak of the key.”