“What do they call you?” Loke said, his voice distant to his ears as he stared deep into her eyes, picking out every fleck of black that marred deepest blue.
Would the skies of her world look like that? Would they be so deep and rich, or lighter?
Was she really mortal?
Could she answer his countless questions about her world and sate his desire to know more about the land his people had left behind, never to return?
“Anais.” She offered it with a slight smile that barely curved her rosy lips but added a touch of warmth to her expression, softening the harder edges of her eyes and entrancing him.
Not a trace of fear touched her gaze or her scent now. She flitted from afraid to calm, dancing between the emotions so quickly that he couldn’t keep up. He wasn’t sure how long this calm phase would last, but he meant to do all in his power to make it remain. He wanted her to feel at ease and to begin to trust him.
“They call me Loke.” He offered it with a smile of his own, one that felt foreign to him. He couldn’t remember the last time he had smiled.
“Like the mischievous Norse god?”
His smile stretched a little wider and he shook his head. “My name ends with an E in your tongue.”
She raked her eyes up him, from his bare feet, over his legs to his torso. It slowed from there, drifting at a leisurely pace, one that stirred heat within him. He couldn’t remember the last time he had experienced that either. What was it about this female that had him quick to smile and even quicker to hunger for her touch?
Her gaze finally reached his face and narrowed. “You are definitely mischievous.”
Before he could gather his wits to respond by saying that if he was mischievous then she was mysterious because he couldn’t get a firm grasp on her when she bounced so swiftly between polar emotions, she turned away and headed towards the back of the cave, her boots loud on the black rocky ground.
“Where do you go?” He started to follow her when she made it past the fire and didn’t stop walking.
She looked back over her slender shoulder at him, a wicked twinkle in her eyes. “You only forbade me from going near the mouth of the cave. You didn’t set out any ground rules about the back of it. I’m going to see where the tunnel goes.”
“It goes to chambers. Some where I store meats and things I have gathered, others where I bathe, and some go deep into the mountain to places where dangerous things lurk.” He frowned when she pouted, as if he had spoiled her fun.
Perhaps he had.
Perhaps he had also ruined a chance for her to become more comfortable in his home, and around him.
Would she like to see the rest of the cave?
He could join her in her adventure, although he supposed that would make it more like a tour. He didn’t want her to go alone though. He hadn’t lied about the dangerous things that lurked in the tunnels. They ran deep into the mountain and sometimes fissures opened where creatures could get into them. He had disturbed a nest of Hell beasts down one of the paths before and had barely come away with his life. The tunnels were too small for him to transform in, placing him at a disadvantage against the vicious creatures in close quarters combat.
“So none lead to a big hoard of treasure then?” The wickedness was back in her blue eyes and she flicked her blonde ponytail over her other shoulder as she came to face him.
She toyed with the ends of her hair as he frowned at her, trying to unravel the riddle of her, distracting him with a sudden desire to do that. He wanted to feel the strands wrapping around his fingers before slipping from them. Would they feel silky? He bit back a groan at the jolt of pleasure that ran through him as he imagined they would and brought his focus back to her and what she had said.
She meant to mock him again.
Loke huffed and grudgingly admitted it. “I have a little gold.”
He didn’t like how she smiled, as if he was predictable and she knew him. She knew nothing about him.
“Can I see it?” she said.
He shook his head, flatly refusing her.
Her smile dropped off her face. “Why not?”
“I have decided it is off limits.” Mostly because he had weapons there too. She still eyed his knife from time to time when she thought he wasn’t paying attention to her. She wanted a weapon she could use against him. He wasn’t about to show her where he kept his, issuing an open invite to her to take one and try to stick him with it.
She crossed her arms over her breasts again. “You can’t add rules now. I make no promises that I won’t go back there while you’re sleeping.”
Loke cursed himself. She had just pointed out a major flaw in his plan to keep her safe. She was liable to move around while he was resting and might even attack him, or attempt to leave. She was a warrior. A little Amazon. One of a legendary race known for their cunning. She would take whatever chances he gave to her, whether it was kill him and escape, or just escape.
But she kept telling him that she wasn’t an Amazon, and the longer he was around her, the more he believed she was telling the truth, even when it seemed impossible. He would try to force a confession from her again. If she stayed true to her story, then he would somehow convince himself that she was mortal, even when all the evidence suggested otherwise.
“Are all Amazons as strong as you are?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “I’m not an Amazon.”
She lifted the right sleeve of her black top, revealing a thick red gash across her upper arm. The scent of her blood hit him and he took a step towards her, his eyebrows dipping low as he stared at the wound darting across her pale skin.
“You are hurt.” He realised that she had flinched when he had grabbed her because he had pressed down on the wound, not because he had used too much of his strength on her and his grip had been too tight.
How had he failed to notice her injury?
Loke was closing in on her before he was aware of what he was doing. She didn’t back away. She stood her ground and it pleased him. She was beginning to trust him.
He slowly reached for her arm, giving her time to adjust to his proximity, and she didn’t resist as he carefully curled his fingers around the underside of her upper arm. He gently raised it and frowned at the deep gash. It required attention, but he wasn’t sure how she would react.
This close to her, it would be easy for her to land another blow on his balls if she didn’t like what he was about to suggest.
“It requires healing.” He lifted his gaze to hers.
She seemed so small when he was close to her, standing almost a foot shorter than he was and her frame tiny in comparison. It ramped up his need to protect her. Such a small female shouldn’t be on a battlefield. It was suicide.
She surprised him by nodding and lowering her eyes to the wound.
He dipped his head and swiftly ran his tongue across the wound. She gasped and pulled free of his grip, her shock rippling through him and mingling with his own.
“Your blood is weak.” He stared at her as it sank in. “You are mortal.”
She threw her hands up in the air. “Hallelujah! He finally gets it. I’m mortal. Mortal! This cut might get infected. It’s ragged and I’m filthy. Heaven only knows I’m behind on my tetanus shots. If it doesn’t get proper medical attention, it could kill me.”
Loke wasn’t sure what tetanus or shots were, or what hallelujah meant, but he knew what infected and death were.
“Die?” A vision of her splattered with blood and gasping for air as she stared at him with wide fearful eyes blasted across his mind and he growled as he shoved it away and shook it off. “It is merely a scratch.”
“I’m not like you, or any of the insane things that live in this world. Where I come from, even a scratch can turn septic. A scratch can kill me.”
His lips flattened as he took that in. He had heard mortals were weak but he hadn’t known just how weak they were. She seemed so strong, but perhaps he was mistaken. Perhaps she was weak and this cut was the reason he kept seeing her death on repeat. He needed to heal it, and not only to see if it would halt the visions.
Her confession that mortals were weak enough to die from a mere scratch had cranked up his need to protect her. While she was in his care, he would ensure that she didn’t gain another scratch. Not even a prick on a sharp rock.
Loke gently took hold of her arm and marched her over to the furs. He piled them in a way that would stop any rocks from jabbing her and pressed on her left shoulder until she huffed and sat down in the centre of them. Satisfied that she couldn’t pick up another injury, he set about tending to the one she had already gained.
He kneeled before her, keeping hold of her right arm as she wriggled and tried to escape him.
“Be still. You want the injury seen to and that is what I will do.” He grabbed the hem of her black top and pulled it up.
Her fist connected hard with his right cheek, knocking his head around and making his teeth clack together.
He growled at her, flashing those teeth. “What was that for?”
“Keep your damned paws to yourself, Buddy,” she snapped and shoved at his other hand, trying to get it off her top.
He released it and sat back, waiting for her to calm down. When she switched to attacking the hand he had kept on her arm, he realised he would be waiting a long time and gave up.
“I only desire to help you. I need to heal the wound… and your garment appears to be flammable.” He pointed to it and her eyes shot wide at the same time as the scent of her fear swept over him.
“I don’t like the sound of that.” She began clawing at his hand again, attempting to prise his fingers off her. “You’re bloody well not going to breathe fire on me!”
A reasonable assumption, but wrong again. Well, he was going to attempt to not breathe fire on her anyway. There was a slim chance he might accidentally do it. It was difficult to control and there was such a fine line between heat and fire.
He wouldn’t tell her that though. “Only a little heat. No fire. I swear. It will kill any bad things that might be at the wound site.”
She stilled and stared at the cut on her arm, her expression shifting constantly. He couldn’t decipher what she was thinking, but he guessed she was considering the pros and cons of his offer.
Finally, she pulled her gaze away from the cut and looked right at him again. She didn’t speak or nod. She just grabbed the hem of her top and began pulling it up, flashing a toned flat stomach.
He released her arm so she could remove the garment, doing his best to keep his eyes off what she was revealing to him. He could understand her reluctance to strip. It placed her in what she probably imagined to be a precarious position, and that was the reason he was going to keep his eyes off her body.
And the fascinating garment she wore over her breasts.
He had never seen anything like it.
She laid her black top across the equally dark garment, covering herself, and held it there with her good arm.
“Do it.” Her voice was steel and determination, confidence that he couldn’t sense in her. He could only detect fear.
She was good at concealing her feelings in her voice and expression, but she couldn’t hide them from him when his senses were so acute and her scent gave them away.
Loke leaned in and focused on the gash on her arm, refusing to let his gaze stray to her body. He licked the cut and then drew in a deep breath. She tensed, the scent of her fear growing stronger. He murmured a quiet reassurance in his native tongue and then pursed his lips and blew on the wound, careful to hold back the fire and give only enough heat to seal the cut.
She cried out, the sharp sound echoing around the cave and stabbing through him. He whispered softly to her, driven to comfort and soothe her, and then blew another wave of heat along the length of the cut. It drew a whimper from her that hurt him worse than her cry of pain. It made him want to stop and he had to battle that urge, forcing himself to continue. It was for her own good. Just one more and he would be done.
She reached for him and made it as far as grabbing his bare shoulder to shove him back when he blew on the cut again and she clutched him instead, digging her short nails into his flesh. She grunted and tensed, every inch of her stiffening. Her top fell away from her breasts and he had to close his eyes to keep himself from looking at them.
He swiftly licked the wound to cool it and then pulled back, breaking free of her grip and settling on his heels.
She breathed hard, her chest rising and falling, tempting his gaze. He kept it pinned on her face, trying to discern whether she was angry with him, or afraid, or perhaps both. He wasn’t sure he would ever come to understand her when the rapid shifting of her emotions had him constantly on his toes, but he studied her anyway, attempting to decipher her mood. He wanted to learn about her. He wanted to understand her.
He felt sure that if he gained that understanding of her that he would finally be able to set her mind at ease and make her feel more comfortable around him.
She scowled at him and then looked down at the cut.
After a full minute’s silence, a flicker of gratitude coloured her eyes and sent an unsettling sensation through him, and she opened her mouth to speak.
He looked away from her, not wanting her to thank him, because he didn’t deserve it. She’d had no injuries he could see or smell when he had met her on the battlefield, which meant he must have caused her wound when he had grabbed her or during their flight to his home.
He had vowed he wouldn’t hurt her, but he already had, without even knowing it.
He would have to be more careful if he was going to keep his promises.
The heat of her gaze burned into the side of his face, the softness of her skin was branded on his, and the taste of her coated his tongue. He had a sinking feeling that he had to be more careful in general when around her. She was temptation incarnate, a beauty who stole his breath and had him thinking dangerous things, the sort that would only give her more reason to believe him a monster capable of hurting her.
She roused the deepest dragon instincts he held, the most primal of needs.
The need to protect her.
The need to possess her.