“Put me down, Penn!”
Jora kicked her feet, trying to break free of his arms before it was too late. “I need to stop this.”
She must have gotten through to him because he stopped moving long enough to set her down on her feet. “We need to keep moving before this whole thing comes down on our heads!”
He reached for her hand, probably intending to drag her back down the passage toward the entrance. They’d never make it that far, not unless she did something damn quick to stabilize the shifting rock beneath their feet.
She grabbed on to the nearest outcropping and held on for dear life. “Let me do this before it’s too late! Please, I’ve got to at least try. You keep moving, and I’ll catch up when I can.”
“No way am I leaving you in here to face this alone.” He crossed his arms over his chest and blocked the passage back toward the barrier.
Stubborn jerk! “Fine, but don’t interfere this time. I’ll let you know when it’s safe for me to let go.”
She leaned into the rock, putting her full body weight against it, and concentrated on drawing off the pressure building beneath the surface. The energy bled out of the rock into her hands, a trickle at first, then with building momentum. When she had absorbed as much as she could without causing permanent damage, she opened herself up as a conduit to let the stress pour through her and back out into the rock, diffusing it over a greater area.
All that mattered was easing the worst of the faults in the rock and mending the distortions in the barrier itself. She stabilized her immediate surroundings, buying time for Penn and his friends to find out what was going on between Kalithia and this world. Finally, when the last little bit of energy passed through her, she slowly released the death grip she had on the rock.
She sagged as the last of the pressure dissipated, sending her to her knees. Penn caught her before she hit the floor. For the second time, she was in his arms, cuddled close against his chest. And she liked it. A lot.
Still dazed, she rubbed her cheek against his soft cotton shirt. “Wow, I could get used to this. I really like men with muscles like yours.”
Penn’s laugh rumbled through his chest under her ear. She liked that, too. What would his beard feel like against her skin? She tested it with her fingertips. Wow, it was soft and prickly at the same time.
Jora cupped the side of his face with her palm. “Penn, do women like kissing men with beards? I’ve never done it myself, but I’ve always wondered.”
“Let’s get out of here.” His voice sounded a bit strained as he sidestepped his way down the passage, at times struggling to avoid banging her head on the cave wall.
Finally, they reached the entrance. Penn set her back down on her feet because there was no way he could maneuver the two of them out the narrow opening. Her legs were feeling more solid, but he still had to support her until they were outside.
She looked up at the sky, blinking in the sudden brightness. The sun had already passed its zenith and was making its way to the west. How long had they been inside the cave?
Before she could ask, she realized that Penn was still holding her arms with his hands, his eyes focused on her face. No, her mouth. What was he— His mouth came crashing down on hers, and the world once again shifted under her feet.
His lips were soft but oh, so demanding. She sighed with the sweetness of his kiss, inviting him to plunder her mouth with a sweep of his tongue. Oh, yes. He did taste as good as he looked, and his beard gently abraded her skin, setting all her nerve endings on fire.
She dug her fingers into the powerful muscles in his upper arms and leaned into him. The difference in their heights made the fit a bit awkward, but he fixed that by lifting her high up against his chest. She wrapped her legs around his hips, bringing her aching core in direct contact with how much Penn wanted her right at that moment. Whoa, mama!
Her breath came in ragged gasps as his hands explored her, leaving only heat and need in their trail. If they didn’t stop soon, she was going to beg him to lay her down and really get serious about this.
He finally broke off the kiss, his breathing sounding as if he’d been running sprints. For a horrid second, she felt the first tendrils of embarrassment. How could she have lost control like this with a man who was a total stranger?
Then his bright blue eyes melted as small crinkles appeared at the corners. “I’ve been trapped underground with tremors before and been glad to make it out alive. I’ve gotta tell you, though, kissing you beats high-fiving with my buddies hands down.”
Penn tugged her close for another hug, this one friendly rather than hot. “Are you all right? That was quite some show you put on in there.”
She did a quick assessment. “I’ve never channeled that much energy before, but I’m feeling better now.”
“I was getting worried about how long that went on. Why don’t you rest for a few minutes? We still have to hike back to my truck.”
Before she could protest, he pressed a bottle of water and another granola bar into her hands. “You sit here while I go back for our things. I won’t be gone long.”
He disappeared back into the cavern, leaving her wondering if they’d pick up where they’d left off, once they got back to the motel. As she bit into the chewy bar, she decided that it would be a crying shame if they didn’t.
• • •
Sitting on the edge of his bunk, Tarl tugged on the heavy hiking boots and pulled the laces tight. He was no fan of the great outdoors, but this rustic cabin was barely a step up from sleeping in the cave. At least he had the best equipment the human world could provide.
His men hadn’t reported back, which probably meant there’d been no progress made in finding Jora b’Larth.
As far as he’d been able to ascertain, she’d never been more than a couple of hundred miles from here, so it was unlikely that she’d taken off to visit some friend or relative. That narrowed the search, but there were hundreds of square miles where she could be hiding in the park itself. Add the rest of the surrounding area, and it was like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Even with her distinctive looks, she could still blend into the thronging masses who visited the park every day.
Well, if he couldn’t find her, maybe he could find a way to make her come looking for him. He poked and prodded that idea, trying to decide if he was actually onto something or just getting more desperate.
A knock came at the door and he crossed the room. Even through the thick metal, he could sense the sweating fear of his two inept assistants.
He swung the door open and motioned them in. No matter how bad the news was, he didn’t want it broadcast where anyone could hear them. Then he turned to face them.
“We sat at the diner until the owner asked if he should install a plaque with our names on it, but there’s still no sign of the Larth woman. I chatted up the waitress, but she wasn’t much help.”
Then he straightened his shoulders. “There was one thing, though. I overheard one of the maids from the motel telling her boyfriend about cleaning a room that had a motorcycle parked in it.”
Okay, he might let these two live to see their next birthdays. “Were you able to get the room number?”
“No, but there aren’t many people staying over at the motel. Most of the rooms clear out every day, so there’s only a handful to check.”
“Good. Go do that and report back to me tonight. Leave a voice mail if I don’t answer.” His cell phone didn’t get reception near the barrier.
His accomplices from Kalithia were supposed to make contact in the next few nights, and he hoped it was soon. He hated walking through the woods at night to begin with, and the longer they dragged this out, the more he risked discovery.
Luckily, there weren’t any Paladins stationed in the area. If those bastards caught wind of what was going on, there would be hell to pay. Siphoning off the geothermic energy from beneath Yellowstone was very chancy. Slow and steady was the only feasible plan. But if someone got twitchy and tried to rush the process, the backlash could be catastrophic planet-wide. Who knew what would happen if the heat and light from the volcanic caldera beneath the park broke through the barrier and flooded his homeworld?
“Why don’t you two take a break. After you’ve had a chance to eat dinner, stake out the motel and see if you can tell where the woman went to ground with her motorcycle. I’d tell you to bribe the desk clerk, but there’s no chance Jora would have checked in under her own name.”
Berod and Jarner both nodded, obviously relieved that he wasn’t holding them responsible for the Kalith woman still being unaccounted for.
But they’d find her soon enough. He suspected she was the one who had been counteracting his attempts to destabilize the barrier, so she had to be spending time nearby. Eventually their paths would cross and her interference would end.
Penn slowed down to steer around another rut in the road; Jora was curled up against the passenger door sound asleep. Damn the woman, anyway. He’d had to half carry, half drag her all the way back to the truck. Clearly she’d overextended herself to get both of them out of the cavern safely. When she was rested and back up to full strength, the two of them were going to have a long talk.
If they were going to work together, it had to be as partners, meaning full disclosure. He needed to know what she could do and what she couldn’t, and the price she paid for even trying. Hell, had he been the one to trigger the barrier going . . . what had she called it? Feral. That was something he’d have to talk to Barak about. Maybe it was just another way of saying the barrier was failing, but maybe not.
Either way, there had to be a safe way to bring her back out of the trance she went into while manipulating the energy in the barrier and the surrounding rock. He’d been about to give up and yank her hands away from the side of the cave when she finally broke off contact herself.
He shuddered. If he hadn’t caught her, she’d have ended up in a heap on the floor of the cave. How long would she have lain there if she’d been alone? Worse yet, what if the bastards who were screwing around with the barrier had shown up while she was unconscious?
As the road finally smoothed out, he glanced at the woman sleeping so peacefully beside him. For such a little thing, she sure wielded a passel of power. He knew such gifts were rare; it would be interesting to see what Barak thought about what Jora had done today.
Once he reached the highway, he stopped and pulled out his phone. Sure enough, Devlin had left him a series of voice mails. Just as he feared, it had been too late to get Barak and Larem on today’s flight. It would be tomorrow afternoon before they landed in Bozeman, about a three-hour drive from the motel. He considered his options. His gut was telling him the motel wasn’t the best choice. Wolf Cave was barely a square mile in size, meaning strangers stuck out, especially if they stayed around for more than a day or two. He had enough stuff in his duffel to make it through the night, and Jora had her pack with her, so they should be fine. If they were missing anything, well, that’s what stores were for. They’d drive into Bozeman, get a room and some sleep.
He glanced at his sleeping companion, remembering that kiss they’d shared outside the cave. Hot damn, that had been flat-out amazing. If Jora hadn’t been acting punch drunk, he might have seen just how far she was willing to go. Sex alfresco had never been at the top of his fantasy list, but he was willing to be flexible. She might come after him with her father’s sword for thinking that way, but life was full of risks.
So, onward to Bozeman. His decision made, he turned on the radio and settled back to enjoy the drive.
Jora had barely stirred in the three hours they’d been driving. Penn didn’t know if she was always that pale, or if it was a side effect of bonding with the mountain, or whatever the hell she’d been doing in the cavern.
According to the sign he’d just passed, they’d be reaching the outskirts of Bozeman in the next few minutes. Once he spotted a likely motel, he’d try waking her up.
At they crossed the city limits, Jora stirred and sat up, going from groggy to alert in the blink of an eye.
She stared out the window with a frown. “Where exactly are we?”
“Bozeman. My friends will be arriving tomorrow, so I thought we’d wait for them here rather than back in Wolf Cave. Since someone’s looking for you, I figured we’d be better off not going back to that same motel room tonight.”
Jora studied him for a minute before nodding. “I’m sorry to be such a bother.”
“It’s not your fault. Besides, if you hadn’t called Devlin, we wouldn’t have known there was a problem until it was too late.” Penn smiled at her. “Now we’ve got a fighting chance to stop the bastards.”
“We can only hope.” She rubbed her hands up and down her arms, as if the potential for disaster had sent a chill through her.
“I thought we’d get a motel room first and then look for some dinner. I’m about ready to eat my duffel.” He forced himself to add, “If you’d prefer, we can get two rooms, but I’d rather stay closer to you in case those guys manage to find us.”
“What are the chances of that happening?”
He thought about it. “It seems pretty unlikely, but it all depends on how they were tracking you.”
The reasons he’d given her were true, but the real reason he wanted her sleeping in the same room had to do with the kiss they’d shared.
She reached out to take his hand in hers. “I’ll sleep better knowing you’re with me.”
Suddenly the evening was filled with possibilities. He spotted a motel with a restaurant ahead on the right. He drove around the block, making sure that no one was following them. Deciding they were in the clear, he pulled into the parking lot and drove around to the back to park.
“Would you mind waiting in the truck? As far as we know, no one is looking for a man traveling alone.”
“I’ll be fine.”
He hated leaving Jora by herself for even a few minutes, though. He leaned over to retrieve his guns from the glove box, where he’d stashed them earlier. After handing Jora one, he stuck the other into the waistband of his jeans and pulled his shirt down to cover it.
“I hope you won’t need that, but I’ll feel better knowing you’ve got it.”
Jora checked the gun with quick efficiency and put it back in the glove box, within easy reach. “Thanks, Penn. Not just for the gun, but for everything.”
“Don’t sweat it.”
Then he surprised them both by leaning over to give her a quick kiss. When he started to pull back, she captured his face with both hands and kissed him back with interest. There was no way he wanted to be the one to break it off, but if he didn’t get out of the truck right then, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to.
He brushed her hair back from her face as he reluctantly reached for the door handle. “Hold that thought. I’ll hurry.”
Her smile was a promise of heat and temptation. “See that you do.”
Penn took off at a ground-eating lope, all masculine strength and grace, and flashed her a grin as he turned the corner to walk back to the office. She drew a deep breath and leaned her head back. What was she thinking?
She’d never been the kind of woman who slept with a man right away, yet she was seriously considering getting naked with one she’d barely known for twenty-four hours. Not just any man, either, but a Paladin, for God’s sake!
Maybe she’d seriously fried her brain by linking with the barrier for so long, but there was something about Penn Sebastian that drew her as no other man ever had. Partly it was because she didn’t have to pretend around him, but it went far deeper than that.
She’d spent so much of her life alone. She’d grown up with her parents’ constant fear of discovery, which left the three of them isolated from the rest of the town. She’d gone to college right here in Bozeman, barely far enough from her parents to really be on her own. As much as she wanted to explore the world, she couldn’t have abandoned her parents.
She’d never felt comfortable bringing friends to the house, which had made her feel guilty about accepting invitations from friends since she couldn’t reciprocate. And the need to watch every word made maintaining friendships difficult, so it was no wonder she’d earned a reputation for being standoffish and a loner.
With Penn, she could simply be herself. He not only knew she was different, he lived with the same burden of secrecy that she did. Together they could let down their guards, and simply be a man and a woman, with all the undercurrents that could generate.
She caught herself tracing her lips with a fingertip, remembering the touch and taste of Penn Sebastian’s kiss. Undercurrents, indeed. Despite the power that his sleek muscles promised, he’d treated her with such care, his control impressive. What would it take to make him lose all control with a lover? She hoped to find out.
The sound of footsteps snapped Jora out of her reverie, and her hand automatically reached for the gun. When she spotted Penn heading for the truck, she returned the weapon and waited for him to join her.
“Well?” she asked as he climbed in.
“We’ve got a room with a small kitchen on the top floor. The clerk said that was the closest door,” Penn said, pointing toward the other end of the parking lot. “I also reserved the adjoining room for Barak and Larem for tomorrow night.”
Penn drove the truck down to the door, and they grabbed their meager luggage and headed into the motel. The closer they got to their room, the more nervous Jora became. What would happen once they were inside?
Penn handed her a magnetic card key. “Let’s dump our stuff and then go check out the restaurant.”
“Good thinking,” she agreed as he opened the door with his own key and stood back to let her walk past him.
The room was immaculate and bigger than she had expected—mainly because there was just one king-size bed.
Penn immediately picked up on her tension as he dropped his bag in the corner. “Don’t worry, Jora, I’m not assuming anything. The clerk would have thought it odd if I requested two beds when I told him I was alone. The floor will be fine for me.”
That was all it took. She walked straight toward him, sighing with pleasure as his arms wrapped around her. “I’m holding you to the promise to feed me. We’ll figure everything else out after we’ve eaten.”
He rested his chin on the top of her head, keeping the embrace friendly. “That’s a deal. We can also swing by the hopping center to pick up anything we’re missing on the way back.”
“Perfect.” Reluctantly, she stepped away. “Let’s go check out that restaurant.”