Tarl kicked a rock and sent it flying across the cavern to bounce off the barrier. He stared at the bright colors swirling through the field of energy and cursed long and loud. The damn thing was healthy again; all of his hard work was undone. Now he had to start over from scratch and hope his people on the other side were preparing to do the same.
That stupid interfering bitch must have been here again. It was the only possible explanation. While his men had been out chasing their tails looking for her, she’d been back here wrecking his best work. Did she have any idea how hard it was to balance the damage he did to the barrier so that it was poised to fail with only the lightest of touches, but would remain intact until that moment arrived?
Every time he attempted that maneuver, the entire area became more and more unstable. All he wanted to do was create a permanent vent between this world and his to siphon off some of Earth’s plentiful energy into his light-starved world. He had no desire to set off the caldera underlying Yellowstone; that would kill off most of this world in a matter of days. And no one got rich when everyone dies.
He and his friends weren’t crazy, just greedy. So until they found Jora b’Larth, he’d have to post guards. The cost wasn’t coming out of his share though. After all, he was the one taking all the risks. There were only three Kalith on this side of the barrier—himself and his two associates. The rest of them huddled in the darkness on the other side, scuttling across to wield their equipment whenever he managed to bring the barrier down.
Drawing a deep breath, he positioned himself directly in front of the barrier with his palms out. His magic worked better with his eyes shut, leaving him more vulnerable to attack, so he listened to the silence first, weighing it against previous visits. He was definitely alone—at least on this side of the barrier.
Time to get started. Chanting under his breath, he concentrated on peeling back the bright colors and replacing them with ugly shades of green and black. Working with the energy was costly, robbing him of his usual vitality and leaving him shaking with exhaustion by the time he’d managed to damage less than a quarter of the barrier.
He’d have to be satisfied with that for now. Tomorrow morning he would return and bring his men for backup. Neither of them were accustomed to living in the outdoors, but they’d have to suck it up for the cause.
He sank down onto the cavern floor to rest. It was taking longer and longer for him to recuperate from his efforts. Once he could control the shaking in his hands, he dragged his pack over and pulled out his makeshift meal of beef jerky and cheese. His family would be horrified to find out that he’d become a carnivore on this side of the barrier, but animal protein restored his energy faster than fruit and vegetables.
He’d developed a taste for rare steaks, finding the idea that he was absorbing life energy directly from the source appealing. All of which brought him full circle back to Jora b’Larth. She was just another cow in the herd, ready to be culled for his benefit.
Feeling far better than he had a few minutes ago, he gathered up his trash, not wanting to leave any trace in the cavern before making the long trudge back to his cabin. Once he had a chance to clean up and eat a proper meal, he’d contact his men one last time before retiring for the night.
Time was running out, and each minute that Jora evaded capture made it that much harder to complete his mission. If he didn’t succeed soon, those he reported to would become increasingly displeased with his efforts. And if that happened, the hunter would quickly become the hunted.
Jora hovered halfway between sleep and alert, cocooned in the warmth of the blankets and Penn’s arms. Reality hovered outside their motel room and she was in no hurry to face it. But at least they’d soon have more help in hunting down whoever was attacking the barrier.
“You’re thinking way too hard.” Penn’s words whispered against the back of her neck, making her shiver. His arm snaked around her waist and he settled his warmth weight more firmly against her back.
She loved being cradled so gently; Penn’s strength was a comfort she had no words for. The past few hours had been amazing—though Penn had withdrawn briefly after the first time. The expression on his face had been unsettling.
But then he’d kissed her, gradually rekindling the fire. They’d taken their time, wooing instead of taking, coaxing instead of demanding. The slide of his body over hers, in hers, had been slow and perfect. And oh, did her warrior lover know how to kiss.
Penn moved away to tug her onto her back, then propped himself up on one elbow and studied her face. “What has your heart racing at this ungodly hour?”
She smiled as she reached up to trace his lips with her fingertip. “I was thinking what an incredible kisser you are.”
He nibbled at her finger. “Really?”
A great deal of masculine satisfaction gleamed in his eyes as his hand ran down her body, leaving her nerve endings tingling. “Is there anything else I do really well?”
“I’m not sure I should stroke your ego any more than I already have,” she teased.
That sexy pirate smile was back. “Fine with me. I’ve got something else I’d rather you stroked, anyway.”
He caught her hand and dragged it down beneath the covers. She rolled toward him, trying out a few different holds and techniques to see which he liked best. It was hard to tell, because his eyes seemed to be rolling up in his head and his mouth was curved in a satisfied smile.
When she stopped, he actually whimpered. She pushed him over onto his back and immediately straddled his hips, then stared down at his handsome face.
“So tell me, whose heart is racing now?”
“Mine.” Penn held his hands up in surrender. “You win.”
“And what’s my prize?”
With a quick move and a wicked laugh, he flipped them both over, pinning her beneath him. “Me.”
Penn sat on the edge of the trashed bed and stared at the bathroom door. He could hear Jora moving around in there, turning on the shower, brushing her teeth. All the routine things people did to begin their day, even if the start of their day was actually closer to noon.
This morning had been anything but routine for him. The tangle of sheets—half on the bed, half kicked to the floor—showed how they’d started off their morning, and had spent a good part of the night.
Hot damn, that woman really had rocked his world. But the shadow of fear that had hit him last night was creeping back in. If it was just scorching hot sex, he could walk away without a backward glance. But it had been way more than that: there had been a real connection. How could learning Jora’s body, what made her burn, and what made her burn even hotter, feel so damned right? As if his entire past had been like playing in the minor leagues and he’d just been called up to the majors?
If his sister were there he could’ve talked about it with her, but this wasn’t something he wanted to discuss over the phone. Lacey had risked everything to claim a Kalith warrior as her lover, so she’d understand the mishmash of emotions ripping through him.
Penn caught himself rubbing the rope of scar that wound its way around his right wrist. Holding his hand up in front of his face, he flexed it several times. Here, the wound that had crippled him didn’t matter quite so much.
Was that what was going on? For the first time since that nightmare battle, he felt whole? Jora was the first woman he’d met who didn’t look at him and see only what he used to be. She needed him in a way no one had needed him in a long time, trusting him to protect her and keep her safe.
Was this powerful attraction based on anything more than that? How the hell was he supposed to know? He hadn’t been lying to Jora when he’d warned her that she wasn’t like the women he usually dated. She was alone in this world. The last thing he should do is let her form a connection to him on any level, since he’d be returning to his half-life in Seattle afterward.
What kind of bastard would do that to a woman like her? The answer was obvious: he was that kind of bastard. He fisted his hand and dropped it to his side as the bathroom door opened.
Jora stepped out in a cloud of steam. “Your turn.”
“Thanks.” He gathered up his stuff and walked past her, hoping his smile looked more genuine than it felt.
He cranked up the water to scalding and stepped into the shower. A bar of scented soap sat on the ledge, and he reached out to lift it up to his nose. Penn breathed deeply, drawing the herbal scent into his lungs. It smelled like Jora.
He could have used the small bar of soap the motel provided, but he didn’t. After last night, there wasn’t a square inch of his skin that didn’t carry Jora’s scent. With their enhanced sense of smell, both Larem and Barak would immediately pick up on that. This way he could blame it on the soap.
Tonight he’d bunk with Barak and Larem, sleeping on their floor if necessary. The two rooms were adjoining, so Jora should be safe enough.
Now he just needed to find a way to explain it to her without it sounding like a rejection. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her, but how could he avoid it? Maybe he’d just offer to move out and let her decide.
He finished his shower and was just pulling on his boxers when Jora knocked. “Penn, someone’s at the door!”
“Stay back, I’ll be right there.”
He yanked on his jeans and charged out of the bathroom. After grabbing his gun, he checked the peephole and immediately started cursing. How did those two get there so early?
Before opening the door, he glanced at Jora. “It’s my two friends.”
She looked even more frightened, which worried him, but now wasn’t the time to ask her what was wrong. He unlocked the dead bolt and opened the door.
Barak looked apologetic. “I’m guessing from your expression that Devlin didn’t remember to tell you we took the bus rather than fly.”
Larem shifted side to side. “I’m afraid that this is my fault. Though Barak has handled flying without mishap, I’m not ready to share that particular experience.”
Neither man made a move to enter the room, but both craned their heads trying to see around him. They weren’t the sort to miss much, so he stepped out into the hallway with them, pulling the door closed behind him.
“Look, I just got out of the shower. Why don’t the two of you head over to the restaurant and get a table? I’ll be along in a minute.” He looked at the bags they’d dropped on the floor. “You can leave those. I have the room next door reserved for you. We can pick up the keys after we eat.”
After exchanging a quick look with his partner, Barak nodded. “Shall we ask for a table for three or four?”
“Four. See you in a few.”
Then he walked back inside the room, firmly closing the door in his friends’ faces.