Jora made a halfhearted attempt to straighten the room while she waited for Penn to come back out of the bathroom and tell her what was going on. Obviously the early arrival of the two Kalith warriors had thrown him off balance. Why? What difference could a few hours mean? She would have thought that he’d be glad for their presence; it meant they could return to the barrier sooner.
Finally he came out, still looking grim. She sat on the edge of the bed and waited for him to tell her the plan. When he didn’t speak, she asked, “Do you want me to stay here while you confer with your friends?”
He actually considered the suggestion, and it surprised her how much that hurt. “Well, then, I see. I’ll eat some of the cereal we bought. Do you think you’ll be long?”
She immediately went back to picking up her meager possessions and sticking them in a drawer. When she straightened up, Penn had noiselessly moved up behind her, startling her into a gasp.
“Don’t do that,” she snapped, and punched him in the arm, venting a little of her hurt anger. To hide the very real possibility of tears, she turned her back to him.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to spook you.” He stepped closer and wrapped his arms around her, once again comforting her with the warm strength of his body. “And I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I was trying to decide if a public place was the best venue for you to meet two males from your world for the first time. I can vouch for both of them, if that helps.”
She was willing to bet that wasn’t the only reason behind his hesitation. “I have to meet them sometime.”
“If you’re sure that’s what you want.”
Why did his voice sound so reasonable, when the tension in his body was telegraphing a completely different message? Did he not want her to meet them? That made no sense since they had to work together. Was he worried about how they’d react to being confronted with a woman of their homeworld? Or was he worried they’d guess how the two of them had spent the night?
God, she had no experience in this morning-after etiquette.
Well, they’d never get anywhere if both of them kept pussyfooting around. “Penn, tell me what you want me to do. If you want me to wait here, say so. If you want me to go, I will. If you want me to pretend last night never happened—”
Before she could finish, Penn spun her around and his mouth crushed down onto hers. Then he pulled back to rest his chin on top of her head. “Shit.”
She made herself ask, “Regrets?”
“Some, but not for this. I’ve got to get my head back in the game, though, and that’s hard to do when every time I get near you, all I can think about is touching you.”
He stepped away. “We’d better go before they come looking for us.”
Jora watched him gather up his wallet and keys. Why did this feel like a good-bye? She wished they could remain barricaded in this room, isolated from the rest of the world and immune to its dangers.
But that wasn’t going to happen. Penn and his friends were the only ones who could help her stop the disaster she sensed lurking on the horizon. One misstep on their part and the rest of the world would suffer. People would die on both sides of the barrier.
She mustered up the best smile she could. “Let’s go meet your friends.”
They walked to the elevator, and when the doors slid open at the lobby, he stepped in front of her, checking for danger.
She followed him out. “Do you think they’ve been able to track us this far?”
“Not really, but better to play it safe.”
They crossed the parking lot in silence. By the time they reached the restaurant, her heart was doing a stutter step. Meeting males of her own race was a big deal. She’d been raised to fit in among the human population, which had involved hiding the special abilities that were her true heritage. With these men, that wouldn’t be possible.
As soon as she and Penn stepped inside the door, she felt them. Without being told, she turned to the right, immediately spotting two men who watched her with pale gray eyes that mirrored her own. Even their hair was the same shade as hers, caught between black and iron gray and shot through with silver. The only difference was that theirs was more evenly peppered with the lighter color, where hers was concentrated around her face.
As she approached the table, both men immediately rose to their feet and bowed their heads in greeting. Their gesture brought back images of her parents and their foreign mannerisms.
Penn positioned himself slightly behind her and off to one side. “Guys, this is Jora b’Larth.”
The older of the two spoke first. “I am Barak q’Young, and my companion is Larem q’Jones. It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss b’Larth.”
“It’s nice to meet you both.”
Barak motioned to the other side of the booth. “Shall we be seated? We’ve already requested that the waitress bring tea for the three of us. She’s bringing a pot of coffee for Penn as well.”
Jora reluctantly slid onto the bench, feeling overwhelmed by three such big men. “I go by Jora Larth. We dropped the ‘b’ when we moved here because it was easier than explaining the b-apostrophe.”
Larem spoke for the first time. “We each adopted the last name of one of our human friends. Lonzo Jones, one of Penn’s fellow Paladins, also allowed me to move in with him when unexpected circumstances brought me to this world.”
There was an undercurrent in his statement that made her wonder exactly what those circumstances had been. But she had her own secrets that she wasn’t anxious to share.
The waitress arrived with the tea and coffee. After they’d placed their orders for breakfast, the four of them lapsed into silence.
Finally, Penn spoke up. “After we eat, we’ll head back to the motel. Once you’re checked in, I’ll give Jora’s reports to you to read over, and then we’ll make some plans. Since her cabin is over three hours away, I’m thinking we’d be better off staying here tonight. If we grab an early breakfast, we can get where we need to be by midmorning.”
His voice dropped. “I’ll need to pick up the rest of my things from the motel where I spent the first night. I’m thinking that town is too small for us to hide in.”
Then he shot her a quick glance. “Jora had to leave her cabin unexpectedly, so we’ll need to stop by there, too. It won’t be safe for her to go back alone.”
The sick feeling in her stomach worsened. “You’re thinking I won’t ever be able to go live there again, aren’t you?”
Once again Penn’s blunt honesty didn’t fail her. “It will all depend on how this plays out. Either way, I’d feel better if you pack up the important stuff and get it out of there until we know for sure.”
Jora wrapped her hands around her mug of tea, soaking up its warmth. “I really, really hate this whole mess.”
Larem said, “If you do have to leave your home permanently, at least you’ll be able to take your belongings with you and the memories they hold.” His smile was laced with such sadness.
What had he left behind that still held the power to haunt him? Again, a question she wouldn’t ask. Instead she listened as the three men chatted among themselves, taking note of any names they mentioned. Devlin Bane had sent more cash in case Penn was running short. Lacey, Barak’s wife, had not only packed food for Barak and Larem to eat on their long bus ride, but also included a box of homemade cookies for Penn.
“Of course, there will be a delivery charge involved.” Barak’s dark-lashed eyes gleamed as he set the package on the table out of Penn’s reach. “I’m thinking at least half a dozen of the chocolate chip and the snickerdoodles.”
“That’s each, by the way,” Larem added.
“No way. I’m betting Lacey gave you your own batch of cookies. It’s not my fault if you pigged out on them on the way here.” Then in a lightning-fast move, Penn snatched the box from Barak.
He shot Jora a triumphant look as his friends laughed. “Never, ever get between a Paladin and a box of cookies.” He popped open the box and counted his booty. Then he counted again.
“Okay, Lacey always—always—packs cookies in even dozens. I’m missing one.” He eyed his two friends with great suspicion. “Explanations, gentlemen?”
Jora watched the two Kalith warriors successfully maintain stoic expressions, but unless she was mistaken, Larem was laughing on the inside. Her father had often had that same twinkle in his eyes when he found something amusing but wanted to hide it.
She decided to call the handsome Kalith on it. “Penn’s not short just one cookie, is he, gentlemen? I’m thinking the real number is closer to thirteen.”
All three men stared at her, two looking surprised and the third looking outraged. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
The two Kalith looked at each other, then Barak dropped a plastic bag of cookies onto the table. Penn shoved it into the box before setting it on the seat next to her. “Jerks. I would’ve shared, but not now.”
Barak punched his companion on the arm. “I told you to leave an even number.”
“Yes, but where’s the fun in that?”
The waitress appeared with a tray full of plates, and the four of them concentrated on eating their meals. When Penn was finished, he stretched his arm out along the back of the bench behind her. Larem didn’t seem to notice, but Barak definitely did. Jora shifted a little farther away, unsure if Penn was merely getting comfortable or quietly staking a claim.
Jora was relieved when they finally paid the bill and walked outside. She normally spent most of her time alone, and right now she needed a break.
“Penn, I’ve been shut in for the past twenty-four hours. If you don’t need me, I’m going to take a walk. I won’t be gone long.”
Before she’d gone five feet, her path was blocked by three male bodies. “What?” she asked.
Penn crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m thinking that’s not a good idea. I want you to come back inside with us.”
“I disagree. I’ve already said I won’t be gone long, thirty minutes tops. I have my cell phone. I’ll call you if I’m going to be gone longer.”
“Have you forgotten those men who are hunting you?”
“No, but there’s no indication that they’ve followed us this far.” She tried to step around him. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, you and your friends have stuff to talk about. Secret Paladin stuff, I’m sure.” She threw some gas on the fire. “So why don’t you run along and do that?”
The two Kalith immediately backed away. “We’ll go check in and meet you upstairs, Penn.”
“You do that. It appears I’m going for a walk.”
Jora was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, but the truth was, she wouldn’t mind his company. “Fine.”
He let her choose the direction, adjusting his stride to match hers. After a few seconds he took her hand, entwining his fingers with hers.
“Good save on the cookies.” He held out the box. “Want one?”
As a peace offering, it was a good start. “Two.”
“Fine, but don’t tell them. They’ll be expecting equal treatment.”
As she munched on a chocolate chip cookie, she decided to ask some tough questions. “You told me how Barak ended up in this world. I’m guessing Larem’s story is quite different.”
Penn’s steps slowed. “It is. I’m not sure it’s mine to tell, but you can ask him. All I’ll say is that it wasn’t his choice, but he’s made a new life in Seattle.”
Jora stared at their joined hands. “This is all a bit overwhelming. My parents lived their whole lives terrified that the Paladins would discover our existence.”
“What did they think would happen?” Penn asked, but she suspected he already knew the answer to that question.
She kept her eyes focused straight ahead. “At best, the Paladins would shove us back across the barrier. At worst, my parents knew very well what happened to most of our kind who cross the barrier.”
A flash of anger crossed Penn’s face. “The crazies who cross the barrier are nothing like you, or like Barak or Larem. I’m guessing you’ve never seen a Kalith out-of-his-head crazy, and I hope to hell you never do.”
Jora sighed. “It’s a sickness, you know. They can’t help it. My father lost both of his parents to it when he was just a child.” He never got over it, either.
“We know that, but it doesn’t change a thing. If we don’t stop them at the barrier, they keep right on killing.”
This was an argument neither of them would win. The real question was if it was a gap neither of them could ever breach. They walked on until her restlessness eased.
“We should get back. Barak and Larem will be waiting for me to fill them in,” she said.
As they turned back, Penn cleared his throat. “While we’re on the topic of rooms, where would you prefer I sleep tonight? If you’d rather, I can crash on the floor in their room.”
Her first instinct was to be hurt by his willingness to leave her on her own, but she immediately realized he was trying not to make any assumptions. “If I let you sleep with me, will you share your cookies?”
“Only the chocolate chips. The snickerdoodles are all mine.”
She smiled. “It’s a deal. Now, let’s go check on your buddies.”