They had a lot of ground to cover, plans to devise, and decisions to make. But as Penn sipped his coffee, all he could think about was when he and Jora could go back to the room and turn the lock. He watched as she spread out a topographical map of the park, showing Barak and Larem where the problem was and how she’d discovered it.
He wasn’t surprised that the two males were impressed by what she had to say; Jora knew her park inside and out. They listened intently as she explained the normal geology of the area, and looked horrified at the potential disaster if they didn’t find the bastards quickly.
Barak pointed at the map. “You are telling me that this caldera, as you call it, is forty-five miles in length?”
Jora nodded. “Some call it a super volcano. If it ever blew, it would make the damage caused by Mount St. Helens back in 1980 look like a minor inconvenience. Over the past few years there has been a definite uplift in the elevation, which could mean it’s growing more unstable.”
Larem spoke up. “As your best guess, what do you think these fools are trying to do?”
She shrugged. “Penn and I saw signs that they’ve been dragging something heavy across the barrier. The only logical explanation is that they’re attempting to siphon off energy from this world into theirs. For certain, someone is deliberately damaging the barrier.”
Penn set down his coffee and paced the room. “In all my years, I’ve never seen any stretch of the barrier look as bad as this one did and have it stay up. Even the frequency was off, making me feel sick to be near it. Jora described it as going feral.”
The normally calm Barak slammed his fist down on the table. “What kind of idiot would deliberately do such a stupid thing? If Jora’s right, the barrier would have not only failed, it would have ripped the two worlds apart. There’s no telling how much of either world would survive.”
That’s what Penn had feared: that this whole mess was more than a few blue gemstones being ripped off from Kalithia. “I’d call Devlin and tell him to send more of the guys over, but I don’t think it would help. Besides, if all hell does break loose, he’ll need to keep his men right where they are. There are stretches of barrier scattered along the entire Ring of Fire around the Pacific. The Paladins are spread thin enough as it is.”
The three men pondered the possibilities. Finally, Penn had an idea. “Larem, does Hunter still get messages across the barrier to Berk?”
Jora looked from Penn to Larem and back. “Who are Hunter and Berk?”
Penn answered. “Hunter’s a Paladin who protects a small stretch of the barrier north of Seattle. He keeps in touch with Berk, who is one of the Kalith warriors we’ve been working with on a common problem.”
Larem stared at the map. “I’ll call Hunter when we’re done talking. I’m not sure what Berk can do, but they should be warned, sooner rather than later.”
“Sounds good.” Penn gathered up the papers. “Is there anything else?”
“I have a couple of questions for Jora.” Larem turned back to her. “I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with your clan.”
“Why not?” Penn asked.
Larem explained, “The letter before our last names designates what part of Kalithia a clan hails from. Jora’s family would have originated some distance from where my family lives.”
Penn winced at the obvious pain in Larem’s voice. The warrior never complained, making it easy to forget that he’d been ripped out of his world through no choice of his own. If he tried to return home, he’d face possible execution at the hands of those he’d sworn to protect.
Larem’s face was once again expressionless as he asked Jora, “What are the gifts granted your bloodlines?”
Jora frowned as she thought about it. “Given enough time, I can heal the barrier. If that was the only problem I would’ve handled the situation by myself, but the repeated attacks on it have destabilized the surrounding rock. Again, I can often reverse the damage, but I can’t do both without draining myself dry.”
Barak joined in. “Why has no one noticed there’s a problem? You can’t be the only geologist working in the area.”
“No, I’m not. However, low-level earthquakes are common in the park, and often come in swarms. Only someone with our sensitivity to the barrier and the stresses on the rock would have realized these weren’t natural in origin.”
Larem nodded as if she’d confirmed his suspicions. “Barak’s talents are similar to yours, but mine are just starting to manifest themselves and lie in a different direction altogether. It may be that I’ll be able to assist you with my energy, but it’s doubtful I can do more than that. I will, however, stand guard while you and Barak work in tandem.”
Penn listened as the three Kalith continued talking about their various spooky abilities. Despite the dire situation, it was clear that Jora was enthralled with sharing trade secrets with the two males.
He glanced at his watch and was surprised to see five hours had passed. It was time to take charge. “Let’s grab an early dinner and then turn in. We’ll want to leave before first light, which should get us back to her place before midmorning. Any questions?”
Jora was already folding the map and stowing it in her pack. “I’m not particularly hungry. Why don’t you three go without me?”
Rather than being disappointed, Penn was startled to realize he was relieved. He didn’t particularly like having to share Jora with the two Kalith males.
He had no business thinking that way, but too damn bad. Given his uncertain future, what he and Jora were sharing might not survive beyond the next few days. Hell, he didn’t know if the world would survive that long, but as long as he was breathing, he wanted her all to himself.
Until she told him otherwise, she was his. Which made him hers as well, he supposed. Odd thought, that. He’d never belonged to anyone who wasn’t a blood relative. But as he poked at the concept, he decided he was all right with it.
“I’ll bring you back something, if you’d like.”
At Larem’s words, Penn’s hands knotted into fists. He got right up in the other’s face. “Back off, Larem. I’ll be taking care of any needs Jora might have.”
Jora’s face turned red, then white as her own temper took over. “Penn Sebastian! How could you? I’m not some bone for the two of you to squabble over.”
God, he hated having to crawl in front of his brother-in-law—not to mention his smirking companion. It was bad enough that Barak would tell Lacey he was making a total fool of himself over a woman, and a Kalith woman at that. She’d never let him live it down, considering how much grief he’d given her over falling in love with his enemy.
But Larem would tell Lonzo, which meant it would spread like wildfire among the Seattle Paladins. He might as well rent a billboard and post the news for everyone to read.
“Sorry, Jora. I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”
Then he glared at Barak and Larem. “Wait out in the hall. I’ll be right with you.”
Larem planted himself in a chair, stretching his legs out to show he wasn’t going anywhere. “I’d rather watch you grovel.”
Luckily, Barak interceded. “Larem, you might want to remember that Paladins have long memories and revenge is their favorite pastime. Let’s go.”
“You’re no fun,” Larem groused.
When the door closed behind them, Penn gingerly approached Jora. “I really am sorry. And I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
She held out her hand to stop him. “Fine—but don’t do it again. I’m already a little uncomfortable with them knowing about our relationship. Shoving it in Larem’s face wasn’t necessary.”
Relationship. He liked the sound of that, even if he didn’t know quite how to handle it. He wanted to kiss her or at least get a hug, but her body language was a mixed bag of messages. Rather than force the issue, he backed away.
“Are you sure you’ll be all right alone?”
“I’m a big girl, Penn. All I’m going to do is run a hot bath and relax.”
The images that conjured up made leaving even more difficult. She knew it, too, the brat.
He gave her a hopeful smile. “You know, I could get my dinner to go. That tub is really big.”
“Go, Penn. I want at least an hour to myself. I need some downtime.”
He knew when to retreat. “Okay, but one hour’s the max. Anything more would be cruel.”
Penn stepped out of their room and looked for his friends. Barak and Larem were far enough down the hallway to prevent them from overhearing Penn’s conversation with Jora. Good thing—this wasn’t Paladin headquarters, where fistfights broke out on a regular basis. If Larem pushed him too far, they could both end up cooling off in the local jail.
“So where shall we eat?” he asked the others.
“Italian always works for me,” Barak said as they walked out of the hotel. “Or a pancake house, if there’s one close by.”
Penn headed over to his truck. “We’ll cruise around and see what we can find.”
Twenty minutes later the three of them were seated in a small restaurant, the air rich with the aroma of marinara sauce and hot, yeasty bread. Penn glanced at his watch, marking off the time before he could safely return to the motel.
“Do you have an appointment we don’t know about?” Barak broke a breadstick in half and took a healthy bite.
There was no good answer to that question, so Penn asked one of his own. “So what do you think of this whole situation?”
Larem leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. “I think Jora is beautiful and smart. She’s also from our world—not yours.”
“That’s not what I was asking.”
“Yes, it was, and I answered. She has no male relative here to stand for her best interests. If she were my sister, we’d be having a long discussion about how unsuitable you would be for her future happiness.”
Penn closed his eyes and prayed for patience. “Whether or not I’m good for Jora is none of your damned business. We’re not having this discussion just because she makes you feel all brotherly, Larem. She’s not your sister.”
Barak interceded. “That may be true, Penn, but it doesn’t change anything. She’s obviously a nice woman who is in over her head with what’s going on around here. And I’m not just talking about the barrier and the earthquakes.”
“Stuff it, both of you,” he snapped. “Larem, are you telling me Sasha’s father was thrilled when he found out about you and her?”
Then Penn pointed a finger at Barak. “As for you, it’s not like you listened to anything I had to say when you decided to get involved with my sister.”
At the time, Penn wanted to kill him for daring to touch Lacey. It had taken kidnappers and a mountain threatening to kill all three of them for him to accept that Barak loved Lacey more than life itself. Penn had had as much chance of stopping a volcano from erupting as he did preventing his sister and Barak from building a life together.
Evidently love was blind to things like boundary lines and a brother’s prejudices. He thought about Jora as he stared at the scar that had become the focus of his existence. His life had gone radically off track when that Other’s sword had slashed through flesh and bone, and he was still waiting to see where his new destiny would take him.
He’d never expected to end up here with a woman like Jora b’Larth waiting for him back in their room. For the first time in too damn long, he had something to look forward to.
What were Jora’s hopes and dreams for her future? Did she see herself living out her life exploring the wilderness by herself? Was there room for the right man at her side, one who knew her truth and would love her with every breath he drew? He tried to imagine what the guy would be like, but all he could see was himself. Fat chance of that happening.
“This looks delicious.”
Barak’s comment dragged Penn back to the present. He hadn’t even noticed that the waitress had delivered their dinners. If he drifted like this out in the field, people could die. Jora could die—but that wasn’t going to happen. Not on his watch. Not ever.
He picked up his fork and began eating, not really noticing how it tasted. The sooner they finished, the sooner he could get back to Jora, where he belonged.
Jora added more hot water to the tub, though her fingertips were already looking like prunes. She hadn’t really expected Penn to stay gone the full hour. At the time, the presence of the three big men in one room had her feeling crowded, but now she only felt abandoned. She’d ordered Penn to give her some space, yet now she was mad because he had. Was that crazy or what?
Ever since she’d made that phone call to Devlin Bane, everything had been off-kilter. She couldn’t go back to the way things had been, so she had to follow this path wherever it might take her. Penn and his friends were the only hope of securing the barrier, but she had serious doubts about the chance for success. Was she crazy for depending on three men she barely knew?
Well, two she barely knew—and one she knew far better than she should. Her body knew every impressive inch of his, but her connection to Penn Sebastian ran far deeper than that.
Jora had always doubted her mother’s claim to have taken one look at her future husband and known he was the one for her. Evidently her father had taken a bit more convincing, but not much. Their story had been sweet and romantic, but Jora hadn’t bought into it. Maybe she owed her parents’ memory an apology. She wasn’t ready to label what she was feeling love, but it was strong.
The sound of a door in the other room opening had her sitting upright in the tub and holding her breath. Footsteps stopped right outside the bathroom door.
“Jora? Can I come in?”
She was already climbing out of the tub and reaching for a towel. “It’s not locked.”
Penn opened the door, and his smile heated up considerably when he saw her tucking in the end of the towel to hold it in place. It started at the top slope of her breasts and left a bit of her bottom peeking out. He stood behind her, their gazes locking in the mirror. Penn leaned down to lick a drop of water from her shoulder, sending shivers straight to the core of her.
“Did you enjoy your bath?”
His heat nearly scorched her. “Yes, I did. Was your dinner good?”
“It was fine, but what I’m looking forward to is dessert.”
He pulled the clip from her hair and tossed it onto the counter, then gently worked her braid loose, sending her hair cascading around her shoulders. Jora leaned back against Penn’s chest as he wrapped his arms around her waist. “This is going to get out of hand pretty fast if you don’t stop me.”
“Why would I do that?”
She reached for his hands and placed them on her breasts, drawing a sharp breath when he squeezed them gently. When her towel came undone, she turned and buried her face against his chest.
He crooked his finger and lifted her chin, smiling. “Want to take this into the other room?”
Penn had already turned off the lights except for the one near the door. It cast the room in a soft, intimate glow.
They slipped under the bedcovers, facing each other, only a breath apart. “I don’t want to rush this, Jora. There’s no telling what will happen tomorrow. Tonight might be—”
She stopped him, not wanting to hear the words. “Leave tomorrow and its problems outside, Penn.”
He swallowed hard and nodded. “I want to love you tonight—all night.”
“Good. That’s what I want, what I need.” She moved closer, lifting her leg over his. “Take me, Penn. Rock my world.”
And he did.