He was staring at her again. Or maybe it was better described as brooding contemplation while Dethan stood watching her manage the women of the household, holding meetings with each group of maids or laundresses or cooks as they came. Only this time she was twice as self-conscious because she was constantly afraid that he could see through the makeup on her face to the bruising beneath. She dreaded what he would do if he knew about Grannish’s attack. She was terrified he might act rashly.
No, she comforted herself, he was not a rash man. It was clear he approached things free of emotion. The only thing he had shown any hint of passion for was his cause, and since winning Hexis in Weysa’s name meant a great deal to him, she could take comfort in it being unlikely he would quit.
“You are feeling better?”
Selinda had not realized he had left his distant position and had moved over to her. She was sitting at a table, writing some notes to herself about things important to the household. As chatelaine of the fortress she managed all the household staff. To a degree. They might appear to be serving her and her father, but she knew most of them were actually serving Grannish and his best interests.
A household army of spies. Sometimes it made her feel suffocated. As if she could not breathe for fear it would be interpreted the wrong way. She had to fight with herself to remain strong in spite of it. If she were not, they would walk all over her. Grannish’s treatment of her would give them permission to walk all over her.
“Yes,” she said a bit awkwardly. It was not a lie, after all. She was feeling better. She only hoped he did not ask her what had been wrong. Then she would have to lie, and for some reason … she didn’t want to speak untruths to him. “I am sorry I could not come last night,” she said with the barest of whispers.
“As am I,” he said, his deep voice dropping even lower. It made her catch her breath. It was almost as if … as if he really had longed for her to be there.
Of course he had. Her ministrations must ease him greatly. She couldn’t imagine the pain he suffered every single night. And to think he had once suffered it continuously.
“It will not happen again,” she promised him.
“Selinda.” He moved, his lithe strength and incredible presence washing over her as he leaned nearer to her. “We have an agreement, that is true, but you are not beholden to it if you are too ill or if some other credible reason should make it so. I will not be cruel to you.”
She looked up into the powerful intelligence of his eyes, wondering where this man had come from and why the gods had seen fit to send him to her when she had needed someone like him most. She could only pray that he had what it took to defeat Grannish with her family coming out of the situation fully intact.
“I … I thank you for that,” she said softly.
“But please come to me tonight,” he said, reaching out to pull her hair into his hand, letting the strands sift through his fingers. The intimacy of it took her breath away one moment, and the next she was remembering herself, remembering Grannish’s warning, and looking nervously around.
“Please,” she said, drawing away from him by moving back a foot. “If anyone should see …”
“Let them see,” he said gruffly, moving closer to her again. “I have told your father that I want you to wife as reward for defeating the Redoe and he has agreed. It stands to reason I will woo you in the interim.”
That explained Grannish’s tirade yesterday. Her eyes widened as she realized what he had done, and what she had suffered because of it.
“Why would you do that? Don’t you understand?” She was heated and angry. “If Grannish thinks he is in danger of losing me, he will lash out any way he can!”
“Grannish will lose you,” he said firmly. “One way or another you will be mine. He will lash out regardless. This is what you asked of me. This is what you wanted.”
“I know. I know, but I am afraid,” she confessed, gripping her hands together to hide their trembling. “I am afraid for my family.”
“I will see them safely through,” he promised her. And, oh, how she wished she could believe him. “You must trust me.”
He reached for her again, his fingertips gliding along the line of her jaw, on the right side, the unscarred side. Good, she thought. She didn’t like it when he touched her scar. But she did like the feel of his warm touch against her. So much so that it outweighed her fear of being spied upon. She realized then that she craved his touch. Craved his nearness. He was so very kind to her, and she so very much needed someone to be kind to her.
And the next moment his kindness became something more, something heated, and the color of his eyes seemed to darken and his intent toward her seemed nearly predatory. His thumb slid under her chin and he tipped her head back.
“It’s the strangest thing,” he said to her, his tone so very rich and so incredibly masculine. “I find myself with this incredible need to touch you. No … that is a lie, for it is too tame. I find I want you, Selinda. It is a powerful need that drives me to you. I have much to do and yet I am here because I needed to see you. To be near you. To possibly touch you. Do not deny me your presence in my bed tonight, Selinda. I find I cannot do without it. I must have you in private, where I can …” He trailed off and she fully understood what he wasn’t saying. It took her breath away, and an outrageous response of heat flushed throughout her body. As he leaned closer to her, his body a wall of barely leashed power and male strength, it was everything she could do to keep from grabbing hold of him, from running her hands over all those virile muscles so her fingertips could absorb the power lying just beneath his skin.
The desire shocked her to her core. She had never felt anything like that before. Not in all her life had she known such a powerful, carnal craving. It made her forget … it made her forget to be afraid of the eyes that were always on her.
“I would like to a-as well. Touch you, I mean,” she confessed with a fast and hot whisper. Oh, where were these words coming from? Was this scandalous creature really her?
But it was all worth it to see the slow, sure smile that eased over his lips. When it touched his eyes she realized what a wonderful smile it was. It lifted the aged weight from his eyes—the glint that was always there, which told anyone who could see it that he had endured incredible hardships. And while a smile did not erase those hardships completely, it did much to ease them.
“Now you have vexed me,” he said, leaning so close she could feel his breath against her lips.
“O-oh, I-I did not mean to—”
He silenced her with a single finger against her lips. “I am vexed because now I cannot decide which I want more … to touch you or to be touched by you.”
“Oh,” she breathed.
“So come to my rooms tonight and we shall have both,” he promised her.
This time the idea of what he was expecting of her didn’t paralyze her with fear and the weight of the choices she had to make. This time she found herself looking forward to their time together in a way she hadn’t thought herself capable of. She should be ashamed of herself, she tried to tell herself, but when she thought of being alone in a room with so much power and grace, knowing it was hers for the taking …
“I see the thoughts in your mind,” he said with a growl. “You must stop thinking them if you do not wish for me to grab you here and now and kiss you until you do not care who is watching.”
“My m-mind? You mean you can read my thoughts?” she asked with an appalled gasp, trying to recall what her thoughts had been.
But he chuckled and shook his head. “I am not a mage with mind magic. I am merely a man who knows when a woman wants him. I can see it. I can feel it.”
She lifted her hand to cover her face. Not to hide, but in remembrance of Grannish’s rage and words. If Dethan could see such things, would Grannish see them as well?
“You are mistaken,” she whispered, jerking her body back. Then, much to Dethan’s bewilderment, she hurried away from him and out of the room. She was incredibly flustered by her own desires and it bemused him. The women he had known had always been so confident in theirs. He had to remind himself that women were different now. This woman was different. She was … Gods, how could someone be so fragile and so strong at the same time? Perhaps it was because she didn’t see her own strength. Didn’t see the bravery he saw. It puzzled him. It intrigued him. Everything about her intrigued him.
He left the room, his mind thoroughly preoccupied with Selinda. He actually found himself excited by the coming night. Just thinking about her in his bed had him growing hard for her. No more nearly chaste kisses for her. It was time she learned what true passion was about. And if he was not mistaken, she had a very passionate nature just waiting to be discovered. There was a kind of fire inside her, something deep that burned … but unlike the fires of the eight hells that tormented him, this time he would not mind being scalded.
It was these thoughts that allowed him to turn a dark corner only to find a dagger suddenly plunged into his belly. Stumbling back in shock, it was only his warrior’s instincts that had him avoiding a second blade striking across his throat by a mere hairsbreadth. Dethan grabbed the dagger in his belly, and with a mighty effort he eased the painful blade out of his body and then shoved back his attacker. But the man was as yet uninjured and had the advantage, so he immediately lunged toward Dethan again. But this time Dethan knew he was coming, so he reached and grabbed his opponent’s wrist and jerked the blade forward, past his own body, moving out of the way just enough for the blade to miss but driving the assailant onto the sharp uprising of his knee. He caught the man in the gut, striking so hard that he heard the breath leave the man’s body in a rush. In a second swift move Dethan turned the man’s arm hard about, dancing around him on quick feet to avoid the second blade as he yanked the man’s arm back against its natural extension, slamming the wrist above his head, as well as the whole of the man’s body, into the stone of the fortress wall. He slammed the hand into the stone again … and again … until, with a cry, his attacker released the blade, dropping it. Dethan caught it before it could fall more than a foot and flipped it surely in his hand before stabbing the man in the throat with it. He sent it all the way in, right to the hilt.
And just like that, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The man slid down the wall, gagging and clawing at the knife as blood erupted from his mouth and throat. Dethan watched dispassionately as the man died a gruesome death. It seemed fitting since Dethan had no doubt that the death was exactly the same sort the assassin had planned to deal to him. Dethan put a hand to his side and cursed. He might be immortal, but it didn’t make him invulnerable. He could still be wounded and could still suffer the pain of it. It also took time to heal. The worse the damage, the longer it took. He looked up and around to make certain no one was watching him. It was a stroke of luck that the boy Grannish had set on him, who had been shadowing him most of the day, was missing for some reason.
Or perhaps he was missing under instructions … so he would not bear witness to what was meant to happen. It stood to reason that Grannish had been so confident in his assassin he had not felt the need to have Dethan shadowed after he was supposed to be killed.
And Dethan had no doubts it was anyone but Grannish who was behind the attack. He needed to take the attack out into the open. Ignoring his wound, he grabbed the dead weight of the killer and hoisted him over his shoulder. He made his way directly to the grand’s hall, and brushing past the pages guarding the way against unwelcome visitors, he burst into the room, strode up to the desk and hoisted the dead body right onto the grand’s desktop. The grand leapt up from his chair in shock, but it was Grannish’s face that Dethan watched closely. He saw the jenden’s eyes widen, then cloud over with a brief moment of fury before he masked it and cried out, “What is the meaning of this?”
“The meaning is that this man just tried to kill me,” Dethan said, turning to look at the grand, dismissing Grannish now that he had his answer.
“What?! Good gods, man, you’re injured!” the grand cried.
“It is only a scratch. A glancing cut. Luckily I was able to fend him off.”
“An assassin from the Redoe, no doubt,” Grannish supplied quickly.
“Yes, yes!” the grand agreed. “But how do they know of you already?”
“There are spies everywhere, I assure you, your most honorable,” Grannish said.
“What … My own people?” The grand looked stricken by the very idea.
“Or someone closer to you who doesn’t want me to succeed where they have failed,” Dethan said pointedly.
“You mean the general? That’s preposterous!” the grand said.
“I mean anyone,” Dethan said darkly. “You have to be prepared to find out that someone close to you may be behind this.”
“Very well,” the grand said. “But I do not like it. I do not like the idea of mistrusting one of my own advisors.”
“You are at war. You do not have the luxury of trust. Or of hiding from the truth. And you have to realize that your own life may be under threat.”
“I think you are clearly dramatizing matters,” Grannish said. “We are safe here. The grand is—”
“The grand eats, does he not? The kitchen cooks his food, do they not? Do you know every worker in those kitchens? Is it so safe and your staff so trusted that no one could poison him? Guards can do nothing against poison. I suggest that, for now, you have someone sample all your foods before you do. Even so, that will only discover immediate poisons. It will not protect you against longer-acting ones.”
“My gods,” the grand breathed, fear apparent in his eyes. “My daughter! She must be protected. She is my heir and it stands to reason she too will be a target. My son as well. He is so young.”
It heartened Dethan a little to hear the grand’s first concern was for his daughter. Even, it seemed, above his own safety. How strange, then, that he could be so blind to her plight. But it made Dethan believe that when faced with irrefutable proof of Grannish’s treachery, he could be made to see the light. That is, provided Dethan could manage it before Grannish took his revenge on Selinda or some other member of her family. He knew that the more Grannish felt them all slipping through his fingers, the more unpredictable he would become.
Selinda was walking down the corridor when Dethan had left the grand’s offices and she gasped at the sight of him. His shirt and his breeches were soaked with his blood.
“What happened?” she cried, rushing up to him.
“It’s nothing to be concerned about,” he assured her. “I will heal from it just as I heal from the burns.”
“It does not follow that it doesn’t hurt,” she said sternly. “Come with me.”
She took his arm and led him away, her stride almost a march. She led him to his quarters and into his bedroom. She’d had Hanit bring large amounts of linens and bandages and healing herbs and potions to be stored in his rooms so she would not have to go looking for them in the middle of the night any longer. There was a cabinet full of them and she bustled over to it. She began to pull out bandages.
“Strip,” she ordered over her shoulder.
Dethan froze. This, he thought, was a bad idea. It was the middle of the day and surely half a dozen people had seen her come into his rooms. And if he were to be completely frank with himself, he would have to admit that being without his clothes in front of her would be all too inviting an idea. If it were in the privacy of night it would be one thing, but in the middle of the day …
She turned and frowned when she saw he had not obeyed her.
“Go on, then,” she commanded. “Take off your shirt and your breeches. Are you being shy suddenly?” she teased him then. “I have seen you naked just as often as not.”
“Only then I was not in the prime of health,” he said pointedly.
She missed the point. “You aren’t in the prime of health now either. Come, come.” She dropped her bandages and medicaments on the bedside table and moved to pull his shirt free of his pants. He winced when she touched his wounded side. She gentled, but she was not satisfied until his shirt was off his back. “I do not care if you heal fast or not,” she said softly. “I can see how much this hurts you and how very deep it is. I saw wounds like this the last time we tried to fight off the Redoe.” That gave her pause. “No doubt I will be seeing much of it again.”
“It is war,” he said simply. “And it is necessary.”
“I realize that,” she said, her tone grim but clearly accepting. She knew what had to be done and all the reasons why. He would not sell her short on that. “Take off those bloody breeches. After I dress the wound you can put on some clean ones.”
“I think you will dress the wound first, and then I will change once you are on your way.”
She lifted a brow at him in surprise. “But I—”
“Just dress the wound, little juquil,” he urged her, taking up her hand and giving it a meaningful squeeze.
“All right,” she said, though it was clear she didn’t understand him. She prodded at the wound with gentle fingers. “I do not want to sew it closed. You would just retain the blood inside. We will leave it to bleed freely while waiting for your body’s healing processes to take over. I do hope it will be soon.”
“Soon enough,” he said.
She moved away to put water into a pitcher, wetted a piece of linen, then came to clean the wounded area as best she could with it still bleeding. She then applied a variety of medicines to the area before pressing a thick padding of bandages to the wound, keeping it in place by winding a long strip of linen around his midsection. As she did this she moved around him, close to his body, her hand warm against his flesh and the sweet scent of her drifting up to fill his senses. Today she smelled of the jamberry flower, a sugary sweet, small flower that then turned into the most luscious of berries, which made the most divine-tasting jams. When he had been young a trader had brought jamberry jam in from this continent and Dethan had thought it to be the most amazing thing he had ever tasted.
All he could think of was how very much tasting her reminded him of the first time he had tasted that jam. An explosion of sweetness, every touch of it against his tongue a surprise and a delight. He had been innocent then, his palate inexperienced, but he had known it was something sent straight from the eight heavens. Now he was not so innocent, had tasted many things and many women since then, but still … still she was a wonder to him. A temptation, he thought as she drifted into his senses again, her touch like fire against him.
Her hand slid low across his belly, right at the edge of his breeches, and he hissed in a breath and grabbed hold of her hand.
“Oh! Did I hurt you?” she asked worriedly.
“No. Damn it, woman, stop touching me like that or you’ll find yourself in my bed and beneath my body while I make yours sing to my touch,” he said heatedly.
Her eyes went wide and she looked down at where he held her hand pressed to his body. She realized then how it might have felt to him, and she flushed a furious shade of pink and quickly snatched her hand back.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I did not mean to—”
“No,” he said, moving closer to her and bending his head to … Was he sniffing her hair? she wondered as he took a very deep breath in, his eyes closing briefly. “You never mean to. It makes me wonder what you could do to me should you ever mean to.”
The idea intrigued her too, she realized. He made it sound as though she had some sort of power over him. And for someone who held so little power over the men around her, it was an incredibly compelling feeling.
“You mean,” she said softly, daring to reach a hand out to touch him on his chest, above the bandage she had strapped around him, “that if I touch you it gives me some kind of control over you?”
“Careful, little juquil,” he warned her. “It is not the kind of control you seek. In fact, you have resisted me as often as not when it has come to matters of passion.” He lowered his head and took another breath full of her. “A tamer tempts a beast at his or her own peril.”
His words made her hand tremble against him, but she did not pull away.
“You are not a beast,” she argued with him.
“More so than not,” he corrected her. “I should think the one thing you have learned over time is that all men are beasts.”
“Yes. I suppose that’s true. But you have never been unkind to me.” She slowly drifted her touch from one side of his chest to the other, and back again, from one nipple to the other. She had never felt anything quite like the muscled definition of him. Each muscle was rounded and shaped, strong and powerful, yet his skin was soft and warm as it covered the steel of his strength. She could feel his heart beating hard beneath her fingertips. Was that because of her? Over his left shoulder he was still scarred from his burns, but it was like her scar—white and simply … a part of him. She touched the ridges of it.
“Can you feel me?” she asked on the softest breath.
“Good gods, woman, I feel nothing else but you. I’ve been run through and yet all I can feel is the touch of those incredible hands on my skin.”
He reached out then, grasping her about the waist with both hands, dragging her closer to his body. “I cannot take you like this, Selinda. I won’t. Too many people saw you come in here. I don’t want to bleed all over you. I’ll not take you like this.”
“Then let me go,” she whispered.
His hands gripped all the more tightly at her waist and she suddenly felt the difference in their strengths. He was so strong he could snap her in two if he wanted to. It took an incredibly strong man to be standing on his feet after being wounded the way he had been. It didn’t matter how quickly he healed; it was still a terrible injury and he had to be feeling it.
But that was not the feeling he was focusing on. She could tell by the possessiveness of his grasp. He went to jerk her up against his body, but she tensed away from him just as he remembered he was covered in blood and could easily transfer it to her dress. It would announce to the world that she had been in his arms.
“Damn it to the eight hells!” he swore viciously. She knew he did not use a curse like that lightly, considering he had been in the eight hells. His frustration must be incredible, she thought, and something about that understanding pleased her no end.
But he did not let her go. Instead he transferred his hands to her head and dragged her mouth up to his. His chiseled lips covered hers with outright demand and a hot brand of desire. He wanted to own her. To own all the rights to her and damn everyone else. He wanted to be able to prove to everyone that she was his and he deserved her.
But how had he come to this? he wondered as he devoured her mouth, stroked his tongue against hers, swallowed the erotic flavor of her. This was supposed to have been a simple business arrangement. He was supposed to be focused on a single goal. How had he become enmeshed in a desire for a woman who did not deserve to be burdened with a cursed man? She had enough men in her life who were like a curse to her.
And yet he could not stop kissing her. He conveyed that to her with silent intensity. He wanted her to feel the power she had over him. She deserved to feel powerful … if in only this one thing.
Dethan kissed Selinda until she could not breathe. The feel of his tongue in her mouth was so sultry, as if he wished he were using it like this somewhere else on her body. The thought made her knees weaken, and her spine simply melted. But she could not let herself fall against him.
Realizing how close she was to doing so, Dethan stepped back from her, disengaging their mouths in the slowest of disconnections possible. He did not want to go and she did not want him to go.
“Tonight, you will come to me,” he said urgently.
“Yes,” she promised him.
“Good,” he said, taking her by her shoulders and turning her away from him. “Now go. Go before I forget myself and endanger you.”
Slowly she walked out of his grasp, toward the door. Once there, she hesitated, looking back at him.
“Tonight I want to make love with you,” she said. She didn’t know where the bold words had come from, but with him they seemed to come so easy.
“That is good because I plan on doing that very thing as soon as I am able.”
“Good,” she said, raising her chin. “As long as we understand each other.”
“Perfectly,” he assured her.
She smiled and left him.
Dethan felt the strength ebb out of him the minute she left, as if she had taken it with her. And perhaps she had. He felt stronger when he was with her somehow. It was purely perception, he knew, but he felt it just the same.
His hand went to his side and he felt the bandages already saturated with fresh blood. He lay back in the bed, thinking it was probably best to give his body an hour to heal. It would take longer than that to heal with any perfection, but it should be enough to get him back on his feet.
He had to fight the Redoe and win. He had to do it because so much was at stake.
And in his heart he knew that winning the city in Weysa’s name was no longer the top priority it should be. Which was very dangerous, he warned himself. He was there by the grace of the goddess and could easily be returned to the hells if he displeased her in any way.
But there had to be a way to achieve both goals. To win the city and to have Selinda as his own. There had to be a way and he had to find it and keep her safe in the doing of it. It was like balancing on the point of a sword. One wrong move and all his plans could be completely run through.
And Selinda as well in the process.