"She's also beautiful."
"Never seen a Valkyrie who wasn't." He peered hard at her, making her flush and look away. "Speaking of Nïx - what'd you do with her letter?"
"I memorized and destroyed it while you were out for food."
"Then you knew I'd snoop through your things?"
"From what I know about you so far, it was a statistical probability."
Over the last three hours, they'd ridden in silence, with Holly working on her laptop, lost in thought - and him trying not to glance over at her more than twice a minute.
She had her computer stylus behind her ear, her glasses on, and she was now lazily fingering those pearls.
Don't do it...don't do -
And there she went, running them against her lips.
Maddening woman, with even more maddening ways about her! And she had no clue of the men she left hard in her wake.
Here he was, locked in a car all night with his female, knowing she needed to be pleasured. He had a driving demon instinct to please his female - and couldn't.
Cade was about to explode.
Just then her brows drew together, and she typed in rapid-fire taps. She paused, biting her bottom lip. When she hit enter, she glowered at the answer.
He wondered what proofs, theorems, or functions she was considering and then rejecting. What was going on in that incredible brain of hers?
But she hadn't only been concentrating on math over the last few hours. He knew she'd occasionally been thinking about earlier. Her face would flush, and she'd run her pearls against her lips, but faster.
Had she liked what he'd shown her? He'd been proud for her to see him hard, loving the feel of her gaze on his shaft, hoping to tempt her hands to it. And she'd been so close to touching him.
He knew he hadn't been on his best behavior at the hotel. But when she'd been talking to that tosser, Cade had been overcome with jealousy.
He tried to remember the last time he'd been so envious. Probably when the Lykae Bowen MacRieve had found his mate. Intense rivals, both Bowen and Cade had gone centuries without finding their females. Then the Lykae had gotten his in a pretty, funny witch - the one Cade had made a lackluster run at.
Now Cade had found his own female in a brilliant, stunning Valkyrie, who was so confident she made him speechless at times.
But she was one he couldn't keep.
Another rapid bout of typing came, with another glare at her computer screen.
"Has anyone ever told you you're sexy as hell when you're mathematizing?"
She sighed, closing her laptop and removing her glasses. "Is sex all you think about?"
"It is when I'm in sore need of it. My kind need it three or four times on a regular day. And then after what happened between us earlier...? You've got to be feeling the aftereffects, too."
"Admit it. We had a moment." Though they hadn't even touched, he couldn't remember the last time he'd experienced anything so heated.
"It wouldn't matter if we did. I can control my baser urges."
"You said you didn't work things out for yourself. Which I know is a lie - "
"It is not!"
"It has to be," he said. "Otherwise the lust would just build and build."
"You're going to keep at this until I answer."
"You're beginning to understand me."
"No, I refuse this," she said, shaking her head. "We're simply not talking about this."
"Then talk about something else. You're due for a break from your work, and I need a distraction to take my mind from my aching thigh. Some Valkyrie refused to aid me in my distress."
"You deserved that."
"Probably," he allowed.
"Very well. What do you do as a mercenary?"
"I specialize in usurping thrones. They call me the kingmaker." Bragging now?
"Then you're an insurrectionist."
"You're assuming that I'm taking thrones from their rightful owners."
She gave a nod in his direction, as if conceding his point.
"But mainly, I fight wars. The Lore is a violent place, good for business," he said, then snapped his fingers. "Oh, wait, I almost forgot...you're a pacifist."
"That's not a bad word."
"It is when you're in the war industry."
She quirked a brow. Then seeming begrudgingly curious about his job, she asked, "How did you become a mercenary?
"I'd trained as a soldier to fight Omort." At nineteen, Cade had been thrown into a brutal training regime among Rydstrom's soldiers - who all despised him. For months, Cade had gotten his ass handed to him. Finally he'd learned he had to become faster, stronger, better than any demon in the army.
Ultimately, he had been, and people had taken notice. "In idle times between campaigns, I got offered some jobs." As Omort grew more powerful, crushing revolt after revolt, there'd been more idle times than not. "I had some success, and it snowballed. I've got a crew of forty-five under my command."
"Mostly," he said.
"Do you discriminate against non-demons?" she asked.
"We don't discriminate. As long as the applicant is vicious, has killed before, and is willing to do so again, he's hirable."
"And how many women are currently in your crew?" she asked pleasantly.
"I walked right into that one, didn't I?" he said, but she merely raised her eyebrows, awaiting his answer. "No females have applied. Much. Hardly any at all. Hey, if you stay Valkyrie, I'll hire you. The PhD mercenary."
"That'd be a waste of study."
He grew still. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It just seems like your occupation would utilize more brawn than brain."
"So the bigger your biceps, the better your military strategy and battle tactics? Is that what you think?"
She studied his face. "You're sensitive about this."
"What? I'm not bloody sensitive," he said, but his tone was gruff. "Back to you. You told Nïx that you were one code away from getting your PhD. What kind of code?"
Did she think he couldn't even follow along? That made his hackles rise. "The big, dumb demon has been known to understand a few things over his thousand years of life."
She gave him another studying look, as if he'd just proven her theory. "You really want to hear about my project?" When he nodded, she said, "I call it barbed code. I intend for it to be used in the private sector in computer applications to protect proprietary data. Eighty-five percent of all companies have reported data loss due to hacking or unauthorized access."
"You're telling me that many companies use codes?"
"Everyone uses codes. Or at least, anyone with a computer does. When you receive an e-mail, it's encrypted, until your e-mail program decodes it. An online banking transaction and even paying a speeding ticket online are code-heavy applications."
She turned, shifting her body to face him more fully, obviously loving this subject. Which disconcerted him.
If she was so keen on this stuff, then she'd want a partner who could discuss it with her. It pissed him off that she and that tosser spoke a language he could never know.
Once again - you can't bloody have her anyway!
"Cadeon, are you even listening to me?"
"What? Yeah, was just thinking about...how http always turns to https when I carry out a transaction."
"Https provides an additional level of encryption." She eyed him with new interest. Bloody good save. "But every computerized code is still breakable. Every single one can be decrypted by brute-force computing."
"Imagine a thousand computers working twenty-four hours a day on breaking a single code. That's BFC. So the general idea is to make a code so convoluted and complex that no one would have enough BFC available to crack it. But theoretically, it's still hackable."
"So what would your code do? Why call it barbed?"
"I want it to protect itself - by any means necessary."
"How would that be possible?" he asked.
"If it senses it's being decrypted, then it would cyber-attack the decoder."
He gave a laugh. "Figures a Valkyrie would develop a combative code."
Her eyes flashed silvery. "This is very serious." He'd already known how devoted she was to her work, but had never seen her this passionate about it. "BFC won't work if my code takes out those thousand computers simultaneously. And imagine the implications for other uses."
"Take, for instance, your antivirus software. It would no longer merely guard your computer against viruses, it could track the virus back to its origin, then send a mutated version to cripple the culprit's own system. Even e-mail applications would be affected. If you received spam, your computer would dispatch ten thousand spam messages directly back to the sender's real address, shutting down his system."
"I do believe that this is serious. It sounds like it could completely wipe out viruses and spam in no time."
"It totally could! The people behind them steal time from our lives, forcing us to defend against them or to deal with their fallout. And I resent it."
"So what's the holdup?"
She looked away as she said, "My code...attacks everything. Even friendly systems."
"The warrior code goes on the rampage."
She sighed. "That's correct."
"And you have to figure out how to make a code recognize a friendly from a foe."
With a nod, she said, "Imagine sending your coworker over in accounting a virus times one million. The results would be catastrophic to chance a friendly."
"So what are you doing now?"
"Trying to communicate with the code as a friendly to study exactly how it kicks my tail each time."
"Until I met you, I always thought codes were about words and riddles."
"Cryptology used to be the realm of linguists. Now it's dominated by the geeks." She said this proudly, as if she was one among them. "We're going to rule the world, you know?"
What Holly didn't understand was that when she said things like this, she didn't sound like a geek - she sounded like a Valkyrie.
I refuse!" she told Cadeon as they waited for the tank to fill up. "I won't do it!"
"You don't know what you're missing. Just a bite," he said, easing his hot dog toward her mouth.
From her perch on the hood of the car - where he'd insisted on lifting her - she eyed the offering with disgust and put up her hand. "Forget it. Gas station food is foul. Gas station hot dogs are beyond foul. Do you know how long it's been on those greasy rollers?"
"Long enough to taste good." He took a huge bite.
"You might as well be eating pickled pig's feet, fished from a jar."
His eyes went wide. "They had some? And you didn't tell me?" With a grin at her horrified expression, he said, "All right, all right. I had to give it a shot." He set down his dinner beside her, then bent to a plastic bag by his feet. "Here," he said, pulling out a bottle of orange juice. After painstakingly opening the top without touching the rim, he handed it to her. He also produced several packaged granola bars.
Cadeon could be unexpectedly thoughtful. For a demon. She took a drink. "Why haven't you made fun of me for my...quirks?"
He shrugged. "Everybody's got something unusual about them."
Holly tilted her head. He was wearing that broken-in, leather hat. Nïx had been right. He was sexy as the devil in it. She inwardly shook herself. "So what kind of gas mileage does a Veyron get?"
"At full speed, it can burn through a tank in twelve minutes."
She nodded slowly. "So basically this is a one-car solution to an unscathed ozone layer."
"Yeah. But it goes fast. Unlike that bladeless lawn mower you call a car."
"It's a hybrid! I drive it for the environment."
"But it doesn't go fast."
She rolled her eyes. "You said this was the most expensive car. How much is it?"
"One point two."
"Million?" she cried. She began scuttling off the hood, but he stayed her with his big hands on her hips.
"You don't have to get down. Always remember one thing."
"This isn't our car."
His sat-phone rang then. "It's Rök. Need to take this." He crossed the parking lot for privacy. As if she could understand whatever that foreign tongue was.
She'd learned that Cade's phone had satellite access, which meant that it would work just about anywhere on earth. Which meant that she could patch her wireless laptop into it and have internet access anywhere on earth.
Once he returned, she asked, "What do you call that language?"
"Demonish," he answered. "You'll be happy to know that the rest of the Order of Demonaeus has been taken out. And Rök and my crew are on the vampires' trail even as we speak. You'll have two fewer factions out for you."
"Oh. Thank you. And thanks to Rök." How did one express gratitude for demon and vampire strikes? It wasn't like there was a card. "How did you meet him?" she asked, picturing the demon she'd briefly met. He was as tall as Cadeon with similar horns, though Rök's were more silvery. He'd had black hair tied back in a queue, and heavy-lidded blue eyes. Take away the horns, and women would find him gorgeous.
"We were adversaries, each with different strengths - he likes his spy intrigues while I like to whack things with swords. We kept getting hired by different factions to go after the same stuff or for our crews to fight. We eventually determined that we'd kill each other, and then no one would get the pay."
"And is it all about the pay?"
"Hence the term mercenary." He chucked her under the chin. "Try to keep up, halfling."
Mississippi Mile Marker 775
"I thought 'Sandbar' was just a cutesy play on words," Holly observed, pulling her lightweight jacket tighter. The air coming off the river chilled her to her bones.
"Nope. It's really a sandbar island," Cadeon said. After strapping his sword over his back, he began leading the way from the bluff where they'd parked down to the water.
She followed him along the dicey path, picking her way through roots and scrub, expecting to fall - or at least to get a run in her hose at every turn. "I still don't see a ferry."
"Then take off your glasses. See the beach? Right down there. Ferry."
She squinted, then stumbled, and a nanosecond later she was in his arms - his big, warm arms.
Startled by how much she liked it there, she said, "I can make it by myself."
"I'll be buying more suitable footwear as soon as possible."
His voice was low and rough when he said, "I like you in your heels."
Why did she respond so readily to his mere voice, her body going soft against his? She'd never thought of voices as arousing, had never thought much about them at all unless they'd grated.
Tim's was pleasing. Cadeon's was...arousing.
At her ear, he rumbled, "I'd like them better digging into my back."
Of course, her mind went right to envisioning that.
"Got you thinking about it, didn't I?" Flashing her a look that said My work here is done, he continued down the path.
"Let me down, Cadeon. Now!"
He didn't, and there was nothing she could do about it because the demon was exponentially stronger than she was. She had no hope of overpowering him....
Before, she'd never had sex for fear of losing herself - and hurting another. There was no way she could with Cadeon.
Which meant that technically, this lusty demon was a potential sex partner for her.
Holly tried to stem those thoughts. Even if he was possible from a physical standpoint, he still wouldn't do. Cadeon was uncouth, overbearing, and an unabashed chauvinist.
Case in point - he refused to set her down even when they reached the chunky yellow sand to meet the ferryman.
The man was a creepy sort, with bulbous horns that pointed ominously forward. Cadeon's were much better. At least she knew she wouldn't get an eye put out if they ever missed while kissing.
Not that they'd be kissing ever again!
"Only Lorekind allowed," the ferryman said.
Against her protests, Cadeon tugged up her hair from her ear. "Valkyrie," he said simply.
When she squirmed against him, needing to put her hair to rights, the ferryman said, "Is she here to fight?"
He expected her to fight more than he expected it from the mercenary demon?
"The Valkyrie's just here with me," Cadeon said, and the man allowed them aboard.
On the ferry, Cadeon finally let her slide down his body so she could fix her hair. Minutes later, they docked at a pier of questionable structural integrity, which morphed into an unbalanced walkway wending through a swamp.
A cabin was lit up in the distance, and music sounded from within.
"Stay close to me," he said. "We get in, get the directions, and get out, yeah?"
"Yeah." She heard something in the woods beside them. "Hey, what's moving out there?" She strained to see.
He plucked off her glasses, and she instantly spotted a family of deer. Okay, there was no getting around it - her eyesight was changing.
"Give those back!"
"People are going to wonder why you wear glasses. Immortals don't need them."
She snatched the glasses back, shoving them on. "Then let them wonder." At the door, she checked her pearls, sleeves, and hair. She always did this before she entered a building, one of her more pressing rituals.
"Suit yourself. Now, this is going to be a shade shocking for you. Just don't stare at any of the patrons. Clear?"
"I can handle myself."
"Now, that I'm aware of, halfling. And don't talk to anyone about our business either. Just assume everyone in here is out to do you wrong."
"Shouldn't be a problem. I do that with you all the time."
He gave her a tight smile. "And, Holly, remember what you're capable of. If things go south, don't forget that you can mete out some serious pain. Don't hesitate."
If he continued telling her how strong and powerful she was, Holly was going to have to reevaluate his status as chauvinist -
He opened the door; reality went on hiatus.
To a jukebox's tune of "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw," beings that she'd never imagined were socializing. The place was like a regular bar, except peopled with creatures from myth.
Two men arm-wrestled and an image of a beast flickered over each of them. Their eyes wavered from an amber color to the lightest blue.
Lykae: werewolves. She remembered reading about them.
Four tall males with pointed ears played darts - through the crowd - from what had to be a distance of forty feet. The noble fey. Small, cherubic gnomes danced merrily. But for some reason, she sensed danger from them. Must be kobolds.
Sprinkled throughout were demons of all shapes and sizes and types of horns. She sulkily noted that Cadeon's were by far the finest of all of them.
Suddenly everyone stopped and stared - at her. She put her chin up. Cadeon drew her closer.
"Covering your unease well, halfling," he murmured at her ear, "but don't forget that a lot of these beings can still tell your heart is thundering. Calm it down."
Just then, the crowd parted to reveal a tall, shapely female traipsing toward them. "So this is the infamous Cade the Kingmaker," she said in a whiskey voice, eyeing him with obvious interest. "The rumors don't lie. You are the gorgeous half of the Woede."
"And you must be Imatra," he said, his tone inscrutable.