With his brows drawn, he rubbed a palm over one his horns, seemed to catch himself doing it, then yanked his hand down. "Don't like horns, huh? You were tickling Desh's like there was no tomorrow. For future reference, you might as well have been giving him a hand shandy."
She didn't know what that term meant, but it sounded bad. "How was I supposed to know that? It's not like that little nugget of information was in The Book of Lore. And you're one to criticize my behavior in the tavern, Saint Cadeon."
"Damn it, Holly, it's not what it looked like back there with Imatra."
"I really don't want to hear your defense when there hasn't been an offense. I'm not really concerned about what it looked like. None of my business."
"Even after we just kissed last - "
"The kiss that I didn't want and told you we'd never repeat?" She frowned as a wave of dizziness washed over her.
"Do you not wonder why I would kiss you last night and then her tonight?" As if that was all he'd done.
"Because you're a male?" She shrugged. "Maybe you're like a lion in a pride, wanting any available female you see."
"She told me she wouldn't give me the bloody directions until I did it!"
"And that took an hour?" Holly said with more feeling. But then Cade realized she was laughing at him.
"An hour? You're drunk...." He trailed off as he glanced at the dash clock. His brows drew together. "That witch! She must have slowed time in her room."
Now Holly laughed outright. "Slowed time. In her room." She hummed the tune from The Twilight Zone. "Just drop it. I don't care."
"I'd expect you to feel a shade proprietary after our kiss last night."
"I wouldn't feel proprietary, just as you wouldn't that I was flirting with Desh."
"Desh." He seethed for long moments. "Your boyfriend's at a conference, you were kissing me last night and damn near handling me just a few hours ago, and then you were getting drunk and hanging all over yet another male. Lot of loyalty there."
"You pinned me. The disloyal virgin. Playing fast and loose."
"Why are you smiling?"
"Because I'm enjoying my first time ever being tipsy."
"That's what this is about," he said, relaxing somewhat. "When you sober up, you're going to be pissed at me."
She pinched her forehead and muttered, "Now I fully comprehend the term buzz kill. I never did before."
"You're calling me a - oh, now I've heard it all! The schoolmarm's calling the demon a buzz kill."
"Schoolmarm? Ha! You just dated yourself again!"
Cade felt compelled to do something to shake Holly up. He could stand anything but this indifference.
He parked the car on the side of the road, then reached for her, cupping her face and drawing her to him. But she shoved at him. Hard.
Valkyrie strength - definitely growing.
"Don't you dare," she bit out, her eyes flashing silver. "If I wanted to taste Imatra's lips, then I would have kissed her myself."
"Fine." He drew back. "I don't give a shite if you believe me or not." Shoving the car into gear, he sped off once more....
After an hour of silence, she murmured, "Slow down."
"No. We've got time to make up."
"Cadeon, slow down. I don't feel s'good."
"How many bloody shots did you have? Two? Three?"
She gave a shaky laugh. "Bit higher."
"Did they tell you it takes a while to hit?"
"They did, indeed."
"Holly, how many?"
"I can say...with absolute certainty that the number was an integer, a multiple of three, and greater than or equal to nine - " Her head slumped forward.
It had taken Cade two uneasy hours to find even a somewhat decent hotel to stay in. Holly had been passed out, curled on her side in the seat, the entire time.
Just as he was carrying her to their new room, she blinked open her eyes, staring up at him.
So pretty. His anger had already ebbed, and now that mere look of hers made his heart punch his chest. He sighed. "Baby, after nine shots, you're going to be completely legless - "
She gave a moan. "I'm going to...lose my legs?"
He couldn't help but grin at her woeful tone. "You're going to be drunk, blotto."
When he set her on the bed, she lay back, but immediately cried, "Oh, God, it's spinning!"
He hurriedly dragged her leg to the side so she could touch her toe to the carpet. "Better?"
After a few moments, she murmured, "Better."
"Ah, the things I could teach you. Now I'm going to undress you for bed."
"I can do it," she slurred, appearing to reach for the top button of her sweater, instead shoving her knuckle in her eye. "Yow! That hurt."
"Let me do it - I won't look."
In a solemn tone, she said, "Yes, you will."
"Yeah, you're probably right." He peeled off her sweater. "But it's nothing I haven't seen before...."
Oh, but it was, he realized by the time he'd gotten her down to her stockings and her black lacy underwear. He'd never seen anything like this in all his life. He exhaled a stunned breath, muttering, "Ah, gods, halfling, I could come just looking at you."
"Hmm? What'd you say?"
She was exquisite in her silky lingerie and thigh-highs. All that swimming had done her body so damned right.
Her arms and legs were toned, but she'd retained her softness. Her hips flared from her tiny waist. Creamy breasts spilled over that wicked half-cup bra.
She had a sexpot figure and would for the rest of her immortal life; he wanted to howl with pleasure just to be gaping at it. He reached for her breasts, his hands itching to knead them -
"Didya say something, Cadeon?" she asked softly.
He drew back his hands, making white-knuckled fists. Once more, he reached for her, again drawing back. He paced, struggling to blunt his hunger. His fantasy woman was laid out in the bed like an offering in silk - and he couldn't touch her.
Then he narrowed his eyes. If he wasn't going to take advantage of her, he'd at least get some answers. "Yeah, pet. Got a question for you...."
"Good morning, sunshine!" Cadeon boomed by her ear.
Holly shot up, immediately clutching her head with a groan.
"Or good evening, rather," he said. "I let you sleep as long as I could, but we're on a schedule, you understand. And some of us like to keep a regimented schedule."
"Oh, God. I'm in hell."
"I've got the night all planned out. You're going to shower because you smell like a cask of hundred-proof, and then we're going to train. Once on the road, you're going to look up our destination. If you're not too hung over. Here, drink this." He opened a bottle of Gatorade, obviously giving care not to touch the rim.
She squinted at the bottle, then at her hands, which were both reaching for the drink. Soon she was chugging it down.
"Eat these," he said, handing her an unopened box of regular Saltine crackers, which she tore into.
For some reason, at that moment Gatorade and Saltines were sublime.
She began to feel better in minutes. "Thank you."
"I live a life of service. Speaking of which, do you need any help getting dressed? Like you did getting undressed?"
At his words, all the events from the night before flashed in her mind, and her eyes went wide.
Not only had Cadeon been with Imatra last night, he'd also taken advantage of Holly's first bout of drunkenness.
Through the haze of alcohol, she remembered him questioning her, coaxing answers from her about all kinds of things - private things. His voice had been so lulling, his demeanor relaxed.
Now she realized she'd been played.
Her face flamed as she recalled her disclosures: She didn't touch herself ever - because she swam laps when the need got too strong, or else she had vivid dreams and would wake up right in the middle of...she thought he'd actually supplied the word coming.
Shaming, but true. She'd often dreamed of vigorous sex to the point of physical reaction....
Her hands clenched, anger warring with her abject embarrassment. And then, she'd admitted to him that she was curious about sex, but that any intimate situation she'd been in had always ended up with her hurting someone.
She shook her head hard. His behavior was beyond low. He hadn't taken advantage of her body, but of her mind -
He began drawing the cover off of her. "Fine, halfling, I'll help."
She yanked at the top sheet, irritably wrapping it around herself as she stumbled to her feet.
"Okay, now you really don't need to do that blushing virgin bit anymore - I got to ogle your body at my leisure for hours. Matter of fact, I had so long, I could have painted you, instead of just taking pictures with my sat-phone." He held up his phone with a wink.
"I loathe you," she said, precariously bending to collect her toiletries and clothes. As she headed for the bathroom, she gave him the evilest eye she could muster....
A long hot shower cleared much of the cobwebs from her head. And her stomach had settled. Once she emerged from the bathroom dressed for the day, she felt like a human being again.
She sighed. Or not. She couldn't truly say.
"How're you doing?" he asked.
"I'm perfectly fine." I think I'm beginning to hate you. Which is good. I should be happy about that. It'll help me keep my eye on the prize.
"You're pissed about last night."
"Shouldn't I be? You took advantage of me."
"I didn't touch you!"
"You know that's not what I'm talking about," she snapped. "You interrogated me."
"You're angry that I happened to ask you some questions when you happened to be drunk? I can't figure it. But that doesn't matter. At least you'll be jacked up for training time."
"What is this training you keep talking about?"
"I need to teach you how to fight. Sparring, self-defense." When she made no move to cooperate, he said, "Come on, it'll be fun."
She raised her brows. "I do believe I took down a dozen demons all by myself."
"You said yourself that you were in a rage. What if you don't go into that state again? Or what if you want to fight someone off without killing him? As long as your life's in danger, you need to be preparing."
Sometimes she found herself forgetting that assassins wanted to murder her. "Would this involve hitting you?"
Nothing could be more compelling to her right now. "Then I'm in. What do you want me to do?"
"Take off your heels."
Once she'd removed her shoes, he motioned for her to stand facing him. "If you take nothing else away from what I'm about to teach you, remember two things: Never hesitate. If the instinct to strike is there, then do it. And second, don't be ashamed to run if you're outnumbered - but only if you think you can get away. Otherwise you're just wasting everyone's time and wearing yourself out."
She shrugged. "Okay."
"Now, how would you engage me if we were facing off? Say you had to get past me or you die."
"I'd try to hit you?"
"Unless you're battling another chick - which I wouldn't mind seeing if mud were involved - you shouldn't punch at all."
She pursed her lips. "I watch TV. What would a fight be without punches?"
"Okay, slug a haymaker at me." At her frown, he said, "You watch TV but never boxing? Forget it. A haymaker is an all-out, full-force hit."
The idea of battering his arrogant face had her clenching her hand in a fist.
"Do it now! Hit now - "
She did, aiming for his face; he turned so that the blow landed against his horn.
"Ow! That was unfair!"
"Don't ever strike a demon above the throat. He's going to use his horns in combat. And some of them can emit a poison from the ends."
"Yeah, but only when I'm in complete rage form."
"So what you're saying is that you're toxic, and you can even be poisonous, too?"
He gave her an unamused look, then continued, "Even with other species, you should never go for the head. Think about it - most of it is covered by hard bone. The odds of hitting vulnerable areas like the mouth or nose aren't good. And if you land a hit anywhere else but those two spots, you'll likely hurt your hand more than your opponent. But that doesn't mean you can't attack the face. You can gouge eyes out, and rake your claws down a foe's cheek. Or you can give him a 'Glasgow kiss.'"
"A head-butt. Say I've got your arms wrapped tight at your sides, and you can't get free. Just snap your head forward, aiming your forehead for the bridge of your enemy's nose."
"What about the old standby of kicking a guy in the groin?"
Love to... Without warning, she launched a kick. He caught her foot, forcing her to hop for balance.
"Cadeon!" she cried, and he finally released her.
"I could have tossed you backward. If you're going for the groin, use your hands. It only takes a little force to do a lot of damage there. And most males won't expect a small female to go for a grab. Now try to hit my torso. Charge me! Now! Do it!"
She did, but he snatched her hand. Using her momentum, he spun her around, looping his arm around her neck. "That's all it would take, Holly. Your adversary could break your neck."
They were both breathing heavy, his forearm easing down to her breasts. She narrowed her eyes. He'd done this entire sparring scenario just to get her in a position like this.
At that instant, something snapped. Holly had officially had enough of Cadeon's tricks. She'd throw a few of her own.
She relaxed in his arms, acting receptive. As if pleased with her, he pressed his mouth to her neck. He was already growing hard against her.
Yet just last night, he'd been with another.
Don't think - just let instinct take over? She eased around in his arms. Gazing at his mouth, she whispered, "I want to kiss you."
His eyes widened, then narrowed. "Holly..." he said in a raspy voice, easing down.
Just before his lips reached hers, she jerked her head back to whip it forward into his nose. A Glasgow kiss. Distinct cracking sounded.
With his nose pouring blood, he squeezed her upper arms, "Holly, what the fuck - "
Using all her strength, she hiked her knee up between his legs.
His hands flew to cup his groin as his knees met the ground.
"You're right, Cadeon." She dusted off her hands. "That really was fun."
You broke my nose and my ballocks, and you're the one acting pissed off?" Cade said as he drove down the freeway, noting how nasally his voice sounded.
Without glancing up from her computer, she said, "You're the one who wanted to spar." Her tone was aloof, distinctly uninterested.
"I didn't know I was courting your feminine wrath. And I told you not to go for the groin. Doubtful I'll be able to reproduce after your knee-job."
"What will the world be like without little Cadeons to populate it?"
"If you were angry because I asked you some questions then you've gotten me back."
In that uninterested voice, she said, "Revenge is sweet." He'd never seen this side of her.
Yet even considering this animosity, he would still do the same thing again. He'd struck gold in his interrogation, having finally discovered why his female had remained a virgin.
She'd been too afraid of hurting another with her strength and aggression.
He'd also learned how she'd controlled her libido. With punishing swims and wet dreams. Thinking about the latter had even his abused manhood stirring.
"Is this how it's to be the entire trip?" he asked her.
"I simply don't have anything to say to you."
"Well, then I'm just going to talk. And talk. And say my piece. First of all, I didn't sleep with Imatra."
With a sigh, she asked, "Why do you care if I believe you or not?"
"Because if you think I got a leg over with that slag, then the chance of anything sexual with you will be drastically reduced."
Without looking up, she said, "Cadeon, a chance can't be reduced from zero."
"Gods, I love it when you talk mathy to me."
He wasn't going to charm her this time. She faced him with a blank expression.
"All right, so you don't think this is a jesting matter," he said. "I get that. But the fact remains that I didn't tup her."
Strangely enough, Holly had started to have minute doubts. Yes, she'd seen them kissing - which was bad enough, since he'd been making advances toward Holly the same night. But had they actually slept together? What if Imatra truly had withheld the directions?
Holly said, "You might be telling the truth about this, and I might come to believe you. But you're lying about something. I can feel it. So be careful what you convince me of."
Had something flashed in his eyes?
Whatever might have been there, he masked it quickly enough. "I don't think I can convince you. Of anything."
Interesting. He's backing down....
"You believe I'm so wicked? I could have taken advantage of you last night, and I didn't."
This made her part her lips. "Do you honestly want credit because you didn't do anything to a helpless female?"
"No! Yes. No, damn it - "
"And you did do something to me! You had your petty interrogation, digging for my secrets." Struggling to get a rein on her temper, she said, "Look, we're stuck together for who knows how long. So let's just try to minimize the unpleasantness and get through this."
"Then use your laptop to get online, and look up our next checkpoint."
"Fine." She MapQuested it, saved the results, then Googled it.
"Well, what does it say about the bridge?"
"Officially, it's called the Bloodwater River Bridge. It's a covered bridge that was decommissioned thirty years ago as unsound. Only the locals call it the Laughing Lady, because it's supposed to be haunted."
"Then it probably is."
"You're saying ghosts are real, too?"
"Yeah. They're not of the Lore, though. We have phantoms - kind of the Lore equivalent of a ghost."
"What's the difference?"
"Phantoms can incarnate at will and travel the world. Not stuck in an attic rattling chains and such."
"Ever met a ghost?"
"Never seen one. Nor a phantom, either. They're kind of rare. So what's the haunt that's supposed to be here?"
What wasn't there? "The first death occurred during the construction of the bridge in 1899. A worker fell into one of the wooden casts used to set the bridge's piers. Unfortunately, it was already half filled with liquid cement. Before others could fish him out, he'd sunk deep. It hardened quickly, so the foreman decided to leave the body inside rather than explode the pier. After that, the locals said, the river got hungry for death."
"You mean the town wasn't named Bloodwater River until then?"
"No, it already was - there's a rare clay that turns the water reddish."
"So then what happened?"
"In the early 1900s, a serial killer disposed of bodies there. He murdered thirteen women and threw them off the bridge, allegedly because he wanted to feed the river. He was shot just before he fatally wounded the fourteenth victim."