"Good morning, beautiful."
Holly woke with a start, finding herself in Cadeon's arms in a dimly-lit room. He was staring down at her - with eyes that glowed.
"Didn't realize you had freckles," he said, his voice rumbling.
"Put me down." She squirmed to get free. She didn't need to be reminded of his deep voice, not when she'd just been dreaming about him - her subconscious telling her things with all the subtlety of a hammer's whack. "Where are we? What are you doing holding me like this?"
He set her on the edge of a bed with a soft comforter. "We're in a hotel for the day in northern Mississippi, and I was going to see if I could get you ready for bed without waking you."
"Ready for bed?" She rubbed her eyes and surveyed the suite. It looked like they were in an upscale hotel, not that she'd been in many - or any - hotels in the last decade. The place might be nice, but right away she could see some things that needed to be rearranged to make sense. First, the chairs at the dining table -
"Yes, ready for bed," he said, plucking off her glasses, and setting them on the bedside table. Then he bent down to unfasten her heels.
"I'm sure I can manage the rest." She frowned at his sudden attentiveness. "I can do that," she insisted, but he wasn't listening.
He studied her shoe, with his lips curling as if he found it adorable. "You've the smallest feet, poppet." Once he'd removed her shoes, he said, "And now your top."
Before she could stop him, he pinched the bottom of her sweater and began tugging.
"Are you crazy?" She slapped his hands away, ducking under his arm to flee to the other side of the room.
"It's nothing I haven't seen before."
With her arms crossed over her chest, she said, "Just call me about thirty minutes before you're ready to leave tonight."
"I will be bunking here with you."
Holly tensed. Sharing a room with the husky-voiced demon she'd been dreaming about in the car? This wouldn't work at all. "How exactly would I explain this to my boyfriend?"
"How exactly are you going to explain any of this?"
Indeed. "I'm not going to tell him. If I can get this reversed, he never has to know."
"Good answer. It's against the rules of the Lore to tell humans about our world."
"But why do we have to share a room?"
"Because we're still too close to your last known whereabouts. There could be more vampires."
"I can take care of myself."
"That you can," he said easily. She was alternately discomfited and pleased by his ready confidence in her abilities. "But you'll have a hard time defending yourself when you're asleep. So that's where I come in."
Her stomach chose that moment of silence to growl loudly.
He grinned. "If you're going to be up for about twenty minutes more, I could go for some food. It's too early for room service, but there's a breakfast place across the street."
She nodded. "Can you just get me a bottle of orange juice? I don't like food prepared by others." Or by myself.
"We'll see. If you want to grab a shower, now's the time." At the door, he said, "And, Holly, do not take those pearls off. Or we'll be in deep shite."
She was still in the shower when he returned, which meant she was fair game. He grasped the bathroom door handle, gave a heft to easily break the lock, then swung the door open wide.
"The male's back from the hunt," he called, grinning at her outraged screech.
"Get out! Shut the door!"
Since he could only distinguish a vague shape behind the clouded-glass shower stall, he decided to comply with her requests.
Crossing to the dining table, he set down the plastic bag of food. Finding her something to eat actually had turned into a hunt - because she had such strict criteria. He'd watched her enough to learn about her eccentric eating habits.
Cade had wondered why she hadn't hurried into the shower and been dressed by the time he returned, but now as his gaze swept the room, he realized she hadn't been able to drag herself away from rearranging everything not nailed down.
Three of the four chairs were neatly pushed in. With the fourth, she'd propped the chair's back against the table, leaning it forward on two legs. She'd clearly remade the bed and adjusted the pillows on the room's small sofa, which she'd also moved a few feet over.
The alarm clock on the bedside table was flush against the wall with no wire to be seen, and the remote control sat at a right angle to the center of the clock. The trash can was pressed directly against one end of the dresser, her suitcase against the other end. Her wireless laptop and cell phone sat perfectly parallel on the desk, charging.
Cade needed to check his e-mail and sports scores and map out their route for the day, so he opened her computer, and signed in as a guest. After routine Web stuff, he Googled a couple of things, unsurprised to find that she had the safe content filter on.
He leaned back in his chair, trying to imagine a life filtered of anything sexual.
Not worth living.
Hell, he was one to talk. He hadn't been with another woman since the day he'd met Holly, the longest stretch of celibacy since he'd first had sex. A few months ago, when he'd finally become convinced he could never have Holly, Cade had given a halfhearted try for a witch, but she'd wanted another.
Now he was glad of it.
He set the laptop back on the table, his attention drifting to her suitcase. Cade was itching to get a look at Nïx's letter. Thinking this a fine time to snoop, he crouched beside the bag, dragging it away from the wall so he could open the top wide.
After rooting through her folded skirts and sweater sets, he opened the side compartment, raising his brows at the contents. "Hellooo, lingerie," he murmured.
Cade considered himself a male of simple tastes. He didn't need outrageous lingerie to turn him on. But the thought of prim Holly in those wicked scraps of silk sent blood rushing to his groin....
She emerged then, wearing a bathrobe drawn up to her neck. "What are you doing?" she cried.
"Looking for Nïx's letter."
"You can't just go through my belongings!"
"I never would've suspected such naughty underthings from prim Miss Ashwin." He hooked his forefinger under the waistband of a thong, then spun it around.
"Give those back!" She snatched it away. "Nïx did this! She swapped out all my underwear and hose."
He didn't doubt it, but still said, "Yeah, right. Why would she do that?"
"I don't know - how could I possibly explain her actions?"
He snagged another pair of tiny panties, holding them up with both hands. "Then I bet a thong like this would still be feeling...unusual."
"Ooh, give it!"
Before she could lunge for it, he rose, tossing it back in the bag as if he'd grown bored with it. "Now I have to wonder what's under all that terry cloth." He pulled out another one of the chairs, then sank down.
She jutted her chin. "Regular pj's."
"Bullshite. Then let me see."
"I don't have to prove anything to you."
He leaned back with his hands behind his head. "I've seen all the goods, Holly. Not even half a day ago, so the memory's still fresh. No need to choke yourself with terry cloth," he said, but she wasn't listening, her sad-eyed gaze back on the pile of her now unfolded clothes.
"I'll have to redo everything." She looked so despondent that he decided to cut her a break on his teasing.
"What would happen if you didn't?"
"I would be a basket-case, unable to think about anything else." When she bent down to repack, her robe tightened over her ass, drawing his eyes like a magnet.
She shivered, then frowned at him over her shoulder.
"You can feel my eyes on you," he explained. "Immortals sense things more acutely. Sound, sight, even tactile perception. We call it hypersensitivity. You'll get used to it in time."
Once she was finished with her bag, she stood, no doubt scanning for more disarray. If her eyes had gone wild at the sight of him scrounging through her bag, then seeing her laptop open and out of place made her sway on her feet. "No...you...my computer?"
Holly cast him the same look he'd give a hellhound that had eaten his Super Bowl tickets. She secured the laptop, assessing it, turning it this way and that. "Your hands were sticky! Oh, God!"
He might've had a donut or two while he'd been waiting for his order.
She dove for her antibacterial wipes. Sitting on the bed, she turned from him, hunching over the computer, wiping it down.
He could only watch her actions in grim fascination, noting her shoulders rising and falling as she took deep, calming breaths.
Apparently reassured that nothing was screwed, she put the computer back on the desk, arranging it by the cell phone, then smoothed the comforter where she'd sat.
"Look, Cadeon," she began, but her gaze drifted back to the computer. She hurried back, adjusting it less than a millimeter to one side, then started again. "Last night I was too stunned to react to half the things you did. Now I'm not. You won't be able to treat me as you have been."
"Oh? Like with the saving your life and then driving you all night while you slept?"
"Like with the t-touching my computer. That was...bad. I'm not saying you can't use it - I don't mind sharing. But I need to sign you in and make sure you know how to treat it properly."
"I wasn't downloading porn or anything." Didn't occur to me at the time. "Just Googled some things and checked our route for tonight."
"Well, that's not the only area with you that has to change. There can't be any more planning to undress me as I sleep or bursting in on my shower and ogling me. Or even calling me those sexist pet names."
"You mean my endearments? What's wrong with them?"
"They're belittling to women."
He shook his head firmly. "None doing. It's just habit. This is the way males used to talk to females. And the endearments are female specific."
"Like pet or poppet? I only call females I like by those." Only females he really liked. Pet was proprietary and poppet indicated affection. In other words, he'd never used those terms before. "If I'm not interested in a female, I'll call her sweet, sweetheart, or dove."
"Should I feel moved by this revelation? Honored to be deemed poppet?"
"I was going for charmed. But you're a hard one, pet."
"I'd be more inclined to be charmed if you had any respect for my privacy."
"We're going to be stuck together for at least a couple of weeks. Maintaining privacy would take too much effort, and would be futile anyway."
She pursed her lips, as if she couldn't argue with that. "Well, what about your cursing? Must you be so foulmouthed around me?"
"I've been using those words since before humans decided they were foul." He began to set out food from the bag.
"Those kinds of terms are very jarring to people who were raised to avoid them...." She trailed off. "Are those oatmeal pancakes?"
He knew her mouth was watering. "There wasn't any orange juice?"
"Oh, there was."
He dug into another bag and produced individually packaged cereals, a plastic spoon still in its wrapper, a sealed carton of milk and one of orange juice.
She narrowed her eyes. "All prepackaged. Exactly how long have you been watching me, Cadeon?"
"Long enough to know what you like to eat, and what you will eat..."
I guess I wasn't that hungry anyway." Holly pushed her plate away after finishing only half of her breakfast.
"It's the change," Cadeon said. "Valkyrie don't eat."
"How is that even possible?"
"Dunno. How's it possible for shifters to change form, or witches to move things with their minds?"
After she threw the breakfast trash away, fatigue set in. It didn't help when he turned on a low lamp and pulled the heavier layer of drapes closed.
She sank down on the edge of the bed. Her body was exhausted, but her senses felt alive, humming. Hypersensitivity? She believed it. And now she was in a darkened hotel room, alone with a demon she'd had not-so-subtle dreams about.
Though she'd have thought his horns would be off-putting - not to mention his boorish behavior - she was actually feeling an inexplicable attraction to the demon. And she'd already had trouble controlling her urges.
Holly had experienced a variety of fears and idiosyncrasies and had been medicated for them. Now without her medicine...what would she do?
Somehow, she had to get her refills, not only to stifle these compulsions - but also to slow this progression.
Progression? Could she possibly get worse?
She recalled her parents taking her to Pompous Shrink, the "best in the state." He'd droned on and on about her fragile mental health to her poor parents....
"This is a classic case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. An OCD patient experiences a constant fear of transformation," he'd said. "She'll dread losing her sense of self, often experiencing impulses to act out of character. As these impulses can cause a great deal of anxiety, the patient will begin performing compulsive acts in order to suppress them. The stronger the urge, the more compulsive the behavior."
Oh, and there were chemical imbalances, too. "Most likely inherited from her mystery parents," he'd said with a resigned sigh, as if he'd seen this all before. "And exacerbated by Holly's insecurities over being adopted."
She'd never had insecurities about that. Her parents had been incredible - patient, encouraging, and loving. But they'd begun blaming themselves for her unusual behavior, looking for some fault in her upbringing, something they'd needed to provide for her but hadn't.
Her mom had apologized to Holly before she'd died....
At that memory, she dropped her head into her hands.
"Whoa, halfling!" Cade quickly sat beside her. "What's the matter?" When she didn't answer, he said, "I'm not the type of male who's good at this sort of thing, this...comforting. But maybe...do you, uh, want to talk to me about what's going on in that head of yours?"
At length, she said, "It's all so bewildering. I mean, just last night, I was drugged and kidnapped, and then..." She trailed off.
"And then what? Tell me what happened to you."
Her voice had turned to a whisper. "It was horrifying. I woke up, and I was...naked, stripped for some kind of ritual. There were all these men watching me. I tried to reason with them, to beg them to let me go, but they just laughed and ignored me. Then, when it was about to begin, I shrieked."
She nodded. "Louder than anything I've ever heard. And the glass dome above broke. Then lightning struck me directly in the chest, and it went on and on. I don't remember much after that. I just recall feeling this rage, this uncontrollable need to do violence."
When had his hand rested on her back? It was big and warm, and he used it to gently rub up and down. "You've been through a lot. It's normal to react like this."
"Normal for a Valkyrie or for a human?" she asked, sniffling. "I don't quite have a grasp on either, since I've never been fully one or the other."
The truth of that sunk in at that moment. This meant Holly had to reevaluate everything. What was her personality truly like? She didn't recognize herself.
Just as Nïx had said.
And Holly knew that in the absence of a constant against which to measure, the introduction of new variables was a recipe for chaos. "I don't like my routine interrupted. I don't like surprises. On the best of days, I-I don't handle them well."
"Maybe you don't handle them well because you haven't had any practice with them."
"No, I have a condition - "
"So you like to arrange stuff. Where's the harm?"
She frowned. Holly had heard her dad say the same thing when he'd spoken to her mom about the drugs Pompous Shrink had wanted to put her on.
Holly shook her head. "You make it sound so negligible. But there were times when I couldn't leave my house for fear I would run out into a storm or get mesmerized by a shiny jewel. And now I have no idea how I'll react. Cadeon, what's normal for a Valkyrie cannot be normal for me." She knew she was being superficial, but she couldn't help adding, "And I don't want fangs and pointed ears!"
"Not that this will change how you feel, but I happen to love pointed ears."
She gave him a dubious expression.
"No, honestly. To a male from the Lore, they signal either fey or Valkyrie, and either species is renowned for its stunning females."
"Even if they didn't look freakish to me, they could prevent me from going about among humans."
"None doing. You'll just cover them with all this pretty hair of yours. I've seen Valkyrie plait braids over their ears or wear head bands over them. I've even seen them go with them uncovered and proclaim themselves extras on a movie set still 'in makeup.'"
Nïx hadn't seemed concerned about hers at all. "And the fangs?"
"They're so small, Holly." He grinned and laugh lines fanned out from the edges of his eyes. "Humans wouldn't notice anything was off."
"But I would be self-conscious, behaving differently."
"No, you'd learn to brazen it out. Evading detection is all about attitude." Had his voice grown rougher?
"If I get to this sorcerer quickly enough, then..." She trailed off, frowning. "Cadeon, are you smelling my hair?"
Uncaring now that he was caught, he took a handful and shoved his face in it, inhaling deeply.
"What is wrong with you?" she demanded, shooting to her feet.
"What? I just nee - wanted to smell your hair."
"You offer to talk to me, but you don't give a damn about what I'm feeling."
"That's not true, pet."
She huffed to her cell phone, unplugging it from the charger.
"Who are you calling?"
"The one I should be confiding in, instead of the mercenary demon who cares more about how my hair smells than my feelings!"
Visiting family?" Tim said, incredulous. "In Memphis?
But you don't like to travel."
She moved the cell phone to her other ear. "A bit of an emergency cropped up. Everything's fine, but I thought I should be there." In a bid to change the subject, she said, "So tell me, how's the conference going? Is California nice?"
Cadeon prowled the room. Okay, there's no way around it now. The demon had been making advances toward her and now seemed jealous. But why?
Holly was exponentially younger than he was, and she wasn't a traffic-stopping beauty like Nïx. Holly was the cute geek. Not the immortal femme fatale.
She and Cadeon just didn't fit. She wasn't from his world and made no secret that she had no interest in joining it....
"Our papers were well received," Tim said. "Very much so. I just wish you could be here."
Holly experienced a flare of annoyance that he'd enjoyed all the accolades. She was the stronger mathematician, and they both knew it.
She stilled. Where had that come from? She'd never felt so tetchy with him before. Here was yet another example of her transitioning into something she'd rather not be.
"I miss you," he said, making her feel even guiltier for getting irritated.
"I miss you, too," she said. At her words, Cadeon sat, then immediately stood, pacing again.
"Are you still working on your code?" Tim asked. "I didn't see anything uploaded." They shared an online account to backup their work and religiously uploaded every night.
"I'm starting back first thing tomorrow."
"The sooner you get it done - "
"I know, I know. The sooner I'm a doc." He was always so incredibly supportive, pushing her to reach her dreams.
In a lower voice, he said, "I can't wait to see you again, sweetheart."
Sweetheart. Why had she never noticed before that Tim often called her that endearment? "I know. I can't wait either."
Cade slammed into the bathroom, exiting short moments later looking like he'd splashed his face with water. "Hang up," he bit out before she could mute the phone.
"Who was that?" Tim said.
"A...cousin of mine."
"I didn't know you had any cousins."
"Me neither, not until recently. Finding branches of my family that I'd had no idea about." When Cadeon began striding toward her, she hurriedly said, "But I have to go now. Call you later?"
"Yes, of course. Be safe - "
Cadeon snatched the phone from her, braving her outraged slaps. "Holly's kissing cousin here," he said. "Sorry, Todd, the chit's going to have to ring you back in a week or two."
When he hung up on Tim, she snapped, "How dare you! All you're supposed to do is keep me safe - that's what you're getting paid for. Explain to me what kind of danger there was in talking to him!"
"No danger," he said, looming over her until they were toe to toe.
They were both breathing heavily. He was so imposing, seeming to take up the very air she needed, making it hard to concentrate.
"Maybe I've watched the two of you together enough to know you'd be throwing away all your passion on him."
"That's not your place to say! Nïx told me you've been hired to transport me to the sorcerer - nothing more, and nothing less."
He looped his arm around her waist, holding her even when she beat her fists against his rock-hard chest. "That might be true, but it doesn't mean I can't let you know when you're making a mistake."
"Fine. Your opinion is noted," she said, keeping up her fruitless efforts to get away. "Now let me go!"