"How did you sleep?" He gazed at her, studying her face.
She would give anything to know what he was thinking. "Surprisingly well." Like the dead, actually. Odd for her.
"That so?" Why was he staring at her like that?
She tucked her hair behind her ear. This was so awkward. Was he thinking about last night? Recalling how she'd looked naked? Or what they'd done?
The only time she'd been intimate with a male, besides MacRieve, she'd experienced a wedding, dawning horror, and torture. Now she didn't know how to behave.
MacRieve was looking at her like she was a puzzle he intended to solve.
But when the smell of bacon wafted into the cabin, his lids grew heavy. "Smell that, will you? Wish you ate. I'd feed you like a queen. Or at least like a princess."
She could eat, but refraining was an inherent form of birth control for Valkyrie.
Ah, gods, was she planning on having sex with him?
"I guess I'll have to eat your meals to hold up my end of the bargain," he said. At her raised brows, he added, "Our deal was that I'd keep your cover if you sated me. For a night like the last, I'll keep your cover a lot. Speaking of which, I thought I should inquire - are you ready for me to claim you yet?"
When she glared, he said, "I'll give you a few minutes to think about it."
He stood, not caring a whit about his nudity - or his semihard erection. In fact, he stretched in front of her, his muscles tensing and relaxing, playing all over his body. He cast her a grin over his shoulder. "Oh, and how about now?"
Her lips quirked, but she hid it. "No, werewolf!"
"It's just a matter of time, Valkyrie - "
"Goddamnit, Chuck, what'd I tell you?" rang out from above decks. It was Travis, somehow sounding even more drunk. "Ship's fine just the way she is!"
MacRieve raised a brow. "An intrigue. The Lykae in me needs to investigate that, and the bacon. You get a reprieve."
As soon as he donned his worn jeans and a T-shirt and padded barefoot out of the cabin, she hurried from the bed, intending a quick shower.
The door reopened; she froze, naked. MacRieve's lips curled into that lupine grin. "Forgot this." Absently patting around for the bowcase, he ogled her up and down. When he'd snagged the case, he said, "Doona move till I get back."
Once the door closed again, she heard him mumble outside, "Woman'll be the death o' me."
She released a pent-up breath, hurrying for the bathroom. MacRieve continued to surprise her. Last night, he hadn't done more, hadn't tried to seduce her. He'd kept his part of the vow, and since she would certainly never agree to more - especially out of bed - she thought she could handle this arrangement with him.
Yes, a short journey with the Lykae, and if she could stay in control of herself, she'd have some extra muscle who knew the area to help her.
After a hasty shower, Lucia dressed, some imp making her choose a babydoll T-shirt and some of the shorter shorts she'd packed. Feeling more optimistic than she had in memory, she lightly lined her eyes with kohl and brushed on lip gloss.
She was just about to set out when her gaze fell on his bulging duffel bag. He wasn't the only one with a marked curiosity. She knelt beside it, rooting through his belongings. Aside from clothes, she found a large leather bundle with knotted ties - and two condoms.
For other women? They must have been. Valkyrie couldn't get pregnant unless they took steps to, and they had no need for safe sex. Though Lucia had no right to be jealous - she'd sent MacRieve away again and again - the idea left her unaccountably envious.
No, not unaccountably. She'd never denied that the Scot's kisses were like a drug to her. Just listening to his raspy brogue made her want to sigh. From the earliest moments with MacRieve, she'd felt possessiveness toward him....
She thought she heard someone coming and stuffed everything back in his bag.
A second later, he burst through the door. "You showered without me again? You're underutilizing me." Before she could reply, he asked, "You ever see a caiman before?" When she shook her head, he said, "You want to?"
At that, MacRieve ushered her out of the cabin, with his gaze pinned on her and filled with curiosity. He gave her a grin, looking like a crafty wolf.
And she couldn't help but feel like a henhouse he planned to raid....
When Garreth had returned to the cabin, Lucia was wearing a small top that molded to her pert breasts and the shortest shorts he'd ever seen her in.
As if she needed anything else to attract his attention.
Add to that his earlier glimpse of her naked body, and he was going to be randy all day, pacing the decks till tonight, when he could bring her down below again.
Unless a storm blew up. Never had he prayed for rain as he would be today.
Now, on their way to the third-floor observation deck, Garreth was right on her heels as they climbed the rusted iron stairs. "Since I was on my best behavior last night," he murmured at her ear, "I bet part of you is wondering if you ought no' have approached me with this deal earlier."
She glanced over her shoulder with a raised brow. "As if you would've settled for this in the beginning. You had to experience a year of nothing for this to be appetizing."
She was likely right about that.
When they reached the deck, Damiãno was just heading down. "Bom dia," he said pleasantly.
"And good morning to you," Lucia replied with a smile that made Garreth want to eviscerate Damiãno.
Garreth jerked his chin up, the gesture in no way a greeting. In turn, the man narrowed his eyes before descending the steps.
"Am I going to have to separate you two?" she asked when they were alone on the deck.
"No' if he watches his step," Garreth said in all seriousness.
Once he'd ushered her to the railing, he closed in behind her, making her tense against him. He knew she would consider this crowding, but he couldn't help himself. "See it there?" Over her shoulder, he pointed out a four-foot-long caiman lying atop a water lily. "It's a juvenile." Sporting a bony ridge over ruddy eyes and a black body, the creature lay with its mouth wide open, jagged teeth exposed. "They're like a sharper alligator. Physically. Don't know about mentally. Though they do seem to be wilier."
Deftly slipping to Garreth's side, she asked, "How big do they get?"
"The largest one on record was twenty-five feet. But Schecter's right - there are bigger ones way upriver. Much bigger."
"You brought me out to see the caiman, and I'm almost more amazed by the water lily underneath it. It's huge, like a table."
"Victoria amazonica. They get larger and grow thicker farther upriver as well."
She gazed around. "How far did we travel over the night?"
"I believe we're on a patch of the river where the map was missing, so who can tell?" They hadn't passed a boat all morning. "But far enough out that we're going to start seeing more and more river creatures. Pink dolphins and giant otters."
"It sounds like make-believe," Lucia said, leaning back against the rail. She'd plaited her caramel-colored hair over her ears, but glossy curls tumbled free across her shoulders and around her elven face. He imagined those curls spread over his pillow as he mounted her lush, wee body, imagined them wrapped around his fist as he took her from behind -
"So what was Travis up in arms about?"
"Huh?" Inward shake. "Uh, apparently the captain has a standing order that no improvements are to be made to the ship, which - by the look of this wreck - is rarely countermanded. Charlie can fix things, but he'll get his knuckles rapped if he does more."
"Oh, aye." There was a lot of strangeness about Travis. But the human responded to cash.
Garreth had already bribed him to head in the direction of Rio Labyrinto.
Yet though Travis was an odd bird, there definitely was something up with Charlie. While his sister Izabel seemed confident and open, he had a quiet, awkward demeanor. Today, he'd looked pale, sickly even. Garreth couldn't put his finger on what was off, just knew something was.
"Where are the others?" Lucia asked.
"Rossiter is pacing in his cabin. Izabel just finished up with a gourmet breakfast. Schecter was slinking around the stern scouting for a place to 'deploy' his 'sonic lure.' I asked him if that's what the kids were calling it these days, but he dinna get it," Garreth said, and her lips quirked. Rubbing the back of his neck, he added, "But we're being watched."
"I know. Can you scent anything?"
He shook his head. "Sensory overload." The last time he was here, the same had happened to him; it took him weeks to familiarize himself with all the new scents. "Guess we'll just need to be ready for anything." He gazed out over the churning water. "I bluidy hate this place."
"Tell me what you know about the river," she said. "Tell me some more dangers."
"Dangers, then? In the jungles all around us, there are indigenous tribes. They stay hidden - you'll never see a hint of them on this trip. And they're peaceable unless provoked - such as when some git like Damiãno goes hunting for them with a Polaroid. Then they'll rise up with a fury. No' to mention the fact that the poisons they concoct make the feys' look mild," he said. "Did Nïx give you any indication what the dieumort would be? Maybe it's a poison."
"No indication. But I suspect it's an arrow. Otherwise, why would she dispatch me, an archer, down into the jungle to retrieve a weapon I don't know how to wield?"
"Are there natives on the Rio Labyrinto?" she asked, her demeanor so guileless, as if she hadn't just slyly segued to what she really wanted to know about - the location of the labyrinth.
"No. But there were long ago. I stumbled upon the ruins of a necropolis."
"A city of the dead?"
"Aye, with temples and crypts surrounding a huge tomb," he said. "Everything you read says there are no ruins directly in the basin. The river fluctuations supposedly made building there impossible because any site would be under forty feet of water half of the year. But this necropolis was constructed in a bowl, with mammoth stonework levees all around it - really advanced stuff."
"If the inhabitants are gone, then why is it rumored that no one returns?"
"Probably because it's infested with giant caimans," MacRieve answered. "That and matora."
Lucia frowned. "A bull eater?"
"Aye. Sucuriju Gigante. The giant anaconda. Rio Labyrinto is teeming with them."
She raised a brow. "You're saying they exist outside of J. Lo movies?"
"I saw several of them that stretched more than eighty feet, their bodies as thick as an oil drum. They're everywhere. Well, almost. They liked to sun themselves atop the levee walls but never descended into the city."
"I can't believe they're real. And that Schecter's... right."
"Aye, primordial sizes. You never get the sight of an eight-ton mating ball out of your head, that's for certain." He gave a mock shudder. "The snakes can strike with a speed that would boggle your mind. Even an immortal could no' fight one off if it wrapped around the arms."
"So anyone unlucky enough to find Rio Labyrinto - which you said is possibly the gateway to El Dorado - would be eaten by various reptiles?"
Shoulders back, he said, "Except for me." He looked as if he'd just stopped himself from thumping his own chest.
"Did you see the lost city of gold?"
"Nay, but in the necropolis, most of the hieroglyphs depicted shining treasure in some manner."
"And?" She waved him on. "More details, please."
"After you, Lousha. I ken you're no' telling me everything you know about the god killer."
Seeing no harm in sharing her theory, Lucia said, "I told you I suspect it's an arrow, but I think it's a golden one. Hence my interest in El Dorado."
"The goddess Skathi uses golden arrows. And all through history, they've been wielded by great archers. It seems... fitting that an arrow with so much power would be incomparable," she said. "Now tell me more about El Dorado."
"Should I reveal all so you can dump me sooner?" he asked in a scoffing tone.
"You call me secretive? Besides, you have my bow."
"So I do."
"Scot, I need it back. I'm uncomfortable without it. And I have no other real defense. I'm hopeless with a sword or blade."
"Vow that you will no' sneak off again."
She gritted her teeth. "I didn't sneak off."
He took out her bow from its case. "I'll give this back if you vow to the Lore you will no' leave without telling me. When I'm awake and conscious. And you show me how you shoot like that."
"You want me to teach you?"
"Nay, lass, I'm quite handy with a bow myself." To illustrate, he began expertly stringing it. "Want you to show me."
She peered around. "The others will see."
"Relax. I already 'bragged' to Travis and Charlie about my wife winning the National Archery Championships. Now, do you vow it?"
"I vow it. Until we find whatever we're here for." At his unbending look, she said, "We're just taking a timeout, until the game begins again."
He shrugged. "Deal. By then, I'll have you to where you canna think of leaving me anyway."
From the bowcase, he retrieved a sleeve of spare arrows. "Why do you no' have a never-emptying quiver? Like the fey?"
"I wish." Many of the fey archers had mystical quivers. If you shot an arrow, you would forever have another exactly like it. Extinguish one, and another replaced it. "They're impossible to get. The fey guard them fiercely." Her closest competition in archery, Tera the Fey, owned one.
"Do they, then?" He handed her the bow. "Show me what you've got. See that tree leaning over the water at the bend? There's a patch of lichen - "
Lucia had already fired and hit it before he could finish the sentence. She could still shoot like a goddess! Even after last night, she hadn't broken her code of chastity. She gave him a "how you like me now?" look.
"You get off on being known as the Archer."
She blinked at him. "Yeah. I do. I'm the best in the entire world - who wouldn't get off on that?" And who would be crazy enough to jeopardize it?
"You're modest to boot."
"Why do females have to be modest when they're good at their careers? When they should be duly proud? That's never made any sense to me."
A breeze blew then, tumbling gray clouds toward them, darkening the day. If it rained, would he truly expect her to go back to the cabin with him? At the thought, she was filled with nervousness, and maybe even a touch of... anticipation. She moistened her lips.
At once, his gaze locked on her mouth, then he scrubbed his palm over his own. Was he remembering the night before - how she'd tasted him? "Uh, hit that leaf fluttering ahead of the boat."
With her gaze still meeting his, she did.
He raised a brow. "So back to the subject of sex," he said, though they hadn't been on the subject of sex for some time. "Tell me what's so important about being a Skathian?"
"I owe the great goddess Skathi. She gave me her mark of favor." And gifted Lucia with pain to make her remember. How well are you remembering, Lucia? "She gave me an identity. Look, you have your clan and the royal bloodline you belong to. But I don't know who my people were, and Nïx said I never will."
Not until I have a child. Which I can never do, though I'd always wanted them....
"So your people became the Skathians."
"Hit the lily by the log trap," he said, and she nailed it. "What's it like to miss?"
Carefully choosing her words, she said, "It... hurts in... unimaginable ways."
"How bad was it in the beginning?"
"What do you mean?"
"Were you no' missing all the time at first?"
Everyone assumed this, figuring the pain had taught her. Only Regin knew that Lucia had been handed her abilities, without an hour of practice. "It was long ago. I don't really think about it. All I know is that I've definitely earned the right to call myself a Skathian. I refuse to give it up lightly."
"No' even for sex? If no' with me, then someone must've tempted you over the years."
She glanced at him over her shoulder. "Clearly not enough."
"Calling yourself a Skathian is more important than having a family? Or children?"
"Yes, MacRieve! Accept it." If Lucia could accept not having children, then he damn well would! "It's not just my vows. If I surrender to you, then I have no identity."
He shrugged. "Women do this all the time - give up their jobs for their men."
"You didn't just say that." She couldn't remember the last time someone's attitude had grated so much -
Her phone vibrated then, interrupting her. Another text message from RegRad: Screw U & the Lykae U rode in on. Nïx told me UR on cruise w/ Mac. WTF??
Lucia sighed, imagining how Regin would act out over that little nugget from Nïx. The soothsayer could have been saying that to stir up trouble, or because she truly viewed it that way.
MacRieve asked, "Who keeps texting you? Nïx?"
"Nïx rarely texts." Because no one ever responded. But how exactly was one supposed to reply to messages like: Smurf! or I'm charismatic... or Bad dogs get no burgers? "It's from Regin."
"Ah, the glowing frea - one. Loved to shove me around when I was tranquilized, though I'd fought side by side with her when I saved you and your sisters from the vampires."
Feeling the urge to whistle with guilt, Lucia studiously unstrung her bow and stowed it back in its travel case.
"Before I left New Orleans last year," he continued, "I learned much about your kind. Nigh everything about your coven. Why are you and Regin such good friends? Most people think she's completely - " At her look of warning, he finished with, "A handful."
"What have you heard?"
"She makes rogue demons eat things, like hubcaps."
A lot of Loreans had that idea about her, probably because Regin had gone through that whole making-her-enemies-eat-things stage. Beer bottles, soccer balls, garbage can lids. "First of all, that was a phase, and she's past that now." Mostly. "And second, those demons never messed with her again."
"You make excuses for her?"
"She was built for war, but she has a highly developed sense of" - lowbrow - "humor. Add those together..." And season with guilt. Though Regin's kisses were like drugs, addictive like heroin, she'd kissed a berserker when she was young. Aidan the Fierce. He had been killed trying to win her over, but for centuries, he'd been reincarnated, seeking her again and again.
"Besides," Lucia added, "Regin and I have a history." In the past, when Lucia had gone to the Broken Bloody One's cliff-side cave, Regin had always been there with her, a sister-at-arms.
But hunting Cruach wasn't like hunting a hibernating bear. She and Regin didn't go inside the cave. Instead they waited for him at the bone-strewn entrance of his lair. Right as he was about to emerge, they attacked.
The first time he'd tried to rise, he'd come forth roaring, stamping like a bull, thinking his hideousness would frighten some young Skathian assassin and foul her aim. Lucia had shot true, though afterward she'd shuddered and wept, and Regin had gone to her knees in horror, vomiting energy.
The second time, Cruach had summoned hundreds of his Cult of Death followers, his Cromites, to guard the exit and assure him safe passage out. But as Regin had battled the swordsmen back, Lucia's arrow had found Cruach's black heart.
This third time, Lucia had no idea what to expect, though she feared she'd be hunting the bear in his cave. Could she force herself to enter that lair once more? And all alone?
Lucia knew that MacRieve wrongly believed he was going with her. Even if they worked together to retrieve the dieumort, she could never let him near Cruach. Nor could she risk Regin getting too close.
Cruach could infect them. Lucia - as his wife - was immune....
"What are you thinking of that's got you so pensive?" he asked, his words accompanied by distant thunder.
More steely gray clouds were building all around them. "I was just thinking that you ought to be more charitable to Regin."
"Why's that?" he asked.
"If it weren't for her, you wouldn't have a mate. I was sixteen the first time she saved my life. She has countless times in battles ever since."
After digesting that for a moment, MacRieve said, "Regin has no love lost for me."
"No." Had she just felt a raindrop? "But your brother probably feels the same about me."
"Maybe. Then again, I dinna shoot your sister."
Lucia studied a splinter on the rail, grumbling, "I only winged him." A mere shot through the arm.
"Lousha, look just there!" MacRieve said, taking her shoulders and turning her toward a far bank.
She spied several otters with white dappled throats - but these creatures were giant, as long as MacRieve was tall. One ravaged a catfish while others snuggled atop a log, cooing to squeaking pups.
"It's a family of river otters. Also known as lobos del r¨ªo."
Ignoring the drizzle that had just started, she asked, "River wolves?"
"Aye." When the rain intensified, MacRieve took her shoulders and turned her back to him. "Since you're partial to wolves you should appreciate them." He reached forward to stroke the backs of his fingers across her cheek, and his golden eyes promised wicked things.
"Am I partial to wolves?" she asked, her breaths shallowing.
Just like that first night so long ago, his voice went low and rumbly as he said, "Aye, Lousha, you're about to be."
The rain turned to a pounding deluge, lightning flashing all around them.
There was no choice but to go into a dark, sultry cabin with the most sexually attractive male she'd ever imagined, who'd immediately peel off his clothes and expect her to do the same.
"That shoal jumped out o' nowhere, eh, Travis?" MacRieve called up to the pilothouse. To Lucia, he muttered, "Is he trying to hit things?"
Travis was hung up on a sandbar again - the third time in as many days.
Lucia sighed. She and MacRieve had been enjoying a rare cloudless, and uneventful, morning together. She'd been sunning on a weathered lounge chair on the back deck while he'd unsuccessfully fished from the platform, spurred on by Izabel's promise of seafood feasts.
Travis yelled down from the wheelhouse, "You think you could drive better, Scot?"
"Aye, even as drunk as you are, Tex!"
"MacRieve..." Lucia warned.
"Well, it's true. He needs to lay off the spirits, or we'll never get to our destination."
She wished Charlie was at the helm, but he was on a sleep shift. The young man drove so much better than Travis, not that Charlie would ever admit that. Izabel's twin seemed to hero worship the irascible Texan as much as she did.
Each foul-up like this set them back even further, and she was running out of time. The nightmares were getting worse.
"Looks like I'll have to go shove the old girl free," MacRieve said. "Again." He stripped off his shirt, leaving him in his worn and faded jeans and his cuff. Shoes were a thing of the past aboard the Contessa.
That cuff stood out against his tanned skin, a constant reminder of what he'd done for her. Whenever he embraced her, she always felt the metal against her skin, cool at first on the outside, before it warmed.
Just like last night... "MacRieve, do you have to go in?" Though the river had been a source of delight - she'd seen pink dolphins, more otters, and tapirs grazing along the shores - it'd also been one of dismay. Caimans constantly prowled and piranhas broke the surface in feeding frenzies.
Just yesterday morning, they'd seen a baby heron fall out of its nest into the water. As the mother bird had squawked in dismay, a swarm of piranhas had annihilated the chick in seconds, picking it clean with their razor-sharp teeth, right down to the bones.
"Seems you're finally believing me about the dangers?" MacRieve said. "Relax, I'm just going in up to my waist."
"And what about the piranhas?"
"I doubt the fishies'll snack on anything critical." He leaned in to murmur at her ear, "They only go for small prey."
"Werewolf!" she cried, still a shade surprised every time he teased her. More and more, he'd been softening toward her, his rancor over her past deeds fading. She'd see hints of the man he'd once been, the one she imagined each time she looked at his laugh lines. And when he wasn't simmering with anger at her, she'd found he liked to play. "I'm serious."
"As am I. Will it make you feel better if I keep my jeans on?" When she gave him a grudging nod, he said, "Doona worry. They truly will no' feed on large prey - no' unless it's dead."
When they saw Damiãno coming to the stern to help free the boat, she whispered, "Don't look too strong in front of the others. And do not bow up to him again."
"He did it first," Garreth pointed out in a surly tone. Only three days had passed, and already the ship was too small for the two towering males.
"Good morning, querida." Damiãno said to her as he drew off his own shirt, revealing a muscled, brawny body.
"Bom dia," she replied with an absent grin.
As Damiãno strolled to the back platform, he returned her smile, white teeth against bronzed skin, then he dropped into the water. The man was sex on a stick -
MacRieve stepped in front of her, clasping her nape, jealousy ablaze in his expression. "Eyes on the prize, woman. It's a werewolf you'll have, or none at all."
"Is that right?"
"Unless you like your men dead, because Damiãno's already at the top of my list." He tugged her to him for a brief but scalding kiss "You're mine, Lousha. Doona ever forget that."
With that, he leapt in as well, leaving her breathless - and convinced she had a thing for jealous alpha males, like this one who kissed as if each kiss were his last....
While those two were busy, Lucia thought she should take care of some shipboard business on the observation deck. She climbed the stairs, then crossed all the way to the back, to a patch of the thatched roof. Earlier, she'd heard rustling coming from within.
Now she spied a hideaway tucked up under the thatching, with two small bare feet sticking out from the edge. Izabel.
"What are you doing?"
Izabel exhaled testily. "Nada."
Lucia peeked in and found what looked like a luggage shelf with a couple of feet of clearance. Izabel was lying flat up there. Following her example, Lucia hopped up, shimmying on her belly to the end. And found a hideout perfect for spying. From here, they could see the platform and the back uncovered deck, as well as the side gangways - a good bit of the ship.
"You've been spying on us?"
"Why wouldn't I?" she demanded. "All you people are louco."
"Crazy, are we? Well, aren't you the sassiest little - "
"Latina?" She glared. "The spunky Portuguesa?"
Sassiest little mortal, Lucia had been thinking. "How are we all crazy?"
Izabel jutted her chin. "I don't think you're a doctor."
Lucia shrugged. "I think you're in love with a drunk."
With narrowed hazel eyes, Izabel said, "I don't think you're even married to Mr. MacRieve."
"Is that all you've got on me?" Lucia asked, relieved. She'd thought Izabel had discovered their true natures.