Pleasure of a Dark Prince

Chapter 12

"If you and Mr. MacRieve are married, then I'll eat Schecter's shorts."

"Now that was just... unnecessary. And why would you think that about us?"

"When you're not looking, MacRieve reaches for you and pulls back his hand in a fist, like he's dying to touch you." He does? "Married people aren't like that!"

"Then I'll be honest with you, Izabel. We're not married, but he's... old fashioned. He didn't want my reputation to be hurt when I shacked up with him aboard this ship. Anything else?"

"MacRieve keeps giving Travis cash, and we keep going off the planned route."

This was true. The Scot had told Lucia that he'd been steering Travis, paying the captain to take them directly by Rio Labyrinto. "MacRieve has been here before and knows promising research areas." The ship would arrive in the vicinity in a week or so, probably right after the full moon. She and MacRieve had decided not to lose the mortals; instead, they planned to sneak out on the Contessa's auxiliary motorboat. "So he's merely been directing Travis. Anything else?"

"That's all I've got on you two. For now. But the others are just as strange."

"Tell me."

"Why should I?"

"Travis said to drop him a dime if you screwed up. Do you think he'd fire you for spying on his passengers? Maybe sack your brother as well, after all Charlie's been putting up with?" Every day, the captain barked at the young man, ranting at him for repairing anything on board too well. Charlie was a good sport, quietly enduring each outburst. "Now tell me, or kiss your big Texan good-bye."

With another glare, Izabel said, "Fine. Take Damiãno. He's definitely louco."

Lucia had to agree that something was off about the man, no matter how physically blessed he was. There was a seething intensity about him, much like MacRieve's. Except that when Damiãno smiled, it never quite reached his eyes - and his eyes followed her constantly.

"He speaks Portuguese, right?" Izabel said. "So Charlie and I try to talk to him. But he speaks old Portuguese."

"How do you mean?"

"It's Portuguese like the conquistadors spoke." That is strange. "And then he'll see we're frowning at him, and he'll smile that magnificente smile." She sighed. "Muito bonito."

"Damiãno is hot," Lucia murmured, then realized she'd spoken aloud. "And by that, I mean, I respect his mind."

Izabel tapped her chin. "And Schecter?"

"Not so much with the hot."

"Well, he - "

"Shh," Lucia hissed. "He's coming."

With an aluminum case in hand, the professor slinked to the gangway - out of sight of the men laboring at the platform. His case was a Halliburton - the kind most often found handcuffed to a wrist, carrying missile codes inside. Lucia rolled her eyes.

After glancing both ways, he took out his "revolutionary" lure, which looked like an airplane's black box attached to a rope. When he turned it on, a blinking red light on the top beeped sonic frequencies. They made her ears twitch until he dipped the device into the water.

Under her breath, Lucia said, "Hey, Iz - now's your chance to eat his shorts."

Izabel's eyes widened, as if she were shocked Lucia was teasing her. Then she whispered, "Hold me back. That cowlick? Muito machão."

Lucia couldn't stop a grin.

When Schecter moved on to other parts of the ship, Izabel said, "That one's keeping snakes, lizards, and all kinds of amphibians in his room. Poisonous ones, even. And that lure thing? I'm not a scientist, but common sense says that when you bait something, you better be able to handle its arrival." Smart girl. "I know this ship up and down - it's held together by prayers, duct tape, and Charlie - and it couldn't take the visit of a 'mega' anything. So Schecter's either very foolish or very selfish."

Agreed. "What about Rossiter?"

"Now him, I like," Izabel answered. "But he's sick or something. Never sleeps. And I think he's obsessed with flowers, always drawing them - "

Lucia's phone vibrated then with yet another text message. She twisted around in the cramped space to view the screen. RegRad: Got 2 level 9/ ice wrld. U always do ice wrlds 4 me. Just as Lucia sighed - she missed Regin like crazy - another message from her arrived. Got thru it anywy. SO SUCK IT RAW!

"Who keeps texting you?" Izabel asked. "A twelve-year-old you met at the skating rink?"

"How do you say 'har-har' in Portuguese?" Lucia asked innocently, then she added, "It's just one of my sisters. She misses me." And resents my being away this long.

"How many sisters do you have?"

Hundreds. All over the world. "Enough," Lucia answered.

"I wish I had a sister."

"A twin brother isn't enough?"

"I guess," Izabel answered with a shrug.

Now that Lucia thought about it, she'd never seen the two display affection. Likely because they were so different. Izabel was brazen, confident. Charlie seemed unsure and awkward.

"Hey, do you feel that?" Izabel said. "They got the ship loose."

Lucia glanced down just as MacRieve hauled himself from the water onto the platform, the damp muscles in his back flexing so temptingly. When he stood, shaking his wet hair in that wolfy way, his sodden jeans hung even lower on his sculpted torso.

Lucia's claws curled for him. Just as she was thinking, Gods, he's fine, Izabel whispered, "I'd lock that one down while you can. Espl¨ºndido."

The Scot was splendid. And sexy and funny. He knew how to string a recurve bow. Here was a man who treated her well, who'd proved he was understanding about her... limitations.

"Chuck!" the captain suddenly called. "Get your ass up here!"

Izabel jumped, knocking her head on the shelf. "I have to go!" Wide-eyed, she shimmied back.

"Why do you have to go?"

"To wake up Charlie."

Travis yelled, "Izabel! Where the hell is Chuck?"

"See?"

Lucia couldn't believe this girl had fallen for that querulous captain. To be stuck on this bucket, with no future, no prospects. She was so young.... "Izabel, you know there are other ships out there for you to work on. Ships that will treat you much better."

Izabel met her gaze. "I'll never want another ship as long as I live." And then she was gone, leaving Lucia to her thoughts. Which almost always centered on MacRieve.

In the last three days, Lucia had begun to fear that she was settling in with him too easily. She'd been fooled once before, and even after all these years, she was still deeply ashamed of succumbing to Cruach's trickery. Her sisters would have sensed he was evil.

Regin had. She'd taken one look at the fair-haired man at the portal and run to tell their godparents. Who'd made her swear never to see him again. Lucia had fallen right into Cruach's clutches, trusting in him so completely that she'd broken those vows.

Am I being too trusting with the Scot? As if to remind her why that'd be unwise, the nightmares were coming every night. Only now, for the first time in her life, she was sharing a bed with another, a male who'd begun questioning her, wanting to know what she dreamed of -

"Lousha?" he called then, and she too hit her head. As she crawled from the shelf, Lucia could hear him stomping along the gangway, then to the cabin below.

Just before she'd reached the steps, he bounded up them. "Where were you?" he demanded, his eyes flickering blue.

"Right up here. You couldn't scent me?"

He visibly relaxed, the tension easing from his broad shoulders. "It's difficult to find you aboard a ship like this." At her nonplussed look, he said, "I scent your bathing suit top drying on the clothesline by the galley." He twined a lock of her hair around his finger. "I smell a strand from these curls up by the wheel-house. All around, I detect your scent. It'd almost be easier for me to find you from thirty or forty miles away."

"I told you I wouldn't leave. Don't you trust me?"

"Aye, but I chased you for the better part of a year. Old habits die hard. It actually feels odd no' to be running after you. Welcome, but odd."

She tilted her head at him. "In all that time, did you... did you ever think about giving up?"

"Never."

"Not once?"

His voice was so deep as he said, "Lousha, you're my lass." He shrugged, as if he spoke an irrevocable truth.

If I'm not careful, I might just prove him right....

Chapter 30

"You doona expect to catch dinner with that setup?"

Imagine that, MacRieve taunting Damiãno, Lucia thought. For the last ten days, the two men had been constantly at odds. They neared a boiling point, unable to pass each other on the narrow gangway without slamming shoulders.

"You think you could do better?" Damiãno snapped.

"Oh, aye."

"Wager on it."

Lucia sank down on the weathered lounge chair. Elbows to her knees and her chin in her hands, she settled in for the duration - because neither male had caught a single fish the entire trip. And now she could tell that neither would budge until they did....

For each of these ten days, as the Contessa had headed deeper down the San Miguel into a primeval jungle, Garreth had grown more on edge. He paced constantly, palpably restless. He couldn't run, and it weighed on him. Lucia knew the Lykae needed to run. Especially with the full moon tonight.

And then tomorrow they planned to arrive in the vicinity of Rio Labyrinto - another source of unease for him. He'd said to her, "I doona suppose there's any way I could talk you out of going to the labyrinth?" At her look, he'd added, "Dinna think so."

Yet as much as Garreth hated it here, she'd enjoyed it. She recalled that explorers used to talk about the jungle as if she were a mistress, leading men astray, making them shrug off civility. She finally understood what they'd meant.

And she liked it.

Levelheaded Lucia was losing it. Her façade of control, her tenuous rationality. Everything about this place was sensual - the colors, the warmth, the evocative scents. She felt more alive than she had in memory.

Or maybe that was owing to the werewolf whose bed she shared? MacRieve was wearing her down every day - and night. As if she needed anything to erode her control. Her house of cards was in the midst of a maelstrom. With one stray touch, all would come tumbling down....

Over these days, life aboard the Contessa had taken on a routine. Damiãno always seemed to be around, and though she sensed the male could be a threat, Lucia couldn't muster any real fear. Damiãno might have been of the Lore, but no species could match Garreth in strength.

As for Rossiter, when he wasn't pacing in his cabin, the doctor got Charlie to teach him about the inner workings of the ship, and together, they did everything from refueling the generators to changing engine filters.

Lucia didn't think Rossiter had been asleep for an hour since they'd left. He was growing paler, his tall body rangier, and sometimes she thought she detected a growing glint in his dark blue eyes, like a... madness setting in. How could it not? Like her, Rossiter was running out of time.

Schecter continually crept about at all hours of the night, dipping his sonic lure into the water, and just as continually, Izabel gave Travis long looks.

When Travis didn't think anyone was around, he'd checked her out a couple of times, then had appeared furious with himself. Yet it seemed Travis hadn't noticed Charlie was giving him long looks as well.

Despite the fact that the Texan wasn't particularly kind to either twin, both of them were falling for him.

Lucia actually liked Izabel. For a mortal. The girl was affable and no-nonsense, and reminded her a little of Regin. Though Lucia could never shake the feeling that something was off, it didn't deter the budding friendship. And Izabel had confided secrets, explaining things about the captain that had puzzled Lucia, like his anger whenever Charlie made improvements to the boat - or his irritation at any reminder that Izabel was an attractive young woman.

It turned out that Travis was a widower of eight years. His wife had apparently been a paragon, running tours with him, helping him restore this boat. She was the one who'd lovingly hung all the maps and quaint lists that remained to this day. The embroidered tablecloths and curtains had all been done by her hand.

In Iquitos, it was rumored that Travis remained true to his dead wife, and the Contessa was a de facto shrine to her.

Lucia had asked Izabel, "Why don't you just tell Travis you want him?"

"Two reasons. The ghost of his perfect wife. He hates anything that might tempt him from being faithful to her memory. And then there's Charlie. Doesn't matter. Capitão will never want me. Not everyone has it as good as you and Mr. MacRieve."

Lucia had been startled by her statement - because things were good with MacRieve. Though he was a rough-and-tumble werewolf, he could be remarkably patient. As they walked the decks, he would teach her Gaelic phrases. He'd chuckled a couple of times at her early attempts at pronunciation. Then he'd stopped laughing when he realized how quickly she was learning.

And he was thoughtful. A few days ago, she'd heard MacRieve arguing with Schecter about taking "scientific credit" for a "previously uncataloged find." Curious, she'd sidled to the corner, peeking around.

In his big paws, the Scot was painstakingly cradling a delicate cocoon. Just emerging from it was a butterfly with silver wings, glittering with opalescence. She'd never seen anything like it.

"Schecter, what in the hell do I want scientific credit for?" MacRieve gave a grunt. "Just want to name it."

"Well, if you don't care about credit, then what would it hurt to allow me to claim this species and give it a designation? Honestly, Mr. MacRieve - "

"Schecter, go fook your science. I'm naming this after my lady, and if you say another word about it, you'll get this butterfly all messed up with your jugular blood."

The professor gaped, speechless for long moments. Finally he cleared his throat and said, "Uh, well, yes, of course. What will you call it?"

"Lucia Incantata," MacRieve murmured. Her toes had curled when he'd absently added, "Reminds me of her eyes..." She still sighed whenever she recalled the look on his face.

That night, he'd "surprised" her with the butterfly, setting up a mosquito net in the cabin to keep it in.

The offerings only continued. When she'd mentioned how lovely she found the blooms of those Victoria lilies, the next morning, she'd awakened to find a flawless white lily bloom by her bedside. The vase? A rinsed-out Iquiteña bottle.

On top of everything, he'd given her a never-emptying arrow quiver. She'd gasped when he'd proudly handed it to her. "You just happened to find one of these lying around on board?" It was so elegant, with fine leather ties that could be strapped to her back or thigh.

"Had it with me the whole time."

The item in his bag she'd seen wrapped in leather... Which meant he'd brought it for her even when he'd been furious with her. "Did you filch this from the fey?"

With a wolfy grin, he'd said, "Well, they damn sure doona sell them."

"MacRieve!" Yet once she'd gotten over her breathless excitement, she'd felt a tinge of sadness. This was a gift from a would-be lover, something to help her archery. Too bad she couldn't keep the archery and the lover. Still, she'd rewarded his thoughtfulness amply....

He didn't promise gifts as some men were wont to do - MacRieve merely delivered them, delighting her Valkyrie sensibilities.

Yes, atop decks, life was constant. Belowdecks, she and MacRieve indulged their lusts.

Any time it rained during the day, he'd offer his hand with the grated words, "Come, Lousha." Just as he would command later when he wanted her to climax. She'd be shivering with anticipation by the time they got to the cabin.

With his palm over her mouth to cover her screams, MacRieve did wicked things to her. During each encounter, he grew more aggressive with her body, kissing her harder, touching her even more possessively. She knew he considered her his woman - and the idea only aroused her more.

The first night on board, he'd told her that she'd pray for him to be inside her. Again, he'd been right. When he spread her thighs wide, then lazily petted her sex, it drove her wild. Especially when he stroked just at her core while rasping in her ear, "One day I'm goin' tae be wedged so deep right in here. You'll be hot and wet and fit me like a glove."

Again and again, she tried to imagine how his shaft would feel plunging into her body. Most women in her situation would fear his size. But after his onslaught of teasing and petting...

Yesterday, she'd nearly begged, murmuring how much she needed him inside her.

He'd gnashed his teeth, puncturing the paneled wall above their bed with his claws. "Gods, woman! No' till you ask me. Out o' bed!"

Every night after they were sated - or as much as they could be with their limitations - he held her in his arms. They watched her butterfly dance in the lamplight, talking for hours.

They'd speculated as to why Nïx had warned her about the Barão and why its captain kept returning to remote tributaries if some of his passengers didn't make it back to port. "Maybe Captain Malaqu¨ª's been finding demons out there," Lucia had said. "He could be sacrificing unwitting cryzos to them in exchange for power."

"We've heard of crazier things in the Lore...."

And MacRieve told her more about the necropolis. If they could locate Rio Labyrinto, they could find the city of the dead. In that place were depictions of gold, possibly directing them to "the mythical" El Dorado - which, MacRieve had told her, might or might not even be a place.

"Everyone thinks it's a location, a lost city," he'd said, "but the phrase is actually based on a legend of a native chieftain. He was so rich that he ridiculed anyone who wore the same jewelry twice. Instead, he had his gold ground into a mist, then painted on his body. At the end of the day, he'd wash it away, and it'd be lost forever. El Dorado means 'the Gilded Man.'"

If El Dorado had merely been a man, then he probably would've been buried in a necropolis. Had he been buried with his gold? If he were surrounded by his golden treasures - like arrows?  - then maybe El Dorado could still be a man and a place.

Lucia didn't expect a neon sign pointing to the dieumort, but she and MacRieve had enough clues to... get them to the next set of clues. In truth, she'd never been on such an ill-defined mission. But if it were easy to find a dieumort, then it would've been found before.

And Lucia sensed they were getting closer, daydreaming incessantly about that perfect golden arrow, imagining how it would hiss through the air once she shot it.

She pictured the look on Cruach's hideous visage when he realized she'd just dealt a death blow....

At other times, Lucia would read to MacRieve from an Amazon guide book that Izabel had given her. As Lucia discovered more about the perils they'd face in Rio Labyrinto - the anacondas and those creepy caimans - MacRieve carved arrows for her new quiver. With that sly look, he'd said, "If I canna fill your quiver in one way, I will in another."

She'd chuckled. "Good one, werewolf."

He'd grown quiet, seeming startled. "First time I've heard your laugh."

"And?"

"And now I canna rest until I hear it again." He'd leapt atop her, tickling her till she'd squealed with laughter....

She was so tempted to tell him everything. Especially when he held her against his chest, warm in the circle of his muscular arms, murmuring, "Let me in, Lousha. Confide your secrets in me."

She knew he wanted her to reveal what her nightmares were about. But Lucia didn't believe in confiding, had never comprehended why others sought to unburden themselves - thereby burdening another. No, she'd never understood the act of transferring misery, but especially not with a secret like this.

A fact-of-life secret, something that simply couldn't be changed.

How would MacRieve react if he knew his mate was married? The rage would have to overwhelm him. And when she explained who her husband was and how she'd come to be wed, nothing would stop MacRieve from confronting Cruach. Which would be tantamount to suicide. Or worse.

Sometimes Cruach didn't kill victims. Sometimes he kept them.

So she continued putting MacRieve off. Yet she felt he was only biding his time, as if he had no doubt she'd ultimately open up to him.

Which will never happen. Lucia had decided she would do whatever it took to keep her involvement with Cruach concealed from MacRieve. But on other matters, she was less resolved....

Regin always asked herself, Is the cake worth the bake? Invariably, for Regin, it was. Now Lucia had caught herself wondering if having a life with MacRieve might be. When all this was over, if she could truly kill Cruach...

No! What the hell am I thinking? Even if she didn't have to stop an apocalypse, she couldn't surrender her archery. It would be like erasing her identity.

You get off on being known as the Archer, he'd said.

Yes. Yes, I do. She'd go from being the Archer to being the Lykae's Mate.

Never, she decided.

Then she went to go catch dinner.

Chapter 31

A three-foot-long fish plopped onto the deck in front of Garreth and Damiãno. Jutting from its head was an arrow with a line attached. Bow fishing.

From behind them, Lucia said, "Please put your penises away, gentlemen. Dinner is procured. By a woman."

Garreth twisted around, found her slinging her bow over her shoulder, brushing off her unsullied hands. As she sauntered away, the lass said over her shoulder, "I caught, you boys can clean."

Gods, that female. Drives me crazy. When Garreth glanced back, he saw Damiãno was gazing after her as well. "Look at her again like that, Damiãno!" He stepped in front of the man. "Do it, and let's end this now."

The man's eyes flashed to a glowing green.

In a low tone, Garreth said, "You're a goddamned shifter!"

"And you're an escoc¨ºs dog."

That raised his hackles. "Scottish dog?" Revealing a good look of the beast within him, Garreth growled, "I've got your number, shifter. So stay out of my bluidy way."

In turn, Damiãno revealed a hint of his own beast - a black jaguar with fangs as long as Garreth's fingers. "Don't get in mine, escoc¨ºs."

No fear of me - interesting. "You better truly be here as a doc and for no other reason." Jaguar shifters were rumored to be exceptionally powerful. Might actually be a worthy opponent.

"I'm here to protect the Amazon. Don't ever forget that."

"I'm here to protect my mate. I'll do it to the death. Count yourself warned. In the meantime, you've got fish to clean, gato," Garreth said, turning away to look for Lucia.

What's new there?

She was hanging over the rickety rail, watching the pink dolphins that swam alongside the ship. Her short shorts rode up until he could almost glimpse the cleft of her generous arse. He gave a low growl at the sight. Then his gaze fell on the slender column of her neck. His mouth watered for her, his fangs aching to mark the tender flesh there.

Now I understand why my brother marked his mate so hard. When Garreth finally got to do it to Lucia... I'll mark the living hell out of her.

He was pleasuring her - hard and continually - but Garreth hadn't gained any ground with her, was no closer to claiming her. She'd made no request that he take her completely. At least not out of bed.

And the full moon was tonight. He'd hoped to have convinced her to forgo her vows before now. So he could take off the cuff and claim her.

Added to that, he couldn't shake the feeling of some impending threat. Something more than the nearing apocalypse and the full moon. He felt as if he were running out of time on all fronts....

A dolphin sprayed water from its blowhole, making Lucia laugh. She'd begun laughing more often. Whenever he let himself believe it was because of him, he stood a little taller.

The gift of a butterfly had been a stroke of genius. "You named it after me?" she'd asked, her expression growing soft, her eyes flickering silver.

That was what the wolf in him had been craving. Her approval, her delight. He'd soaked it up. Like a besotted fool, he tended that damned butterfly morning and night, feeding it with a sponge full of sugar water.

And the quiver he'd swiped from the fey? He inwardly grinned. That hadn't gone unappreciated either.

For nearly two weeks, Garreth had made Lucia his study, continuing to dig into her past. And every day he turned up something new and surprising.

She'd revealed more about the foe Nïx had dispatched her to kill, this Crom Cruach. "Those infected with his influence feel compelled to sacrifice whoever they love, in the most ghastly ways. The more they love something, the more they want to annihilate it. Cruach can control their minds, forcing his victims to see whatever he wills them to. Their eyes turn milky white - that's when you know they're lost."

"How does he do this?"

"His powers as a god. And he grows stronger with each sacrifice in his name. Whenever Cruach's human followers from the Cult of Death - the Cromites - invoke him, they pray: To him we sacrifice, for him our cherished." She'd said she couldn't imagine a worse apocalypse - because this one would sweep the world, perverting the purest love and turning it into evil and death.

Lucia was convinced that the dieumort had to be an arrow. Now he'd become convinced as well. If one could be infected by Cruach, then it made sense to strike at him from afar.

Garreth planned to. Alone. The more she told him of Cruach, the more Garreth resolved never to let her anywhere near him. But she'd yet to tell him where to find the god.

One night after much coaxing, Garreth had gotten her to admit she'd only been with one man. "If you've only had sex with one bloke in all this time," he'd said, "then you must've loved him verra much."

She'd turned away, her face paling. So that's the way of it. The man had hurt her.

"Or you hated sex so much you would join a celibate order and forgo it for over ten centuries."

She'd sighed, looking tired, with faint smudges under her eyes. Between her continuing nightmares and his attentions, she hadn't been enjoying much restful sleep. In fact, it was only toward dawn, once her nightmares had ebbed, that she'd fall into a deeper, nearly comatose slumber. "MacRieve, will you just let it go?"

He'd said he would drop it, but of course he hadn't. He needed to figure out exactly how bad it'd been for her. And who the male was. So I can slaughter him -

His phone rang then. It was Lachlain, no doubt calling to see what progress Garreth had made before the looming full moon. In a word: none. Still, the call was a welcome distraction.

Garreth answered with, "How goes it with you and the queen?"

"She took me to a mall yesterday." Lachlain sounded as if he'd just stifled a shudder. "And she pointed to a boy and said, 'I think I want one.' So naturally, I start thinking, Where can I get a wee mortal? But she meant... she meant a bairn - our bairn."

"You still fear getting a babe on your mate? Again, brother, how delicate can she be if she beheaded Demestriu?"

"Ach! No' you, too!"

Actually, Garreth couldn't talk. Before he'd found out the Valkyrie couldn't get pregnant unless they ate regular meals, he'd planned to take precautions.

"In any case, I dinna call to talk about me. How goes it with your Valkyrie?"

Garreth rubbed his palm over the back of his neck. "I'd been so busy chasing her down that I never stopped to see if I truly liked her, had never had the opportunity to discover if I could."

"And now that you've had the opportunity?"

Hesitation. Then he admitted in a low tone, "I like her." Everything about her. Each day, he fell deeper under her spell, his graceful, exquisite mate with her dark flashing eyes. "She's so clever." The speed with which she was learning Gaelic was uncanny. "And I like that she's proud." He'd never thought he would desire such a prideful woman, but now that he'd had a taste of Lucia, he could never settle for less. "And she's... passionate," he said in the ultimate understatement.

Lucia was the best bedmate he'd ever conceived of - and they hadn't even had sex. She brought him greater pleasure than he'd ever known, but released only the worst of the pressure - because she stoked his need beyond imagining.

"And does the Valkyrie return the sentiment?" Lachlain asked.

"I want her more than I've ever coveted anything - but I know she's no' mine. She holds herself away from me, keeps secrets. I fear she always will."

Garreth had told her, "We need to talk about what will happen once we complete this mission." She'd given him a cagey look and said, "Can't we just keep our focus on that for now?" He'd asked her to confide in him, asked her what her nightmares were about. She'd refused to tell him.

"You've got to give her a free rein," Lachlain said. "She's made up her own mind about things for over a millennium - she will no' take kindly to an overbearing male."

"Aye, I ken that." He exhaled. "If Lousha and I are fated, then why is this so difficult?"

"Everybody says the mate phenomenon makes the bonding easier. In my mind, it usually only brings grief, at least at first. Especially if a mate is other. Bowen and I could no' be more content with our mates, but we each went through hell to get her."

Hell. I'm there right now. Restlessness weighed on him. He wasn't running at night, wasn't providing for his mate, and could find no threat to protect her from.

"You're still no' bedding her?" Lachlain asked.

"Nay," he said, then added in a mutter, "Everything but." With each storm, he was taking her back to their cabin. But even when it hadn't been raining, he was tempted, barely stopping himself from it.

He'd grown so desperate he wouldn't have cared if Lucia's lightning struck all around them on a cloudless day.

And when they were in bed together, he was only just keeping his promise to her. Claw marks riddled the cabin wall from the times he'd struggled not to take her, when his shaft had prodded right at her tight core - and instead of fighting him, she'd moaned, "Please..."

Each time he somehow found the strength to deny her, he resented her vows more and more. "I'm trying to be patient," he told Lachlain now, "trying to respect her beliefs, but I doona know how much longer I can do this."

"What will happen tonight?"

"Unless I can get her to accept me, I'll be praying the cuff holds true..." His voice trailed off. Garreth scented her desire. And rain on the air. He turned to Lucia, found her gazing at him with expectation. "I've got to go!"

"Why, what's happening?"

Garreth said, "Ah, brother, a storm's coming!"

By midafternoon, once they were both spent, Garreth petted her hair, gently sifting his fingers through it, watching fascinated as the lamp light played off the strands.

"Your eyes turned completely blue," she said, her voice drowsy. "Is it because the full moon is tonight?"

When he nodded, she said, "The cuff will work?"

"Aye. It's working." Because already his reaction would've been much stronger.

"Tell me more about the beast inside you, about turning."

"It's like a possession. When we turn, we call the transformation saorachadh ainmhidh bho a cliabhan - letting the beast out of its cage. Think of it as four different levels of turning. Say I got into a heated dispute. I'd feel the beast stirring inside me - like it's waking. If I felt rage, it'd make my claws flare, my fangs sharpen. And lust to mark a mate?" He raked his gaze over her. "It'd take over my body. I'd still be there, still remembering all, comprehending everything, but the beast is definitely in control. To fight it would take a will that few are known to possess."

"What's the fourth level?"

"It's the worst - turning so much that you canna come back. If one of our kind canna handle some experience, something that's too hard to take, the beast rises too much, maddening its Lykae host forever. He'd never revert from his animal state."

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