MacRieve had told her that the engineering was inconceivable, and he was right. Every rock in these walls had been cut and pounded into the next, flawlessly arranged. No mortar necessary - a blade wouldn't have fit between them.
To her right was a sizeable accumulation of discarded rocks piled against the walls, thick at the bottom, then tapering all the way to the top. My way out of here.
The necropolis had to be near. Lucia set off, pushing on for the interior. When she found a clearing, she sucked in a breath, awed, turning in a slow circle.
All around a central expanse, boulders were strewn, monoliths crawling with vegetation and vines. Lining a cobble drive were imposing twenty-foot-high statues of gods or royals, gazing down with watchful eyes. Stone structures of two or so stories dotted the grounds. They were open-aired like small temples. So where's the tomb?
Great ceiba trees grew in profusion, producing a roof of unbroken canopy, woven so densely it kept out most of the rain - until the wind blew and the leaves turned, splattering hard drops.
Then her jaw slackened. In the distance was a circular, domed structure - a pante¨®n.
A tomb. Though it was nearly shrouded in those vines, she could tell it was massive in size.
She hastened over but found no visible entrance. In a rare patch of stone still uncovered by foliage, she spied a carving depicting a triangle of gold gleaming in a woman's uplifted palms. Lucia cleared more vines. Another glyph showed a half-man/half-jaguar being drinking from a shining chalice.
Everything in Lucia said this was the tomb of El Dorado. To be this close. To finally have the means to kill Cruach -
She heard something tearing down that stockpile of rocks and jerked her head up. MacRieve was near. She faced the sound and raised her bow.
Moments later, MacRieve burst into the clearing, sagging as if with relief to find her safe. As he raked his gaze over her, her raised bow warranted barely a glance.
He was barefooted and shirtless, the shifter's bite on his arm red and swollen, lacerations crisscrossing his chest. His massive shoulders rose and fell with his heaving exhalations.
The beast flickered strongly over him, just like the night at Val Hall. "Do it... shoot me, Lousha." His voice had already started to change.
I have to. If I don't, then I'll never shoot again. This bow would never be in her hands. Her life as she knew it would be over. Shoot him, Lucia!
Instead, she backed up a step, then another, until she came up against a vine-covered rock. Nowhere left to run. Attack or submit. With a swallow, she pulled the string tighter.
Yet then she gazed at his face, at his brows drawn as he awaited the shot. He expected it.
It had always felt wrong to hurt MacRieve. Even before she'd fallen for him. Ah, Freya, I can't do this. She eased the tension on her bowstring. "I-I can't." I'm in love with him. From the first moment she'd seen him... this had been inevitable.
"Do it!" He lunged at her, trying to provoke her. "Lousha, shoot your arrow... only way this will end without me claiming you."
The wind gusted and moonlight pierced through the canopy. A spear of silver hit him, and he shuddered. "The moon... is pulling me. You canna know... the strength. Can you no' choose me over your vows this night? For once, damn you!"
She slowly shook her head. "It can't happen."
"Then bluidy shoot me!" He stabbed his fingers through his hair, looking desperate, feral. "Goddamnit, I doona know what to do!"
This was the first time he'd ever shown doubt, ever shown a moment's hesitation in front of her. Even now, when the moon demanded, he was resisting its call for her. For over nine hundred years he'd awaited this night - and he would rather have an arrow bored into his brain than take her like this.
Fate has a way.... He hung his head for long moments. When he raised his face, his eyes were pale blue, his fangs and claws grown long. The skin of his broad chest was damp with sweat and rain and sheened in the moonlight. He was erect, his shaft straining against his jeans.
The beast was clear to her; MacRieve would lose all control soon. And with that realization, she was amazed to feel something she never thought she'd experience at a moment like this - lust.
Deep, wet, undeniable lust. Her claws curled and lightning struck nearby, searing through limbs above, letting more moonlight blaze in.
She lost her focus for the merest instant. With unfathomable speed, he lunged for her, knocking her arrow away. Before she could even react, he'd taken her into his arms, squeezing her to him, his hands and mouth seemingly everywhere, stoking her need. When he snared her bow and quiver, tossing them away, she cried, "MacRieve, no! You have to fight this!"
With his harsh, beastlike voice, he rasped, "Woman, you are everything to me!" He wrapped her hair around his fist, forcing her to meet his frenzied gaze. "Why can I no' be that for you? Let me claim you for my own. Choose me this night...."
His scent, his need. The wildness in her - that darkness she'd tried to hide, to extinguish - flared with a vengeance to meet his. As if she'd waited her entire life for this, just as he had.
Every cell in my body is telling me to do this... is answering him.
Against her neck, he grated, "How I've ached for you."
She couldn't catch her breath. Panting, trying to recall consequences, she struggled to remember exactly why this was so wrong, but her mind was shutting down.
Until all she could do was feel. I ache for you, too.
He cupped her breast, thumbed her throbbing nipple. That one burning touch sent her house of cards tumbling down. When she cried out with pleasure, another bolt of lightning struck. Then another. And another.
With a whimper, she grabbed the back of his head and yanked him in for a kiss.
Growling against her lips, Garreth met her tongue for a deep kiss. She's surrendering. She needs me, too... He wanted to roar with satisfaction.
Before she could change her mind, he snatched off her pack, tossing it away, then slashed through her clothes with his claws. As soon as he'd uncovered her creamy breasts, his mouth latched onto one of her nipples. She gave a cry when he suckled her hard, groaning against her.
By the time he'd ripped off her panties, she was shivering - but not from cold. He'd trained her body to respond to his, had learned how to pet her, how to make her melt.
As he moved to her other nipple and his hand skimmed down her belly, she rolled her hips up for his touch. Before he obliged, he remembered to bite his claws off the fingers of one hand. Then he delved between her legs, finding her slick and ready. With another growl, he collected her moisture and spread it over her swollen little clitoris, rubbing her there in slow circles.
His gaze held hers as he rasped, "Goin' tae press... my finger into you." He began easing it between her folds. At first, she tensed, but as he went deeper, inch by inch, her lids grew heavy.
He gave a sharp groan. "First time I've felt you inside." So tight. So hot. He stirred that finger, building more wetness. Then he withdrew, but only to return with two fingers, stretching her sheath as her head fell back and she helplessly moaned.
"You like that, mate." He began thrusting them inside her.
He clutched her body to his own, and with each plunge of his fingers, he ground his shaft against her hip.
"Don't stop, MacRieve...."
He feared he'd come like this, ejaculating against her. And though everything inside him was screaming to pleasure her, he didn't want her to come either, sensed he needed her crazed like this or she'd change her mind. When she cried out that she was so close, he released her, slipping his fingers free of her sex.
"Wh-what are you doing?" she asked, sounding dazed. "Why did you stop?"
"Turn around," he commanded, positioning her body toward the vine-covered rock. With his palm flat across her back, he bent her over it, pressing her face against the leaves.
Movement behind her. The sound of MacRieve's clothes torn off.
Once Lucia knew he was naked, her body tensed in anticipation even as her flesh quivered for the orgasm he'd denied her. "Please..." Panting, wanting, aching.
He answered by running the head of his penis up and down her sex.
Kicking her legs wide, he lifted one of her knees up to the rock, spreading her. She was as open for him as she could be, vulnerable, and he was about to shove that shaft into her....
She had a moment of sanity. Her desire-drenched mind again tried to call up -
His big palm squeezed her ass, giving her a loud slap as he grunted with approval. In turn, she moaned, arching her back down, opening herself even more to him.
Then she felt... his mouth. He'd knelt and was madly licking between her thighs.
"MacRieve!" she gasped, her eyes sliding closed with pleasure as he tongued her flesh. When he eased those fingers back into her sheath at the same time, she moaned to be filled, still so unused to the feeling. For so long, she'd craved this, had begged him for it.
With one hand, his fingers thrust, and with his other, he parted her for his feasting mouth. "MacRieve, ah, gods!" There was no fighting this - she grew closer and closer, tension building.
Right when she was at the razor's edge, when she'd drawn a breath to scream, he... stopped, drawing away.
"Nooo! I can't take much more of this." She gazed back as he stood. He was losing control, more completely turned than she'd ever seen him, and gripping his engorged shaft to take her. So why did she have the urge to raise her hips, rolling them to signal her need?
Yet he seemed to change his mind, positioning her again. He lifted her, turning her to face him, then pressed her back onto the rock. She realized why and felt a pang - he didn't want to take her from behind their first time. For herself, she was still desperate for any touch. He'd made her frantic to come.
After lifting her bodily in place, he climbed up for her. He's rising over me. She swallowed, fighting her burgeoning disquiet. Just before he lowered his hips between her thighs, his erection hung down, huge, angry. He could hurt her - rip her in two. Blood streaming down my thighs...
She tensed with fear, but MacRieve began praising her in Gaelic, with adoration in his pale eyes. He lovingly suckled her nipples, his palms sweeping over her as if he were worshipping her. Against all odds, he kept her desires simmering.
Too soon, she felt him feeding his shaft into her, the broad crown demanding entrance. Lightning sheared the night above the canopy. This will hurt... this will -
He reached between them and began circling his thumb over her clitoris.
"MacRieve!" She bit her bottom lip and moaned. So far, no pain. It felt... good. His erection was hot and unyielding in her wetness. Felt right.
He slowly flexed his hips, forcing his penis deeper. Tightness, pressure, but still bearable. As long as he kept rubbing. Her eyes closed with bliss. This is why women adore sex. She absently whispered, "I never knew before."
When he wedged it deeper inside her, he threw back his head and roared so hard she could feel the vibrations from his chest.
She'd barely taken a gasping breath when he somehow plunged even farther. Now there was pain. "No!"
He stilled. "No?"
"Just... just go easier."
He let her adjust, seeming to shudder from the effort, his neck and chest muscles corded with strain and slick with sweat. Though his eyes were frenzied, he somehow held his shaft still within her, even as his claws raked down the stone on each side of her body, slicing the vines.
When the leaves fell away, she saw symbols carved on the face of the stone. Symbols? The rock was long, flat, waist high....
Not just a rock. An altar. Lightning exploded.
"No, no!" Tears filled her eyes, then tracked down her cheeks. "I can't...." She struggled, shoving against him. We're on an altar.
Still inside her, MacRieve cupped her face. In that beastly voice, he rasped, "Whatever you fear... whatever you've known... this is different."
She couldn't imagine what this effort was costing him - to defy the Instinct screaming inside him, to patiently speak to her when the beast was ravening within.
"Lousha, we're different together... come back... tae me."
"No, you don't understand!"
He pulled her up to his chest, clutching her against him. "Wanted you for months... been obsessed with you... but now..."
At her ear, the beast rumbled, "Now you've taken... the heart from my chest."
At that, she gave a little sob. "MacRieve," she whispered.
He'd brought her back to the present, but she still trembled in his arms - it tore at him, even as he had to clench his jaw, grappling with the drives inside him. He had to ignore how her soft breasts rubbed his chest, her dusky pink nipples rigid and damp against him. Her sheath squeezed like a fist, taunting his throbbing cock to thrust. Gods, he needed to plunge hard into his mate!
But her fear... he could scent it.
"Wh-what?" She frowned when he gripped the curves of her arse, holding himself within her as he turned to his back.
Once she straddled him, her hands flew to his shoulders, her wee claws digging in, her dark eyes wide with surprise. But when he rubbed the pad of his finger over her clitoris again, her sex clenched around him and she murmured, "That feels so good."
"Need you tae... ride me."
After a hesitation, she gave a shaky nod. "Sh-show me?"
He clasped her hips to guide her, easing her body forward until her breasts bobbed just above his hungry mouth. Then he worked her back down. Forward and back...
When she took over, he knew she was his. This will happen. At last, I'm claiming my mate. My Lousha.
Each time she rocked over him, one of her nipples dragged across his waiting tongue. The fear in her disappeared - her eyes grew silvery and wicked as she rode him for her pleasure.
Lightning struck as her long hair lashed over her breasts and face. Rain misted her skin as she panted.
So beautiful. Mine. And he needed more. "Harder," he bit out. Need to mark her neck... claim her forever. "Ride me harder!"
She arched backward, hands behind her on his thighs, her hair sweeping over his legs. Breasts jutting to the sky, she frantically ground on his cock.
"Lousha! Canna last." As she continued to whip her hips in his lap, he rose up to meet her gaze.
With her eyes half-lidded and her voice a sultry purr, she asked, "Are you going to mark me?"
"The ever livin' hell out o' you," he growled. "Right as you're about tae come on me." Seizing her arse with both hands, he shoved her down on his cock just as he bucked upward.
"Ah, gods! MacRieve!" Her breasts bounced against him. "You're making me..."
She was already there? Gritting his teeth to keep his seed, he thrust up again, harder. The stone beneath him began to fracture.
Eyes fixed on her neck, he leaned in, licking her, lulling... As he shoved up into her slick heat, he bit her flesh in a frenzy.
Claiming her... marking her... His eyes rolled back in his head as she cried, "Coming!"
Desperate to feel it, he snarled into the bite, plunging her up and down. Harder... harder. As the stone cracked, she screamed with pleasure, her sheath contracting, milking him, demanding.
He followed her, ejaculating inside her with a broken yell against her skin, mindlessly pumping wave after searing wave.
She sagged against him, gasping, "It's so hot...."
After-shudders. Arms wrapped around each other. Hearts thundering.
He reluctantly released his bite, but he remained aching and stiff inside her, still needing to drive into her. So he dragged her to the ground with him.
Just before he took her on her hands and knees, she gazed back at the rock they'd broken with a fierce look.
Cupping her waist and gripping her long hair, he bucked into her, roaring with pleasure as she moaned his name.
Then they both gave themselves up to the beast within him.
What have I done?
When Lucia woke, her eyes opened wide - with realization. She was lying in MacRieve's arms, her back tucked into his chest, both of them naked.
Ah, gods, he was still... inside her.
He roused then and gave a self-satisfied exhalation. The sound was so utterly masculine, and grated on her like nails on slate.
Job well done, conquest is complete, I came, I saw, I conquered her.
His mark on her neck burned....
When he began hardening again, she stifled a cry and shrugged out of his grasp, disentangling her body from his. Can't handle this. Aching everywhere.
Without a word, she rose, unsteadily sifting through the clothes she'd worn last night. All ruined when he'd ripped them from her.
Once she found her pack, she dug for underwear, shorts, and a T-shirt. As she quickly dressed, she kept recalling that satisfied sound he'd made. The conquest. He'd gotten everything he'd wanted with her. From her.
I've gotten nothing I wanted. She couldn't be here, had to get away from him, away from the bow that had been a part of her for centuries.
She was no longer an Archer. Do I feel different? Dazed? Crazed?
I feel... wrong.
"Lousha?" MacRieve leapt up, snagging his jeans and stabbing his legs in them.
After shouldering her backpack, she staggered toward the levees. The statues along the cobble walk glared down.
MacRieve hurried after her, shoving the bow in front of her face. "You left this and your quiver, lass."
She wouldn't look at it. At him. She couldn't. He'd done this to her. Ruined her ability. Now with no means to finally destroy Cruach, Lucia would be expected to sacrifice herself, to appease that monster.
Going back in that foul lair? Without an arrow trained on his heart? At the idea, Lucia couldn't catch her breath. I can't do that! Even now that I have nothing else to offer...
Her neck burned, the pain seething, a constant reminder of her sins. Can't catch my breath...
"Uh, I'll hold the bow for now." He slung it over his shoulder. "Love, talk to me. Did I hurt you?" He scowled at himself. "O' course I hurt you. But how badly?"
She didn't answer.
"Where are you going?"
He jogged in front of her. "What about the dieumort?" he asked, turning to walk backward. "Saving the world and all that? We're so close."
They'd never been farther away! "Nïx sent me down here for an arrow. Because I'm... I was" - her breath hitched - "an archer. All that's different now." Lucia couldn't even stop Cruach from rising with one of Skathi's arrows. "I have another job to do." And I'll grow to hate you for it. "This is where we part ways, MacRieve. You go retrieve the dieumort." Hell, maybe that was why Nïx had sent him down here. Maybe he was the one on the quest.
"Lousha, it's no' over yet."
"You have no idea what the repercussions from last night will be. No idea what will be expected of me now!"
"Nay, because you will no' bluidy tell me!" He gripped her forearms in his fists. "Talk to me!"
She gave herself up to her outrage, to her need to blame, both preferable to this wretched fear. Imitating his accent and low voice, she said, "Lousha, o' course the cuff will work. That's why I got it from those bluidy witches. I would never hurt ye!" Flinging herself away from him, she screamed, "You shouldn't have come for me! You should've let me do what I needed to."
She can't even look at me.
Maybe this was one female who shouldn't have given up her career for her man. There was nothing in her eyes but... bitterness? It was as if a piece of her had died.
And he'd helped kill it.
She was no longer a Skathian. Thousand-year-old vows had been broken last night, and as she'd clearly told him, she hadn't been ready for it. She'd also warned him that she would hate him forever if he pressured her to go against her beliefs.
When he reached for her again, she backed away. "In the beginning, I asked for one year, and you ignored my wishes, dismissed them so easily."
"I know I fucked up." He scrubbed his palm over his face. "Gods know this is all my fault. But would it be so bad to be with me? You've seen what we can have together - "
"You vowed to me that you wouldn't hurt me, but you have! Permanently. I hope last night was worth it!"
His eyes widened. Permanently? "What did I do?"
"My archery, my ability, was based on the vows I took, you brute. Now I'm nothing!"
"What are you talking about?"
"I can't shoot!" she cried. "My talent is gone - forever. I kept my power only as long as I kept my legs closed. And now, because of you, I will never shoot again. It's gone."
His own anger flared as the truth hit him. "I knew this was about more than just your 'religion'!" Finally, he was putting the puzzle together. When some male - some soon-to-be dead male - had hurt her, she'd sought asylum with Skathi. In exchange for Lucia's vows, the goddess had given her the ability to shoot as no other.
Practice hadn't made Lucia this good. A deal with a devil...
He narrowed his eyes. "You dinna give a damn about your beliefs. This was about ego, about being The Archer, best in all the world."
"Didn't give a damn? I lived nearly my entire life in service until you came along. Now I'm shrugging off an apocalypse and giving in to my basest needs! I'd aspired before, was selfless. Now I've committed my most selfish act in a thousand years."
"You should've told me what was at stake!" He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this infuriated.
"When should I have? Maybe when you were going on about women sacrificing their careers for their men? I knew you'd react just as you are now, unable to comprehend why I would choose archery over sex with you."
"Why did you no' tell me? Why lie about this?"
"Oh, like the truth would have made any difference? Like last night wouldn't have happened if only I'd come clean? As soon as you stepped on that boat, this was as good as done, events set into motion. You caused this! I asked you for time, and you wouldn't give it to me."
He hadn't. She was absolutely right. But if she'd just told him why she couldn't have sex... Garreth exhaled. He still would've done the same thing, still would've trusted the cuff.
"You forced me into last night!"
"Wait just a goddamned minute. You grabbed me for a kiss."
"Because it was the best option in an impossible situation."
"Doona forget, Valkyrie, that you screamed my name all night. You canna tell me you dinna want me."
"I did - then! That doesn't mean I can't be sorry for my actions now. It doesn't mean I'm not filled with regret," she snapped, her tone laced with resentment.
Best night of my life, and she's taking it back. When he'd awakened, he'd been so relieved, believing she was finally his. What a bluidy fool you are....
For the last year, he'd thought about her every second, from the moment he woke to the second he drifted to sleep. Even then he wasn't free. Any night that he'd slept, he'd dreamed of her, dreamed of the life they could have - traveling the world, hunting together, eventually raising a braw pack of bairns. "Filled with regret, then?"
What he'd considered a culmination - and a revelation - she believed was a mistake.
Realization hit him. If she wasn't going to be won from their night together - the most incredible one of his entire existence - then she never would. He'd spend the next nine hundred years of his life chasing her.
"You don't know what I've lost, MacRieve. For the first time, I have no way to protect myself, no means to - "
"I will protect you."
Her fists clenched; lightning struck. "I knew you'd say that!" she screamed. "I knew you wouldn't understand why that would be like a dagger to the chest."
His own fury ignited. "You knew I'd say I'd protect you? And that vexes you? Should I have said that you're shite out of luck and all on your own, but thanks for the hot fuck!"
She narrowed her eyes, gazing at him with absolute disgust. She's never looked at me like this.
He raked his fingers through his hair. "By the gods, you're the most maddening female I've ever known! If you've lost your archery, then we'll figure something out. We'll comb the ends of the earth to get it back. But we'll do it together."
"We won't have time to figure it out. I've got no way to stop an apocalypse." She turned to go.
"No, Lousha, doona turn your back on me." He moved in front of her. "I will no' follow you!"
When she sidestepped him, he blocked her way. Between gritted teeth, she hissed, "Let me pass."
His crossed his arms over his chest. "Nay, Valkyrie, I think you'll be stayin' right - "
A slap cracked across his cheek.
"Bluidy hell, woman! Have it your way! You'd rather bemoan what you've lost than seize what we could have together? Then to hell with you! I've chased you over the world, protected you, offered everything I am to you. No longer. I've reached my end." He threw the bow and quiver at her feet. "For once, you're going to watch my back as I leave you behind."
Stalking away from her, he headed toward the levee. And she said nothing. He hadn't expected her to beg for him to return. But he'd hoped....
Five minutes passed, then ten, and still she didn't run after him. She truly was going to let this end. Just like that.
Crazed, cursing to himself, Garreth slashed his claws along tree trunks.
I'll leave her arse in the goddamned jungle! I'm done!
He would return to Kinevane, spend some real time with his brother and sister-in-law. Help Lachlain acquire a mortal child for Emma.
Garreth could go back to his clan, see his kinsmen for the first time in a year. He could play a bluidy game of rugby and shag nymphs without cease.
He reached the pile of rocks against one of the levee walls, began climbing. As he ascended, his mind was a riot of conflicting thoughts.
How easy it would be if his feelings could turn to hate - as hers obviously had. Hate would have to be less painful than this obsession with her. To not feel this gnawing lack each minute of the day....
Yet then he frowned. Lucia might be acting as if she despised him now. But before, she'd shown she cared for him again and again. He recalled her worry as he'd been preparing to swim to the Barão or when she'd been about to dive into the water after him. Even her own words: "...the more I like you, the less I want you to know my secrets."
At the top of the levee wall, unable to help himself, he glanced back down. In the far distance, he spied Lucia on her knees crying. Exhaling a breath, he rubbed his aching chest. He never could stand the sight of her tears.
Damn that female! It seemed that when he'd told her he was done, he'd just been talking a big game. Because the truth was...
"She's my lass," he muttered.
For better or worse. I could never leave her.
His heart heavy with regret, he began making his way back to her - not seeing the movement in the brush until it was too late.
Still in shock, unable to stop shuddering, Lucia stared at her bow as if she were staring at her severed arm, knowing it would never grow back.
Sorrow suffused her, despair ripping at her. I'm nothing. I have nothing to offer the world. Nothing that makes me different. Earlier, Lucia had feared that she'd go from being the Archer to the Lykae's Mate. Now she wasn't even that!
When MacRieve had left her, she'd sunk to the ground, putting her head in her hands to cry. Twelve months ago, she'd predicted he would be the key to her ruin. She'd been right.
Is he really leaving me? Yes, he'd meant it. They'd just had incredible, mind-blowing sex, and then she'd started attacking him.
But she'd never been so furious, had never felt so used. Because of him, she was altered forever, yet she couldn't say the same about him. He'd claimed her - had fulfilled at least that primal Lykae need - so it was possible that he could content himself with others now. And since his brother had reclaimed the throne, Garreth could go back to being the Dark Prince, a womanizing brawler.
For Lucia, there was no going back to her life before MacRieve.
And now I've lost him. He'd warned her that one day he'd hit his limit. Today, he had. Reasonable, rational Lucia cried harder.
What was worse? Knowing that she'd lost him? Or that she might miss him more than her archery...?
Suddenly her ears twitched. She heard a curt yell, jerked her face up. It sounded like MacRieve.