"What's there to help me fight Cruach? A weapon? An ally? Don't suppose I'll find a dieumort there."
"Now what's a dieumort?"
"Never mind! Nïx, what's down there?"
"Call me when you arrive on time - otherwise all this could be moot - then I'll reveal the rest to you. Unless, of course, I forget." Which was entirely likely.
Lucia had known Nïx wouldn't divulge more logistics. She divvied information like a miser parting with gold coins. Lucia had learned, like all other Valkyrie, to go on a little faith - and forbearance - with Nïx. "At least tell me what the stakes are," Lucia had demanded impatiently. "What happens if I fail?"
"The end of life as we know it."
"Nothing else you'd like to impart?"
"Everything you'll need will be aboard the Contessa". A blare of static-like noise crackled. "Oh, and beware of the barão da borracha and the guardião."
Lucia knew some Portuguese. "Beware of the rubber baron and the guardian?"
More static sounds. "Can't hear... call back... good luck..."
"Nïx, I know you're faking the static." She could picture her sister blowing into her fist directly at the receiver. The static abruptly stopped. "Why?"
"It seemed less rude than the alternative."
Lucia slowed, her eyes widening when she spied a wave of riverboats leaving. Was she too late?
She asked fishermen returning from the day's runs to direct her to the Contessa. They all laughed in answer. Once she finally happened upon it, beached on a section of trash-ridden shore, she realized why.
The Contessa - such a bold and noble name - was a relic. With its three stories and latticed railings, it looked like an old river cruiser from the rubber-boom days. But it was in no way preserved - rotting holes dappled the wood just above the waterline, and the windshield in the pilothouse was fractured from one edge to the other. Any visible metal was corroded, oozing rust down the faded hull like runnels of blood.
The roof on the third-story observation deck was... thatched.
She scrunched her face. Departure at three sharp? Nothing concerning this vessel could be classified as sharp. Nïx, you little rotter. Why would her sister have booked her on this ship?
No, Lucia didn't have to accept this - she could get another ride. She stepped back to survey the only other boats still beached. Any that remained looked to have been abandoned in haste. The closest one still had tablecloths and utensils on its soaked outdoor tables.
Aboard the Contessa, voices sounded dimly from indoors, and one - maybe two - males stomped around on deck.
At least it had people on it.
Beggars can't be choosers. She checked the braids she'd plaited to cover her ears, then called, "Is anyone up there? I need to board this" - tub, wreck, joke of a - "boat."
A crusty boot slammed on the gunwale, and a big, bleary-eyed man leaned over it to peer down. "Ship, lady. This here's a ship," he said defensively, as if she'd told him, "Your penis: I find it minuscule." The man's accent was American Southern, his voice raspy.
With blood-shot gray eyes, he gave her a once-over, then drawled, "Dr. MacRieve, I presume?"
Dr. MacRieve? Nïx had just gotten elevated from ass-kicking to certain death.
When dealing with humans, Lucia had always used Archer as her last name. Since she would never own up to her real one.
"From LSU?" he asked, snagging a hip flask from his jeans pocket for a generous gulp.
Wondering what else Nïx would have told this man, she answered, "Yes, that's me. And you're the... captain?"
"That I am. Captain Wyatt Travis." He wore a white button-down, mostly unbuttoned, and when the wind blew off the river, the material billowed, displaying a surprisingly rock-solid torso.
Lucia supposed he wasn't unfortunate looking, with his carelessly ruffled blond hair and stubble, but he was noticeably inebriated - even if she couldn't have smelled liquor wafting from his pores. She conjectured what Travis would blow on a BAC meter, wagering a healthy two-point-oh.
Why would Nïx book her on a rotted tub with a drunken captain? She could just see Nïx clapping merrily and crying "For fun!" "And my assistant booked a room, right?"
"We've held a cabin for you. Last one left."
"One. And it ain't in your room, darling." His accent wasn't just Southern. She realized the captain was a Texan.
"Wait, the last cabin?" She scanned the decks. The ship looked to have at least half a dozen of them, spaced equally on the first two floors.
He shoved down a rickety gangplank. "You don't have to sound so shocked that we're booked up." Ruffled feathers. The only thing worse than a perpetual drunk was a sensitive one. "There're three docs like you aboard and my cook and deckhand as well."
Including the captain that would make six humans. This wouldn't do. Unlike some Valkyrie, Lucia shunned mortals whenever possible. To reveal secrets of the Lore to one of them would draw punishment from the gods, and Lucia was already in a tenuous position with one. Or two. "How much for the entire boat?"
"You ain't the brightest bulb in the marquee, are you? I already got these passengers aboard - they're unpacking their scientifical crap in the lab as we speak. We've just been waiting on you."
Weeks on board with mortals? And clearly, she would have to hijack the boat to get to the deepest Amazon, where nobody dared to go. The humans would have to be dealt with then.
Perhaps Lucia could find a Lorean to captain another ship. A river city like Iquitos would be home to countless immortals.
But as she debated her options, that awareness returned, the sense of being watched. She rubbed the back of her neck and glanced over her shoulder, thought she saw a tall male, a too-tall male. Was MacRieve closing in on her even now? She knew he couldn't be far behind - because he hadn't been for the entire year.
Or maybe she was overreacting. Exhaustion weighed on her until she felt like falling down, and in the past, she'd imagined him in shadows, over a rise, or on a balcony overhead peering down at her.
For as many times as she'd seen golden eyes glowing with hunger from some nearby shadow, she'd imagined she had.
Her ears twitched. Awareness. No, he was near. "I'll take the cabin!" I can dump the mortals later. She chucked her pack over the railing, holding her graphite bowcase under her arm as she acted like a human female, teetering up the gangplank.
He frowned. "Uh, don't you have equipment you need to have loaded?"
"Nope. We're all good."
"Orientation and meet-and-greet is required."
"Yes, of course." She could play along, be sociable, or act like she was. "But we need to leave immediately."
"We're on river time here." He offered her a hand she didn't need as she stepped aboard. "Now, you're in the seventh cabin, first level, all the way fore in the bow. Here's the key - "
She snatched it from him. "I'll double - triple - your fare if we leave this instant."
He narrowed those gray eyes. "Quadruple it, and you'll see a big-ass boat go fast."
"Agreed." This heartened her. Mortals who were motivated by money were controllable.
As the captain hastened to the pilothouse, calling out for someone named Chuck to "kick her in the guts!" Lucia climbed to the observation deck. She shaded her eyes with her hand, scanning for MacRieve. Iquitos was the most populous city in the world that couldn't be reached by road. Only boat and air traffic in or out, difficult to get to in the best of circumstances. Maybe she'd lost him.
The ship's diesel engines fired up, coughing black smoke as they sputtered, but they stayed running. Travis began reversing from the shore, narrowly missing a floating gas station, then he increased the speed. The ship surged backward, water swamping the back platform that stretched the width of the boat.
The entire hull groaned, the motion sending Lucia tilting toward the railing. As she balanced herself, she craned her head around, eyes wary.
Nothing. After several heartbeats, Travis shifted gears, and the Contessa ground forward. Finally, Lucia breathed a sigh of relief. They were under way. She was on a boat heading out on the Amazon after flying all the way from across the world, in record time.
Really, how could the Lykae have headed her off here? There was no way he could catch her.
And her trail would grow colder in the days to come. She climbed down to the first level for her bag, then headed for cabin seven to stow her stuff. Just as she got to the door, her sat-phone chimed with a new text message. She peered at the screen, saw it was from Regin. Gods, she missed her sister and best friend like an ache -
RegRad: We're not BFFs anymore, Luce. So SUCK IT!
Lucia sighed. At times she understood why others could only take Regin in short doses.
Suddenly, her ears twitched again, which meant someone aboard was possibly about to attack her or that MacRieve was near. She hoped it was the former as she plunked her case down on the deck. Dropping to her knees beside it, she unfastened the titanium latches and yanked free her bow and quiver from their foam padding.
After stringing the bow, she stood once more. She spied something out of the corner of her eye, something glinting in the sun. She glanced up, over toward the shore.
MacRieve. Just there on the rise. To elude him for this long only to be snared now?
His timing. For the love of gods, his timing!
Could he still make the boat? One more dock lay ahead for the Contessa to pass, coming up swiftly, but fifty or sixty feet of water separated it from the boat.
Apparently MacRieve thought he could make the distance - he slung his duffle bag over his body and got that intent look she'd become familiar with. Wait... Did he have blood splattered over one side of his face?
No time to contemplate that; she dashed to the back platform. In a flash, she had her bow up and arrow loaded. His expression turned murderous, and he shook his head slowly, as if vowing retribution.
Damn him! She couldn't shoot, because she knew he wouldn't even try to dodge her arrows. He would still do anything to keep her from harm - even as each time she saw him he continued to appear darker, angrier.
And gods help her, sexier.
With a sound of frustration, she lowered her bow. MacRieve had already begun sprinting, gaining superhuman velocity, his massive body moving with the speed and smoothness of an animal.
She swallowed. He was nearing the end of the dock but hadn't slowed - was pumping his arms for more speed. No. No way he can make this distance, werewolf or not.
Heart in her throat, she watched him spring from the edge in an explosive leap. A second passed... still in the air... momentum hurling him toward her spot -
Just short! He landed chest-first against the side of the platform, his black claws digging into the teakwood.
After wincing at the sound of his ribs cracking, she remembered herself and reared back her leg for a swinging punt to his head. But he snatched her ankle with one hand, tossing her to her ass. In a single fluid movement, he sprang to the deck to cover her, pinning her arms - and bow - over her head.
A seething, soaked Lykae was stretched over her, his body a cage of damp, rippling muscles. She grappled to get free, a laughable effort against a being with his strength, but only managed to get as soaked as he was.
What would he do to her? What didn't she deserve?
"Now, that's no' nice, Valkyrie." His deep voice raked over her as his eyes scanned her face, taking in every feature as if relearning them. "And no way to greet your male."
"You're not my male!" He did have blood on his face - now it mingled with the water and sweat trickling down his cheek. "Let me up!"
He kept her pinned. "Missed you these months," he said. "Again and again." The double meaning was clear when his eyes flickered ice blue. "But no longer. The game's changed now, beauty."
Snared. Somehow the huntress had been hunted to the ground and trapped.
No! She was on a mission to save the world. She'd lose the Lykae and get on with it. She had to.
Or every being on earth would pay for what she'd done - and for what she would never do again...
At that thought, she renewed her struggles beneath him. Oh, gods, MacRieve was getting hard!
In a hushed, threatening tone, he said, "We've unfinished business to take care of."
"I want you off this boat, MacRieve!" Lucia snapped.
Garreth was growing erect, stiffening for her with a swift heat, and she had to feel it. "Do you, then?" His tone was disbelieving - because even now his Lucia was responding to him so sweetly. A blush tinged her high cheekbones, and her pupils were dilated with interest. Her lips parted as she stared at his own.
Then her dazed expression seemed to clear. "Get off me, you brute! If you won't leave, then I will!"
"You think I've searched - and fought and protected you from afar - for this long just to let you go now?" Not from too afar. Moments ago, he'd slaughtered two demon assassins who'd been lying in wait in an alley - for her. They'd had their swords raised, intending to take her head. He'd collected theirs instead.
But now Garreth had her safe in his arms. The urge to squeeze her into his chest grew nigh overwhelming. To have her truly under his watch... after so many months when she'd been in constant danger.
Satisfaction soared within him, and he eased his face down to her mane of glossy hair, taking her scent into him once more.
Gods, nothing smelled as fine as Lucia.
"Are you... smelling my hair?" She sounded aghast. Or titillated. Who could tell with Lucia, the Mistress of Mixed Signals?
His voice was rough when he admitted, "Aye, just one of the things I missed about you." Just as satisfaction mounted, so did lust. The smell of her hair was almost his undoing. And her body was so soft and warm beneath him.
She squirmed harder, but he wouldn't budge. "MacRieve, I'm here on important business! Business that doesn't concern you. If you're trying to win me over - "
"I'm no'. Gave up on that in the first month."
She flushed guiltily, which heartened him. Maybe his female wasn't as cold and unemotional as her vicious sisters, though she'd certainly convinced him otherwise over the last year. "No, my only aim these days is to keep you alive." They were in the midst of an Accession, and in this treacherous time, she'd come here, to his least favorite place on earth.
And one of the most perilous, even for immortals.
She struggled to free her arms and her bow, brushing her hip against his erection. A pleasured breath escaped him. "I remember the last time we were in this position." Of their own volition, his hips curled, making her gasp. At her ear, he grated, "I rocked against your sex till you came for me. You feared I'd stop before you could."
She glanced away, her blush deepening, her squirming intensifying.
"Little to the left, sweet. And harder."
She cast him a withering glare as she thrashed her arms. "I'll shoot you so full of arrows - "
He held her tight. "Eventually, you will run out of those."
"I make my own," she said between gritted teeth.
"O' course you do. But I consider your archery our foreplay. So - fire - away."
"You've stalked me, hunted me to the ground. I'm sick of it! I should have shot you when you leapt."
"Oh, so I'm to be the bad man? Have you forgotten what you've done to me? To my family?" And the worst of it hadn't even occurred until after she'd fled New Orleans. Then the fun had really begun - hijinks and traps all over the world for the last year. "And you should no' have run from me with no explanation."
She met his gaze with a mulish look. "I wasn't running from you. I've been doing my own deal. And I didn't owe you an explanation! Still don't. Now release me!"
"Maybe you dinna owe me an explanation, but thanking me for saving your life might no' be too much."
Instead, her chin jutted.
So that's how she's to be? Finally, he allowed her to scramble up but shot to his feet beside her, cupping her nape. "Take me to our cabin."
"Have you gone insane?"
"Would you blame me if I had after all you've done to me? All you've denied me, denied us - "
"Who the hell is this?" a male demanded from behind them.
Garreth turned, spied a drunken human. Must be the captain. The man eyed Lucia's bow and Garreth's dripping clothes. With the look of a bloke who'd seen it all, he said to Lucia, "Is there a problem, doc?"
Doc? Though the mortal was packing muscle, Lucia had to know that he couldn't do anything to help her.
Her lips thinned. Oh, aye, she knew better. "No, no problem, Travis."
This Travis turned to him. "Lemme guess, you're our obligatory stowaway?"
"New passenger." Garreth dug into the pocket of his soaked jacket, then handed the man a soggy wad of cash. "Garreth MacRieve."
Travis glanced from Lucia to Garreth, then to his handful of bills, accepting it with a nod. "We don't have any cabins left - "
"No' a problem. I bunk with this one from now on."
Lucia opened her mouth to protest, but Travis said, "Then welcome the hell aboard." With that, he turned and climbed back up to the wheelhouse.
Lucia jerked from Garreth's grasp. "This isn't over. And if you lay another paw on me, MacRieve, I'll make you regret it."
When she turned from him, he laid another paw on her, giving her arse a possessive squeeze, groaning with pleasure; she whirled around and punched him with shocking force in the Adam's apple, doubling him over as he coughed.
As she hastened away, he grated, "Still doona regret it."
On her way back to cabin seven, she swooped up her pack, then unlocked the heavy door, slamming it behind her. The rusted hinges screamed in protest.
At first glance, the wood-paneled room was larger than she'd thought it would be, the bed as well. Probably because both were so old, from a bygone era of luxury.
There was a writing desk and chair, a bedside table and lamp. A mosquito net dangled above the bed. Both a decent-sized bathroom and a cramped balcony adjoined.
After tossing her bag to the floor, she leaned back against the door, propping her bow and quiver against the wall.
What am I going to do? She was traveling on a vessel lousy with humans, dispatched on a mission by a half-mad being, replete with an embarrassing secret identity, an impending apocalyptic deadline, and now a nemesis who could prove her undoing.
A sexy nemesis.
Gods, he was still as attractive as ever. His dark charisma - which still seemed to make her mind go blank - was in full force.
Had he really missed her scent? As a Lykae, had he longed to experience it? The idea made her disconcertingly flushed - and irritated with herself. Why was she even contemplating things like that?
Instead, she needed to be worried about how he would retaliate for all she and Regin had done to him. There was no way he'd simply deem the last year water under the bridge....
Nïx had told her, "Call me as soon as you get on board." Oh, she would call all right!
Lucia snatched her sat-phone from her pack, dialing her. But the soothsayer wasn't answering - no shock - so Lucia left a message. In the calmest voice she could manage, she said, "Nïx, it's me. I'm under way. Call me back. Oh, and I think I hate you."
Once she hung up, she saw another text. RegRad: Didn't mean that last msg. Still BFFs? I should B there w/U. This town=LAME.
Lucia thought Regin should be with her, too. But at the outset, they'd disagreed on how to deal with MacRieve's hell-bent pursuit. Regin had decided to kill him, which Lucia couldn't abide. Not after he'd saved the lives of Regin, Annika, and herself.
How had Lucia repaid him? With pain.
And now she herself would be paying for that decision -
"Let me in, Lousha," he said from just outside the cabin.
Perhaps I should have let Regin have at the wolf. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"You ask questions that you know the answers to? Now, open up, or - "
"You'll huff and puff?" She glanced around the room, as if to find a way around letting him inside. Before she spied an alternative, he broke the lock, opening the door. "MacRieve!"
He strolled past her with an insolent chuck under her chin, then slammed the door closed.
"You got the cabin in the bow?" he said with a scowl. "Surprised you dinna just go with hammock class."
"If you have a problem with it, feel free to leave."
He ignored that, dropping his bulging duffle bag. Then he seemed to scent the area, checking nooks and crannies, rapping a knuckle on the wood-paneled wall, shuffling the faded green floor rug.
She took the opportunity to study him, finding him as insufferably gorgeous as ever. His thick dark hair remained longish and carelessly cut. His customary stubble shaded his lean cheeks and that stubborn cleft chin. Around his eyes, those faint lines fanned out, pale in his tanned skin.
Though he'd lost weight - he clearly hadn't been eating enough - his body was still massive. Nothing could diminish his towering height. Captain Travis was over six feet tall, and he'd had to look up to the Lykae.
Then she frowned. On his left wrist, MacRieve wore a silver cuff that looked as though it'd come from a suit of battered armor. It was what she'd initially seen glinting when she'd first caught sight of him. How odd.
"Still as ruggedly handsome," he said without turning around, "as I was the last time you saw me, Valkyrie."
Her face flushed red. She hadn't forgotten how gravelly his voice was, but for so long she'd denied its effect on her.
He opened up the double doors to the small balcony, peered out, then turned back to say, "Shame it's in the bow." Then he crossed to the cabin's sole chair to yank off his sodden boots.
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"You'll see." Barefooted, he unzipped his waterproof bag for a pair of faded jeans and a black T-shirt.
Her eyes widened. "You're not changing in here."
Fingers on the fly of his low-slung jeans, he raised his brows at her. "Oh, I'm no'?" He leisurely tugged down his zipper. "Leaving on wet clothes in the Amazon? Lesson one - that's no' too bright an idea."
Her first instinct was to whirl around, but then she'd be turning her back on a disrobing Lykae who lusted for her. Yet the alternative was just as bad. To see his naked flesh again?
How many times had she fantasized about his big shaft, remembering how it'd looked when he'd been pumping it into her fist between those bars?
Don't look at it. Blushing, she finally whirled around from him, but then she was forced to listen to the sounds of his undressing. His smooth, tan skin would still be damp, as it'd been that rainy night in the bayou. She swallowed, assailed by memories of touching him, touching him everywhere....
"So, Valkyrie. Mind telling me what we're doing in Amazonia, of all places? I'd vowed I'd never return to this hellhole."
Without turning around, she said, "I do mind. And if you vowed never to return, then you - should - leave."
"Here's a thought. In the last year I've been chasing you, did you never consider hiding out at the Ritz?"
"Here's a thought. Stop chasing me!"
Suddenly she felt his breaths - on the back of her neck. She twisted around, craning her head to stare up at mesmerizing golden eyes.
As he gazed down at her, he rested his hand against the wall above her head, fingering a lock of her hair. "Ah, lass, I will. Now that I've caught you."
He had little flecks of black within the gold of his irises. She'd never noticed that before. And she dimly perceived that he had in fact redressed.
Was she disappointed? "Caught me?"
The reality of her situation sunk in. She was the object of a Lykae's unwavering obsession. They just didn't give up. And the Valkyrie's usual remedy for this - a slaying - wasn't an option.
She was caught, she couldn't get rid of him, and short of leaving this boat, she was going to have to deal with MacRieve.
She'd have to try to reason with him. The only problem? He made her feel anything but reasonable! Even now, she wanted to rise up on her toes, rubbing against his chest on the way up, to whisper in his ear that she needed to be kissed. "I'll make a deal with you, MacRieve. If you leave me alone for just one year, then we'll meet up. I'll let you court me. But I need you off this boat, now."
"Meet up? Like that time in the swamp?" he said pointedly.
"I'd vow it to the Lore. Just leave here now, and I'll contact you as soon as I return from the Amazon."
"This is no' open for debate. I'm no' bargaining with you. That time is past. We do things my way now. I'm in this cabin and in that bed with you. Best come to terms with it."
"You can't be serious!"
"Are you no' tired of running? Settle this with me."
"One more time - I'm not running from you! I have an urgent matter to attend to, and I need to be focused. Which means you need to leave."
"Tell me what you have to 'attend to.'"
For a wild moment, she considered revealing everything about Cruach. She believed that the Broken Bloody One could in fact bring about an apocalypse - if she couldn't cast him back to the bowels of his lair for another five centuries. Nïx had said his power would now spread like wildfire, like a plague, if unchecked.
But Lucia knew if she laid it all out there, the Lykae would simply inform her that he would take care of Cruach. A male like MacRieve would never accept that she alone had the power to defeat a monster so powerful he could destroy the world.
"Tell me, Lousha...."
She steadied herself. Because she'd trusted one male, she was in this predicament - she wouldn't be blindly trusting another one to get her out of it! So she answered with a question: "How could you possibly get here so quickly? I saw you in the Northlands."
"I have ways. And I'll be as forthcoming as you are with me."
"Damn you, MacRieve, you can't comprehend how important this is."
"Then enlighten me."
She pursed her lips.
"Will no'? Then I doona give a damn about your business. All I care about is having you in my grasp. Maybe I dinna make myself clear. Before I would have been good to you, spoiled you. And I might have bargained with you. No longer. Now I simply want the use of your body and revenge for all you've done to me."
Stunned, she bit out, "Go to hell."
"Been there, Valkyrie. For the last twelve months."
"I'll escape you, MacRieve, just as I have time and again. If you want to play dirty - "
"I'll always play dirty with you, because it's the only way to win." His hand shot downward. Would he grab her, stroke her -
But he never touched her. Her jaw dropped. He snagged my bow! She lunged for it, but he yanked it back.
With a look of diabolical satisfaction, he said, "Bet this has no' been out of arm's reach in centuries."
"Wh-what are you doing?"
Her look of horror would have told Garreth all he needed to know even if lightning hadn't struck just off the port window. She'd do anything to get this back.
"Give it to me!" She made another futile grab.
"Ah-ah, Valkyrie." He half turned from her, examining it, checking the lines. Etched into the wood were bizarre symbols that raised his hackles, made him wary. Esoteric ones that he'd never seen, as mysterious as the woman before him.
Not for the first time, he felt as though he didn't know Lucia at all.
"If you want this back in this century... you'll do whatever I say."
Her lips thinned.
"I think we're beginning to understand each other. Now to make you more cooperative." He unstrung the bow, placing it into its case.
He tossed the case on the bed. "Calm yourself. I'll give it back when you vow to the Lore that you will no' run."