Ash laughed deep in his throat as Artemis clutched him to her in the throes of her latest orgasm. Sighing in complete contentedness, she held him close as the last tremor shook her body.
"Ah," she breathed in his ear as she draped one arm around his neck while her long, shapely legs slid from around his waist to the floor so that she could support her own weight.
Ash wiped the sweat from his face with his hand. Every muscle in his body was twitching from the marathon she'd put him through over the last six hours. His long blond hair was damp while his entire body was covered in a fine sheen of sweat. He gladly welcomed the cool breeze that whispered in from the veranda.
Leaning back against the wall, Artemis laughed seductively. "Surely you're not giving up so quickly, Acheron. Only two more to go now. I wonder what position we should try next?"
He pulled away and gave her a crooked smile as he summoned a towel and used it to wipe at his chest. "Actually, that was your sixth and now you owe me a feeding before I leave." Completely uninhibited by his nudity, he draped the towel over his shoulders and held it in place with both hands.
Her face fell immediately. "What?" She looked past his shoulder to her hourglass on the shelf above her bed. It was still half-full of sand. "You're wrong, Acheron. That was only four since I started timing this."
Leaning on one arm against the wall where she stood, he savored the sensation of having bested her again. One day she'd learn not to play these games with him. But what the hell? At least it kept him on his toes. "From when you started logging your time, yes. But not from when I started logging mine."
He snapped his fingers and five hourglasses appeared beside hers. Each one had started right before her orgasms began. One hourglass to mark the hour from when one started until he had given her six within the allotted time.
All had expired except for the last two, but it was the fourth hourglass that was important. Held between the hands of two black gargoyles as the last few sands were quickly making their way from the top to the bottom, it was his key to freedom. He held his hand out and it shot from the shelf to his waiting grip so that he could show it to her.
"This one started earlier, right before you had your last two orgasms and vanished out of the room to delay our bargain. You came back after your hourglass had expired to begin again, but mine was still going... marking the time from when the last two left off to these four. Now I've fulfilled our pact, Artie. You've had your six orgasms in one hour. "
She shrieked in outrage. "No! That wasn't what we agreed. You-"
"Yes, it was," he said calmly, cutting her off before he returned the hourglass to its shelf. "That was the exact wording of our contract. You set up the terms and I abided by them. Now you have to free me for ten hours."
She balled her hands into fists as her face turned as red as her mussed hair. He knew she was having to mind her tongue to keep from calling him a liar. But then she knew what he did-he couldn't lie. Once his word was given, it was unbreakable.
"I hate you!"
He snorted. "Don't keep saying that, Artie. It's cruel to get my hopes up."
In her anger, she threw her hair over her shoulder as she continued to fume at him. His gaze narrowed on her exposed neck, which caused his stomach to rumble.
She paused instantly. Her green eyes darkened as her heartbeat picked up.
Unable to stand the temptation, Ash jerked her to him with one arm, dipped his head down, and pressed his lips to the throbbing vein that enticed him like a Siren's lure. The sweet fragrance of her blood made his own heart pick up speed as he opened his lips to taste her. He felt his incisors growing until he knew they were long enough to give him what he needed.
Growling deep in his throat, he sank his fangs into her neck and tasted the life that flowed inside her. Feeding was the only time he really wanted to be in her presence. The only time she didn't infuriate him beyond his best tolerance.
Here, for a moment, he found her soothing. Her blood calmed him as it nourished his hunger. Without breaking from her, he separated her thighs again and drove himself back into her body.
Lifting her legs from the floor, she cried out in happiness as her hands roamed his back while he continued to take what he needed.
He would be free of her soon...
Susan looked up from the floor as Ravyn entered the room with an air of distraction hovering around him. There was something strange about his demeanor. It wasn't like him to be so preoccupied. Normally when he was in a room, he was in the room.
"Are you all right?"
His face grim, he rubbed at the back of his neck. "I don't know. Nick's words keep chasing themselves around in my head. Kind of like ferrets or something else vile and evil. Not that ferrets are particularly vile, they're actually kind of tasty when I'm in leopard form."
Susan screwed her face up. "That's disgusting."
He winked at her. "I know and I'm only kidding. I don't like anything raw in either form... except for female flesh."
"Ew! That's worse, you cannibalistic necromaniac."
"You mean necrophiliac?"
"No. Necromaniac as in 'lunatic with the dead.' "
He appeared to consider that. "Actually, wouldn't it be un-necromaniac, as in 'the undead'?"
Susan held her hands up in surrender. She knew when she'd been bested verbally. "Switching topics back to Nick. What's bothering you exactly?"
"After you left, he kept saying that he thought one of our own, a Dark-Hunter, would betray the rest of us."
That bothered her, too. It was really a scary thought, but she had a hard time believing the men and women she'd met upstairs would turn on one another. There seemed to be an unspoken respect and brotherhood that existed between them.
"Boy, as Erika said, he's just a ray of sunshine, isn't he?"
Ravyn didn't seem to find the humor in her sarcasm. "Yeah, but I think he's right. Can you imagine how much damage a Daimon could do if they possessed a Dark-Hunter?"
More than she really wanted to think about. The Daimons had done enough damage in Daimon form. Imagine one masquerading as a good guy... that could get ugly really fast. "How easy could that be to do? I mean you guys kick serious Daimon ass, right?"
"I don't know-they've taken out two of us already and came too damned close to killing me. It's enough to make me wonder how much of Nick's crap is true and what isn't." He cocked his head as if realizing that his words were really getting to her.
She didn't like the thought of being Daimon bait. But then neither did he.
"Don't worry about it, Susan. I'm just thinking out loud." He moved forward to hand her the manila folder in his hands.
"A present from Leo."
Susan set it aside as she watched Ravyn withdraw back toward the wall. Something really wasn't right about him. It was like he sensed something that she couldn't, and it reminded her of a pet that was staring at the wall. And just like that pet stare, it unnerved her. "Hey?"
He looked over at her.
"I wanted to ask you about something Erika said earlier where you're concerned."
He scowled at her. "I don't wear purple panties to bed and I don't chase cat toys when they're thrown down in front of me."
Susan was stunned by his unexpected response. Uh-huh. It was obvious the man had some hidden issues.
"What was that action? What are you talking about?" she asked with a laugh.
He looked baffled by her question. "Isn't that what she said about me? It normally is... and it's most definitely not true."
Susan couldn't speak as she fought down her laughter. Most likely, he wouldn't think it funny to be laughed at, but it was hard to bury. Her mouth merely opened and closed like a guppy as she sought a suitable answer.
Finally she got enough control to speak again. "Well, I can certainly vouch for the lack of panties myself. I've been down there enough to know. As for the other... that could be interesting. Maybe we should try an experiment?"
Ravyn shook his head at her. "So what was your question then?"
Susan hesitated as she considered what he might answer. Not to mention, she was a bit captivated by the rugged appearance he made standing in the room as if ready to battle someone. "Erika said that, as a rule, you don't allow people around you for more than twenty-four hours."
He nodded. "It's true."
She couldn't imagine how he tolerated that kind of isolation. She liked to be alone, but not always. There were definite times when she liked having friends over. Or honestly, times when she needed someone around her. "Why is that?"
His face droll, he made an interesting noise. "Ever notice most people are major pains in the ass? I'd rather save myself the trouble of dealing with them and just avoid being around them to begin with."
In spite of the sincerity of his tone, she didn't buy that answer. It came too automatically, as if he'd rehearsed it repeatedly. More to the point, she was learning a lot about this man. There was a weird blankness that came into his eyes whenever he wasn't being honest, or whenever he was hiding something.
He had that look now.
Getting up, she walked over to him. They stood so close that she could feel the heat of his skin. Smell the sharp, tingling fragrance of his aftershave. His expression turned guarded.
"Talk to me, Ravyn."
He looked away as a veil descended over his features. Susan placed her hand against the muscle that was working in his jaw. The dark whiskers of his cheek gently scraped the palm of her hand as she felt an inner connection to him. It reminded her of taming a wild beast.
His eyes flared at that as if her action irritated him. "I don't need you to soothe me, Susan. I'm not a child."
"Good," she said seriously. "I'm not a nanny. I personally like to avoid most children, since they're rude, ill-mannered, and usually smell like freaky kinds of juice and mixed fruit." She frowned as those words struck her with a bit of humor. "Wait a second, given all that, you do remind of a child. "
He gave her a peeved glare.
She smiled at him as she patted his cheek playfully. Something that reminded her she was actually petting a wild leopard who could tear her arm off if he wanted to. That thought sent an odd sensation through her. She really was taunting the devil.
"Sorry," she said, not out of fear, but out of guilt that he didn't find her comment funny. "I couldn't resist." She lowered her hand from his face before taking his large, scarred hand into hers. "Now you know I'm a reporter, so you might as well answer my question truthfully, or I'll just keep asking it until you lose your mind."
Ravyn growled low in the back of his throat. It wasn't in his nature to confide in people. Even when he'd been mortal, he'd always preferred to keep his personal business just that-personal.
But he'd learned enough about Susan to realize she wasn't joking. She would stay on his tail like a hound running a fox to ground. In a way, he actually respected her persistence and some alien part of him actually liked being honest with her. He liked having someone who knew him.
So to save both of them a lot of time and pain, he answered her. "Honestly? I don't want people around me for two reasons-they ultimately betray you or they die on you. Either way, you're screwed and you spend all your time obsessing on why you didn't see it coming. Or that you did something or didn't do something to cause it. No offense, but I don't like to be hurt and I'd rather just avoid it."
He saw the compassion in her blue eyes as she stroked his hand with her thumb. "Tell me about it. My father ran out on us when I was too young to even remember what he looked like. He donated his sperm, then fled his responsibilities. My mother never mentioned him, but I knew she was never the same after he left. To the day she died, she refused to date anyone. And when I got into trouble with my career, all those people who'd been my so-called friends ran like frightened rats from a sinking ship. People I'd known and trusted for years, even the one person I thought I loved. The only ones who stayed were Jimmy and Angie, and strangely enough, Leo... and don't get me started on the dying part. I'm trying hard enough not to have a breakdown."
Even though it was against his nature, Ravyn pulled her into his arms and held her quietly against him to give her whatever comfort he could. Looking down he saw the faint scar on her wrist.
"Tell me something, Susan."
"When did you try to kill yourself?"
Susan swallowed as she remembered that awful, cold November night. It'd been about a week after Alex had left her, and she'd been forced out of her house into a roach-infested dive.
They'd even repo'd her car that afternoon.
On a holiday.
"It was Thanksgiving," she whispered as she felt the tears pricking her eyes. "Jimmy and Angie hadn't been able to spend it with me because his parents had come in from out of town. They'd invited me over, but the last thing I wanted was to put on a happy face when everything in my life was going wrong. Not to mention I didn't want to answer any questions from his parents about the news reports they'd been watching, where I was served up raw.
"So there I was, in my crappy, rundown apartment. Alone, Thinking about my mother, and how much I missed her, and I realized at that moment, that all the things I'd wanted as a little girl-my dreams of having a family and career-were all gone. All the things I'd worked so damned hard for had been stripped away, one by one. There wasn't someone to stand by me through the scandal. Someone to hold my hand and tell me it was going to be okay and that they would be there for me. I only had me, and I was just too tired to take another step alone. I hurt so badly and there was no one else who understood what I was going through. No one who'd seen their entire life crumble to nothing. So I decided the world would be better off without me in it."
He cradled her head against his chest. "But you didn't die."
"No," she said, sniffing back her tears. "After I'd cut my wrists, I realized how stupid I was being. More than that, I realized that if I killed myself, then those bastards who set me up would win. They wouldn't care that I was gone. They'd probably gloat, and that gave me the strength I needed to survive. After all they had taken from me, I wasn't about to let them have that, too. So I called an ambulance and promised myself that I would never be that weak again. My enemies can take what they want, but my life is mine and so long as I breathe, it has value. I won't ever give up. Not again."
Ravyn felt something warm go through him at her words. She was amazing. And she was stronger than anyone had a right to be.
It was weird, but of all the people he'd known in his long life, with the exception of Cael, she was the only one he really believed understood his feelings. She knew firsthand exactly what he was talking about when it came to loss.
"Damn, we're a pair, aren't we?" he said quietly.
"Could be worse."
Her words surprised him. "How so?"
"We could be Nick."
He laughed gently at her never-ending humor. Sometimes it was gallows and dark, but it never failed her. She wore it like armor. "Good point."
Clearing her throat, she pulled away. He didn't miss the very subtle gesture of her wiping away a tear with her pinkie before she looked up at him. "What's his deal anyway? Why does he have the bow and arrow mark on his face while the rest of you have them in more private areas?"
"I have no idea. I've never seen a Dark-Hunter have one in such an obvious spot before. I think Zoe might have had something when she asked if Artemis had slapped him. "
Susan smiled at the thought. "Well, if he was as kind to her as he's been to the rest of us, I might understand her motivation."
"Yeah, but in a way I feel sorry for him. He's not the same man who used to run the Web site. He was always sarcastic, but I can respect that. Now he's bitter and angry."
Ravyn shook his head as he remembered the way Nick used to be. There was nothing he could do to change that. Only time would allow Nick to regain some semblance of what he'd been before. "Enough about Nick. You need to check that folder out. Leo thinks it's a lead to who's helping the Daimons."
That caught her interest immediately. She headed back for the folder and sat cross-legged on the mattress to read it.
Ravyn's groin jerked at that and he wasn't sure why... well, okay, he was. There was something very inviting about that position as inappropriate thoughts went through him. He'd give her credit, she was hot in bed and on the floor, and he wondered how she'd be in other places such as the kitchen counter, the shower, and out in the woods, under the stars.
His body was really burning at those thoughts.
But she was completely engrossed by her work right now. She didn't even appear to know he was in the room as she started fanning pages around the mattress to read them. Her brow furrowed, she grabbed the laptop and pulled up Google.
"You want something to drink?"
"Coffee," she said in a distracted tone as she grabbed a pencil and started making notes.
"Cream and sugar, or a caramel Macchiato is always welcomed."
"Ooo, a Starbucks woman after my own heart."
That finally made her look up. "That's the best part about living in Seattle. Twenty-four stores in a ten-block radius. It's the only thing I don't miss about living in D.C."
He laughed. "All right, I'll see you in a few."
She went back to her research while he made a coffee run.
Ravyn paused in the doorway for a second just to watch her. She looked beautiful but tired. Most of all, she looked determined. He remembered a time when he'd had that kind of fire. A time when he'd lived for the thrill of the hunt. He wasn't sure when those feelings had faded. When he'd learned the complacency of just going through the motions of life. Of finding a temporary partner for sex one night and then leaving to find a new one the next.
Now he wondered what it would be like to have a woman who knew his likes and dislikes. To have a woman who knew what he was and who didn't seem to mind that he was both a leopard and a man...
Repressing those thoughts before they got him into trouble, he left the room and headed upstairs. No matter how much Susan appealed to him, she was off the menu. There was no hope for them, He'd been given his one shot at a mate, and he'd sworn himself to Artemis. No matter how much he might wish otherwise, there was no kind of future for them. He went to the kitchen to find Terra bustling around the kitchen as she helped prepare appetizers for their clients in the club.
She paused as she saw him. "You need something?"
"Yeah, he needs to leave."
Sighing in disgust, he turned to see Phoenix behind him. "Lay off me, Nix. I'm really not in the mood for your bullshit."
"Yeah, that's because you're a pussy."
Anger whipped through him so fast that Ravyn was actually stunned he didn't go for his brother's throat. Ravyn turned slowly to glare at him. "Me? I'm the pussy?"
"That's what I said."
"Uh-huh. If I'm the coward here, then why am I dead while you're alive? You were mated for what, two hundred years, and you never bonded to Georgette? What were you waiting for, Phoenix? There were several blue moons during that period."
Growling in rage, Phoenix started for him only to have Terra knock him away. "Sanctuary, Nix."
His breathing ragged, he had bloodlust all over him as he glared at Ravyn.
Terra let out a deep breath. "Leave the kitchen, Phoenix. You can either go on two legs or I'll carry you out. "
His gaze slid to hers. "You wouldn't dare."
"Oh, trust me." she said in deadly earnest. "I would and I'm man enough to do it, too."
He curled his lip at her before he headed out the swinging door that led to the club.
Terra wiped her hands on her apron before she looked back at Ravyn. "Now where were we?"
"Coffee coming right up."
Impressed by Dorian's mate, Ravyn watched as she made her way over to the counter where the coffeepots were set. His brother's mate was an interesting beast. She didn't look like Dorian's type at all. And for some reason, Ravyn's curiosity got the better of him. "Are you bonded to Dorian?"
She paused in filling the mug to look up at him. "Yes. Unlike Phoenix, he isn't a pussy. "
Ravyn laughed in spite of himself as she returned to filling the mug then she pulled a thermos out and filled it, too. "How long have the two of you been mated?"
"Seventy-five years." She placed the mug and thermos with a small container of sugars and cream on a tray for him.
"How long have you been bonded?"
"Nosy much?" Her gaze burned into his, and to his surprise, she answered. "Seventy-five years. Dorian never wanted to come home and find his mate dead after what all of you had been through. He said that the Fates joined us for a reason and that his place was to be by my side, even in death. "
A newfound respect for his brother welled up inside Ravyn. But more than that, he remembered the horror of the night his village had been destroyed. When the men had started falling around them, the assumption had been that those who were standing had mates who'd survived.
They'd rushed back home only to find out just how many of their clan hadn't bonded to their mates.
The hardest blow for Ravyn had been his mother. Given how much his parents supposedly loved and respected each other, he'd just assumed they were bonded. But apparently his father hadn't loved her enough.
"Thanks, Terra," he said, taking the tray.
He paused to look at her.
"Dorian thinks about you all the time and he holds himself responsible for not stepping up to defend you against Phoenix." She looked around as if embarrassed that she'd confided that to him. "I just thought you should know. "
Ravyn's throat grew tight. So he did have a brother who still loved him. Not that it changed anything. Dorian was still too much of a coward to stand up to the others or to let Ravyn know that he didn't agree with the pack about his banishment.
So be it. He'd lived these past three hundred years without them, he could certainly live longer.
He inclined his head to Terra before he left her to return to Susan who was gnawing her pencil to a nub.
"You're going to break your teeth on that." He set the tray down beside her.
She appeared baffled by his words. "What?"
He pointed to the pencil. "Are you hungry?"
She looked at it and laughed. "No, it's a bad habit I started in grade school. My old boss used to say he could tell whenever I was on to something good by the number of teeth prints in the pencil on my desk." She set the pencil aside and reached for the coffee.
"I assume by the state of the pencil that you've found something."
She poured the cream in and added sugar. "Yes and no. Apparently the chief of police's wife died a couple of months ago while visiting Europe with her son."
She nodded. "I've pulled up a few photos of her at various social events, but nothing that leaps out at me." Cradling the mug in one hand, she held up a piece of paper from the folder where Leo had written a small note: Makes the Mad Hatter Look Sane. "I think Leo was right."
"Well, so much for that."
His phone rang. Ravyn pulled it out of his pants and answered it. "Ravyn here."
It was Otto's voice. "Hey, Ravyn, we have a bit of a situation we need you for. Can you meet us at Post Alley?"
"I'll be there." He hung up the phone to see Susan's quizzical stare. "Otto wants me at Post Alley."
"Why? I thought you were supposed to be lying low."
Ravyn shook his head. "Otto didn't say why, but it must be important though for him to call."
Susan nodded in agreement. "Can I hitch a ride over?"
"Curiosity. C'mon. You're a cat. Surely you, of all people, can appreciate that."
"I don't know..." Ravyn hesitated.
"Oh, don't take that tone with me. Either I go with you or I find my own way."
"And if I don't want you to?"
She gave him a miffed stare. "You know, you'd look really weird in a dress and high heels."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means you're not my mother. Now stop arguing and help me find my shoes."
By the expression on his face she could tell he wasn't happy, but he did help her search out her shoes, which were buried under a pile of Jimmy's papers.
It didn't take them long to reach the alley, which wasn't far from Pike's Market.
They'd just gotten out of Phoenix's Porsche and walked over to it when they heard Zoe's aggravated voice in the darkness.
"Don't make me run up that hill, Daimon, and spill my coffee. If I do, I can assure you that you'll suffer unmercifully before I kill you."
"I strangely like that woman," Susan said to Ravyn as she followed him toward Zoe's voice.
They'd only taken a few more steps before they ran into Dragon.
"What are you doing here?" he asked them.
"Call from Otto," Ravyn said.
Dragon paused. "Me, too. How weird that he'd want us both here. Out in the open."
That was odd. Susan looked back and forth between the men. "Did he say what he needed?"
"He didn't," they said in unison.
Dragon and Ravyn exchanged a wary stare. "Is it just me," Ravyn asked, "or do you suddenly have a bad feeling about this?"
They heard Zoe let out a war cry.
The men took off at a dead run up the hill. Without thinking, Susan ran up after them, but as they crested the hill and she saw Menkaura, Cael, and Belle also there, she realized this was a trap.
And they'd all fallen right into it.