"What do you mean?"

"With each Accession, a Lorekind female called a Vessel reaches sexual maturity. Her firstborn will be the ultimate warrior for either good or evil, depending on the father's inclination."

"That's why those demons wanted to...to..."

"Breed with you? Yeah. And the leeches wanted to kill you because they didn't know if the demons had already completed their ritual."

Her brows drew together. "Wait. I'm called a Vessel? Could there be a more derogatory term? By its very definition, a vessel is of no importance compared to its contents. Vessels are disposable. Couldn't these Lorekind have gone with baby maker or bun oven?"

"I lobbied for cargo hold, but just lost out."

Again, she recrossed her legs. They were toned, taut - all that swimming had done her right. He wondered what she would do if he reached over and put his hand on her knee, sliding it up her thigh. There'd be no panties to get in his way....

As if she knew his musings, she pulled the jacket down with a glare.

Hell, he might have to turn her over to Rydstrom completely. No. As soon as the thought arose, Cade swatted it down. Call him a glutton for punishment, but he was going to take every second with her that he could get.

"All kinds of factions, both good and evil, will be searching for you," he continued, "wanting you either bred or dead. Even some of the good guys will seek to kill you."

"Why?"

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"Because in the last seven Accessions, only one good offspring has been born. The rest are evil."

"So the odds are that mine would be, too."

"Exactly. They'd act for the greater good, or to ensure their own dominance."

"What if I got my tubes tied or something?"

"They'll kill you to make sure." And it probably wouldn't take anyway. She was too far gone into the transition to Valkyrie. If she had surgery, her body would simply "heal" it.

She was quiet for long moments. "This sounds really dangerous, protecting me. Are you doing it just for the pay?"

I've been protecting you for months. Because you drive me crazy, and I want you more than is right. "Yeah, just for the pay. I have a history of taking on tough jobs."

"How much are you getting?"

"Something priceless to my family."

"More specific, please," she said in a voice she probably used with unruly jocks.

Second rule of being a mercenary: Lie through your teeth - but stick as close to the truth as possible to keep it convincing and less complicated. "My brother Rydstrom - the one we're meeting - is king of our kind, the rage demons. But his kingdom was usurped by a dark sorcerer called Omort the Deathless. Like the name indicates, he can't be killed in the usual ways."

"Usual ways?"

"Most immortals can be killed only by an otherworldly fire or by beheading. Omort is immune even to those means. As you can imagine, he's hard as hell to defeat. But now, if I do this job with you, I'll get a sword that was forged specifically to kill him."

"A dark sorcerer." She pinched her forehead. "It just keeps getting better. I wonder that he doesn't want 'the Vessel' for himself, since everyone else seems to."

That supposition was a little close for comfort. A wicked sorcerer did want her, just not the one she was aware of. So Cade told her the truth: "Omort won't seek you. He can't breed with a Vessel. Because he was born of one."

But his half brother Groot hadn't been.

"So if Rydstrom is a king, then you're a prince?"

"Of a lost crown."

"Is he the one who dragged you away that day on campus?"

"You remember that?" On the one occasion he'd had to speak to her, for the first time in his life, he'd been off his game. Unfortunately, Rydstrom had been there to see it. "That's him. He's the good brother of the Woede. I'm the bad one. You'll see it as soon as we're together."

"What's the Woede?"

"That's what they call the two of us because we rarely separate." No matter how much they might want to.

"What was wrong with you that day?" she asked. "Why couldn't you talk?"

"Couldn't talk? It wasn't like that."

"You were babbling incoherently."

Funny, Rydstrom had described it as blathering. "I never babble."

"Why were you on campus anyway? Were you already watching me about this?"

"No, it was a coincidence." He exhaled. A fated one...

At the mention of Cade's brother, she noted the instantaneous change in him.

Clearly, he had issues with this Rydstrom.

She remembered the brother from that day of the awards. He'd seemed more reasonable. Maybe he'd be more inclined to answer her questions with direct, comprehensive answers. Every time Cadeon explained something, she got the sense that he was just treading the surface of the subject.

And yet again, Cadeon's gaze strayed to her bare legs. She hated this vulnerable feeling, going with no underwear, no hose, no bra.

Everything she'd ever learned about concealing her emotions she used now. She reached for her pearls to calm herself, but they weren't there. Nothing was as it should be, and she wanted to hit something in frustration.

This night was all wrong. A nightmare for someone like her. She didn't need a male like Cadeon casting her lustful glances - not now and certainly not when she'd been naked earlier.

Most times she endeavored to forget she had a body at all, much less one that could be sexy. Or could feel sexy.

No man had ever seen her completely naked before tonight. Now thirteen demons had.

But only one had lived to tell about it.

Oh, God, this is too much, too much to take in.

"All right, poppet, you've got to stop that leg-crossing thing, stat."

"I'm uncomfortable!" She'd never gone so long without undergarments. "I don't have my clothes, my jewelry. My laptop. Not even my shoes!"

"And now you've got me uncomfortable, too."

She could have sworn he'd adjusted himself. "You...you just touched yourself."

"I'm a demon. I'm not exactly shy about things like this."

She was appalled. "But you shouldn't...you can't just..."

"What should I do? You're an attractive female in my car who's not wearing panties. So to make you more comfortable, I should cut off circulation in my c - "

"Don't say it! I get the picture." Her nails dug into her palms. Not nails - claws. And for some reason they were now curling, her mind locked on that memory of his hard, tanned torso leading down to those unbuttoned jeans.