The man claiming to be her father took one step forward, then froze as he saw her reaching for Ren’s knife. "Kateri, please. I’m not strong enough to fight you and stay here. You have to listen to me. I don’t have long and there’s much I have to tell you."
She kept her hand on the knife’s hilt, but left it in its sheath. "What do you mean?"
"I’m no longer corporeal. I haven’t been since I physically vanished from your life-something I did not do voluntarily. I swear. I loved you and your mother. More than anything. If I’d had any choice in the matter, I would never, ever have left you. And I’ve come to you every time I could. As long as I could." He gestured to Ren. "It’s why I sent Makah’Alay to you. Even though we were once enemies, he is the only one I trust now to keep you safe. He’s the only one capable of saving you."
"I don’t understand."
"I know, baby. It’s all confusing." He sighed wearily. "Things did not turn out the way I wanted them to. But then life so seldom cooperates with our plans for it." He took another step toward her. With the greenish light now at his back, she realized he was translucent.
"You’re a ghost?"
"In a manner of speaking." Tears filled his eyes as he swallowed hard while staring at her as if he couldn’t believe she was here in the cave. "You’re so beautiful … just like your mother. I should never have interfered, but I couldn’t help it. The moment I saw your mother, I fell in love with her. No one could resist her smile, least of all me. I knew what I did was wrong and I couldn’t stop myself. And you were the sweetest bonus that I never expected."
Her own eyes watered as tears choked her. Was there any truth to what he said? Could there be?
He jerked his chin toward Ren. "Makah’Alay thinks that he needs me to reset the calendar, but I’m not the necessary one. You are. For the first time since the Great Dawn, the Guardian and the Ixkib are united in one person. While they are dormant for now, you have all my powers, as well as all of your mother’s and grandmother’s, and when the time comes and you need them, they will be there for you. No one has ever been so strong. But you’re the one who has to believe that those powers are yours to command. Let no one tell you otherwise. And you, alone, will have the power to designate the new Guardians for the gates. Choose better than I did. I allowed myself to be blinded by hope. You’re more pragmatic than I ever was. And you do me prouder than any child has ever done their parent."
His gaze returned to Ren. "While I trust Makah’Alay for now, be cautious, little one. His heart was turned once. It makes it easier for it to be turned again, and having met your mother and being unable to resist her even though I knew I should have, I completely understand him now. And that knowledge scares me. There is still much inside him that is angry and dark. So long as it lives in his heart, he will never be free. And he will never be truly safe. Artemis isn’t the only one who owns a piece of him."
Her heart pounded at his words. If she couldn’t trust Ren, who could she trust?
And there was still the biggest puzzle of all. "What about the stone everyone wants? Where is it?"
He smiled at her. "You will discover it when the time is right. Your grandmother took care of that for you. Your enemies can’t find it. Only you can."
The walls around them began to flicker. Images flashed across them so fast, it was hard to focus on any one. She saw Ren fighting her father. Blood soaked them both as they tried to tear each other apart. It was a brutal, gladiatorial fight.
Her father laughed. "He is the only one who ever defeated me in battle."
She scowled at that. "I thought you won."
He shook his head. "No. By all rights, he had won the fight and defeated me, but I tricked him at the end. Like everyone else in his life, I lied to him and used his insecurity against him so that he faltered and defeated himself. That is his only weakness, and it’s the one you can use should you need to kill him."
That thought horrified her. "Kill him?"
Her father gestured to the wall on his left.
The scenes flared bright. And then, larger than all the others, was an image of Ren staring straight at her. The wind blew his long black hair around his shoulders and handsome face. He was dressed in a light brown buckskin suit that was decorated with elaborate red and black embroidery. The fur of a jaguar hung over his shoulders and was secured to his suit by two ornate brooches. Like her father, he had three feathers in his hair, only his fell from his left temple. Two black and one white. He wore a red stone in the shape of a teardrop from a leather cord around his neck. It was reminiscent of a drop of blood.
In his right hand was an ornately carved black bow and in his right was a pure white arrow. But it was his eyes that pierced her. One was as blue as a perfect summer sky and the other was as red as blood. They seared her with his anger and hatred.
Kill the jaguar. That voice was demonic and cruel as it directed Ren.
He nocked the arrow and aimed it straight for her heart.
Her father started to fade. "If the Grizzly takes him over again, you will have to kill him, Kateri. You are the only one who can. Kill him. Stab his heart and he will be no more. If you don’t, he will destroy the world of man, and he will kill you. Remember that I love you, daughter. Always."
Then her father was gone completely.
Ren’s image stayed on the wall with that one red eye glaring at her. "You will not weaken me!" he snarled, then he let loose his arrow.
Kateri ducked instinctively. But it was just an illusion. No part of it was real.
Except for the man who slept beside her. Her hand trembling, she brushed the hair back from his battered face. So he really was the Makah’Alay she’d seen in her visions and dreams. How weird to know him so well and yet not know him at all. To have someone from her dreams here in the flesh …
That was also the name of a demon her grandmother had told her about when she was a little girl. He is evil to the core of his soul. Those who see him, die by his hand. Always. He takes pity on none and can control the raven mockers. Fear him, Waleli. Pray you never meet him. And if you do, run with everything you have.
Could he be the same creature her grandmother had warned her about?
Swallowing hard, she ran her hand over his sculpted jaw where only a few whiskers were there to tease her skin. Asleep like this, he looked more boyish than threatening. More human. But awake, he could be terrifying and overwhelming.
And with that thought came another image of him with both eyes so red, they glowed. He stood with his legs apart and body tensed as if about to battle an unseen enemy.
"What did you do to make them all fear you so?" Why had he done it?
Kateri sighed as she tried to sort through information that came at her so fast, she felt like she was in the middle of cramming for finals. If she learned one more thing, her brain was going to shut down in revolt and leave her a drooling vegetable on the floor.
Needing a minute to clear her head, she stretched out by Ren’s side. But it wasn’t comfortable. The hard, earthen floor was cold and gritty. In fact, it said it all about how much he needed sleep that he could be out so soundly on something so miserable.
Ugh, this is not going to work. She tried everything she could think of, twisted into every position. She put her arm under her head, then took it out.
Until she slid her gaze to Ren’s lush body. Yeah, that was the only thing in this dismal place that looked appealing. Desirable …
Don’t do it. He’s bleeding.
True, but there were areas of his body that weren’t blood-soaked. Areas that were …
Comfy-looking. Before she could stop herself, she rolled him over, onto his back, then scooted closer so that she could use him for a pillow.
Oh yeah, much better.
And in the next second, she took a deep breath, then was out cold.
* * *
Ren came awake slowly. His body was still aching. Damn it. He felt like someone had beat the hell out of him, which they had. Literally. Or more appropriately, he’d beat the hell out of the demon.
I should have beat the bastard harder….
Wincing from the pain of his ribs and back, he opened his eyes, then froze at the last thing he expected to see.
Kateri was snuggled up against him with her head on his shoulder. Her left hand rested in the center of his chest while her breath tickled the flesh of his neck.
His body hardened so fast and furiously that he sucked his breath in sharply. Against his best efforts, an image of her nak*d and writhing, and in his arms, went through him. He could just imagine her running her hands over his back while he made love to her.
That did nothing to help his discomfort.
Or his mood.
He tried to think of something unpleasant. His father. His brother. Grizzly …
Nothing worked. Not while he could feel her on top of him like a familiar lover who was completely at ease with his company. Biting his lip, he pressed his hand against his swollen groin, trying to force his will on the treacherous beast that couldn’t listen to him. Or if it did, then it was definitely mocking and ignoring his wishes right now.
I should have gelded myself after Windseer left.
True. It wasn’t like he’d ever needed it. It’d only gotten him into trouble and it reminded him of just how alone he really was in this world.
How different he was from other men.
All of a sudden, Kateri stretched like a languid cat, arching her back and pressing her body closer to his. Something that also gave him a perfect view down the neckline of her shirt, straight to her purple lace bra and a set of tawny br**sts that made his mouth water for a taste.
He clenched his hand into a fist to keep from obliging himself with a grope he was sure would get him bitch-slapped. And justifiably so.
With a contented sigh, she slid her hand over his chest, brushing against his nipple.
Ren moaned deep in his throat as tortured pleasure erupted through his entire being. Oh yeah, he was dying now. This … this was hell.
At the sound of his hiss, Kateri opened her eyes instantly and met his gaze with a startled gasp. "Oh, hey." She relaxed into a sweet, welcoming smile. "Morning, Sunshine. Ready to take on the day?"
Gah, she was a morning person…. Kill me. How could anyone wake up in such a pleasant mood? He’d never understood that disposition.
Not that it mattered. Right now, he couldn’t respond had he wanted to. Not while his body was so aroused.
"Are you feeling better?" she asked in that chipper voice that hadn’t been annoying yesterday when it hadn’t been so early.
And the answer was simple. Hell, no. But that wasn’t what she was referring to and he knew it.
There’s no need in being an ass**le to her. Not her fault you’re horny.
Yeah, well, bullshit on that. He wouldn’t be in this condition without her. She was definitely the reason for his raging hard-on. However, it wasn’t her fault she felt really good in his arms or that she was unbelievably sexy with her hair tousled around her face, her cheeks flushed from sleep.
So he gave her a grudging, "Yes."
She flashed him an adorable grin that made his c**k jerk in response.
Down, boy. No need in making us both miserable. You’re not going anywhere so you might as well deflate and save us our dignity.
She stretched again. "By the way, did you know you talk in your sleep?"
He arched a brow at that. Since he’d never spent the night with another person, he’d had no idea of it. Please tell me I didn’t stutter there, too. That was all he needed.
"So who’s Windseer?"
Oh wait … it just got worse. But at least that question finally succeeded in icing his hormones. It slapped him down faster than an arctic bath. How horrifying to talk about that bitch in his sleep to the Ixkib.
I’d rather stutter….
"She’s no one."
Kateri gave him a doubting stare. "It didn’t sound like no one. You called out to her like you wanted her badly. Is she an old girlfriend?"
Great. What the hell was wrong with his subconscious? Why would any part of him want Windseer for anything except to slaughter the bitch where she stood?
Your unconscious is even dumber than you are. And that was an accomplishment, given his average daily stupidity.
Grinding his teeth in anger at himself, Ren curled his lip. "She’s nothing to me. I don’t want to think about her."
Kateri sucked her breath in at the hatred in his tone. Obviously, Windseer had hurt him.
She detested the fact that she’d inadvertently kicked him by mentioning the woman’s name. "Sorry. Duly noted and now permanently removed from my vocabulary." As was anything that had "wind" attached to it and that included her own middle name, Wynd. No need in making him this upset ever again. She’d had her inherent share of bad relationships she didn’t want to revisit. So she fully understood his need not to go to the past. It was an ugly place sometimes.
And people could be total jerks when they wanted to.
She started to move away, but he caught her in an iron grasp that startled her even more than his tone had. To her shock, he kept her by his side.
His gaze searched hers as if he sought something he’d lost. "Why are you on top of me?"
Heat scalded her cheeks as she realized just how intimate they were in this position. "You were comfy. The floor wasn’t…. And I was cold so I figured you were too." She bit her lip as that heat lit her entire body up and she realized that her excuse wasn’t really viable. "I was trying to conserve body heat for both of us."