He wanted her to be more than sated. Her hands played in his hair, stroking his scalp while she murmured endearments. And then, in one heartbeat, she tensed up and screamed out as she spasmed.
Amazed at how quickly she’d come for him, he waited until she was completely through before he undid his pants. When he went to remove them, she stopped him.
At first, he thought she’d changed her mind, until she rolled him over and pulled them free of his body.
Kateri took a moment to appreciate the sight of his tawny, nak*d body. Never in her life, other than on the cover of a bodybuilder’s magazine, had she seen a man more ripped. Dang, he was fine. He could eat crackers, soup, anything he wanted … what the hell, he could come to bed covered in sand and she wouldn’t care.
She purred at him, causing him to arch a brow at the sound. Laughing, she slowly crawled up his body, stopping only long enough to lave and tease him.
Ren cried out at the sensation of her sliding her mouth over his cock. Windseer had never done that for him. His breathing labored, he knew he was forever lost to Kateri. For this kindness alone, there was nothing he wouldn’t do for her. Nothing.
It’s just sex.
Yeah, but she didn’t have to have it with him. And the care she took, it was almost enough that he could pretend she had real feelings where he was concerned. What he wouldn’t give, just once, to make love to a woman who would cry over his body the way Butterfly had cried for Buffalo.
The way Abigail would cry for Sundown.
I sound like an old woman.
But as soon as he had that thought, he heard Kateri in his head-one of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder when you are coming home at night. As much as he hated admitting it, she was right. While jealousy was the root of all evil, love was the source of all good. Jealousy brought out the worst in everyone. Love created the best. It was for jealousy that he had destroyed his own brother. But it was love of his best friend that brought him back and made him a defender again.
What about Coyote? He loved Butterfly. And there nothing beautiful in that relationship.
That wasn’t true and he knew it. Coyote hadn’t loved her. He’d lusted for her and he’d wanted to possess her. If he had really cared about Butterfly, he would have rather seen her happy with Buffalo than miserable with him. It was why his mother had released his father. She’d loved him enough to want to be with him only briefly. But she’d known that he would never be happy with her. Not while his heart belonged to another.
It was why Choo Co La Tah had married the love of his life to his best friend. Because they’d grown up together, Choo had never told her of his feelings. They were from the same clan and a marriage would have been forbidden. While Choo had dreamed of it, he’d let that dream go when she’d met another and fallen in love with him.
That selfless sacrifice was why the First Guardian had chosen Choo Co La Tah to be one of the Gate Guardians. Choo was able to put aside his interests for the benefit of others. While the Guardians had competed for the honor of their posts, those competitors had been chosen from warriors who had proven that they knew how to love. Warriors who understood that others came first.
Ren was the only exception. Forbidden by the First Guardian to compete for his stewardship, Ren had been chosen because of the hold Grizzly had on him.
If anyone understands why evil must be kept locked away, it is the one who danced with it for over a year. The one who has tasted its sweetness and then been burned by its bitter taste.
But Ren had never known the flavor of love. Not until he looked into a pair of gold-tinged eyes that reminded him of the man he’d once wanted to be.
He shook all over as she slowly licked her way up his body. She lifted herself up to look down at him with the most amazing smile he’d ever seen. Biting her lip, she slid herself onto him. Growling low in his throat, he shuddered at the sensation of his body inside hers. It took every bit of his self-control not to come instantly.
She took his hand into hers and rode him slow and easy while she smiled down at him. Ren lifted his hips, driving himself in even deeper. Until this moment, he’d never understood what it felt like to be welcomed somewhere. To be wanted. But as he looked into her eyes, he finally felt the warmth of home. Of belonging to someone other than himself.
Kateri watched the play of emotions on Ren’s face. She wrinkled her nose teasingly at him. "Sorry I broke your record."
He scowled at her. "My record?"
"Longest stretch of celibacy ever. Guinness would be most impressed. And I seriously doubt you’ll ever find a contender for your title."
He rewarded her with a warm, rich laugh. One that ended in a moan as he released himself inside her. He drove himself even deeper while he shuddered.
Once he was finished, she started to move to his side, but he held her on top of him. For once his emotions were completely hidden as he cupped her face in his hands, then kissed her.
Pulling back, he nuzzled his cheek against hers so that he could whisper in her ear. "I won’t let anything happen to you."
"I know, sweetie. And I won’t let it get you either."
Ren smiled at the endearment. For the first time in his extremely long existence, he felt truly intimate with someone. And it wasn’t just because he’d seen visions of her life, nor was it from the sex. It came from the fact that he actually believed her promise.
He believed in her.
Yeah, the world was definitely going to end. He’d had sex and he trusted the woman he’d had it with. If that wasn’t the sign of impending doom, he didn’t know what was.
She kissed him on the tip of his nose before she slid off his body and dressed.
Pulling on his own clothes, Ren knew they should hurry, but he didn’t want this to end. He’d had so few perfect moments in his life. He could count them on one hand. And none of them came close to this.
He arched a brow at her irritated tone. "What’s wrong?"
"I broke a stupid nail." She held it up to show him. "I know it’s ludicrous, right? But I still hate to lose one."
Then the smile faded from her face as she stared at him as if he was a stranger.
Dread hit his stomach hard. This couldn’t be good. "What?"
"Why are your eyes blue?"
Ren went to conjure something so that he could see for himself, but the moment he tried, he made a frightening discovery.
He had no powers whatsoever. That, combined with blue eyes, could only mean one thing….
Dear gods, I’m mortal.
Kateri couldn’t breathe as she stared into a pair of eyes that were so vibrant a blue they practically glowed, especially in contrast to his dark tawny skin and black hair. "What’s going on?"
"I-I-I-I…" He slammed his eyes shut and ground his teeth. After a few seconds, he tried again. "I-I-I’ve lost all m-my p-p-powers."
"Okay, so we can’t conjure anything."
He shook his head. "I’m m-m-mortal ag-gain." He tried to say more, but he couldn’t get it out, which only frustrated him more. Damn it! Without those powers, he was a stammering, effing moron.
She reached up and gently pulled his head down until she had her forehead pressed against his. Smiling, she brushed her hands against his cheeks. "Breathe, sweetie. Take your time. The only part about your speech that bothers me is how much it upsets you. Give yourself a break and stop calling yourself names in your head."
"Yes," she continued, "I know you’re doing it. Now stop."
He took a deep breath before he made another attempt. "I can die now."
"Okay, I liked it better when you were stuttering and couldn’t get that out. Are you serious?"
Releasing him, Kateri took a step back. "What do you need me to do?"
He shrugged, then hesitated as if he dreaded speaking. But when he did so, his voice was calm and perfect. "I’ve never lost them completely before. I have no idea."
As Kateri opened her mouth to speak, she heard a rustling in the trees behind him.
Ren turned at the same time a fireball came flying toward her. It was so close that she felt the burn of it an instant before Ren threw her to the ground and covered her with his body. He flung his hand out to return the fire, then cursed as he remembered he didn’t have his powers.
Beautiful timing there.
Fine. He still had his bow, and even as a human, he could do a tremendous amount of damage with it. While more fireballs bombarded them, he started to move in front of Kateri to cover her, but before he could, she let fly her own shot.
It went straight between the demon’s eyes. Three more arrows went past him in rapid succession, taking out more demons.
Damn, she was impressive.
He moved in for cover fire. "Deeper into the woods."
She shot two more arrows, then complied.
Hiding behind a forked tree, she covered him as he ran to join her.
Gah, what he wouldn’t give to be able to conjure armor for them. While it wouldn’t save them completely, it would at least give them a little more protection than bare skin.
And at the rate they were firing, they’d be out of arrows soon.
He met Kateri’s nervous gaze. "Keep moving forward."
She did and he stayed one step behind her. All of a sudden, one of the black trees reached to grab Kateri.
Reacting on instinct, Ren let out his demon crow’s call. The tree shirked away from her.
A slow smile curled his lips. He might be mortal, but he still had the demon in him. While he wasn’t happy with Ravenna, at least she’d given him a few handy things no one could steal.
With that thought, he yanked his quiver over his head and handed it to Kateri.
Kateri froze as she tried to understand what Ren was doing by shoving his arrows at her. Before she could ask, he changed from man into a huge crow. Stunned, she watched as he took flight and went to engage the other demons.
"Keep running." His voice was inside her head.
"What are you doing?"
"I’m preventing them from harming you. Go, Kateri. They can’t harm me like this."
She wasn’t sure if she believed him or not. "You said you were mortal."
"I am, but even as a mortal, I had a few things that weren’t normal. Now, please, go deeper and avoid getting close to the trees."
Though she’d never been a follower as a rule, she obeyed him. After all, he was used to these things. She wasn’t. Best course of action was to withdraw until you had a chance to study your enemy. Thank you, Sun Tzu.
She scurried through the brush, dodging the trees that came at her. She’d just hit a clearing when something bright flashed in front of her. Temporarily blinded by it, she held her hand up to shield her eyes.
One minute she was facing nothing. In the next, three men were there.
Reacting on pure instinct, she let loose an arrow, then gasped in horror as she realized she’d just shot Cabeza.
Yet as the arrow reached him, he literally grabbed it out of the air and gave her a peeved glare.
"You know, that wouldn’t have killed me, but it would have hurt and pissed my ass off."
"Sorry," she offered.
"Damn, Base," the blond with short hair said from beside him. "Don’t ever take her hunting. She’s one of those ‘I heard a noise, let’s shoot at it without finding out what it is first’ people. It’s what I hate most about trying to roam free in the modern world. Last thing I want is to have buckshot enter my hindquarters while I’m trying to take a leak because no one can spare a second to ascertain who’s around them in the woods before they shoot it. America doesn’t need gun control. What they need is idiot control."
Cabeza and the man with a blond ponytail laughed.
"I don’t have a gun," Kateri reminded him as she realized that she and the blond with short hair were the only two non-fanged beings in this group.
He snorted. "Bullet or arrow … really, would it make a difference to you if you had to have someone dig it out of your ass?"
The man had a point, but she wasn’t about to concede it.
"You better lay off her, Sasha," the other blond said. "Or she’s liable to shoot you on purpose."
As if in response to his words, an echoing gun blast sounded behind her.
Gasping, she jerked around, praying it wasn’t Ren who’d been hit.
More gunshots sounded in rapid succession.
Kateri started for them, but Cabeza pulled her to a stop. "Don’t. It’s just pest control driving out the rodents."
"How do you mean?"
Another blast. This one a lot closer.
In spite of what Cabeza said, she nocked another arrow and prepared to send it between the eyes of whoever was shooting that gun.
The brush in front of her rustled.
She aimed for it.
Out of nowhere, Ren, still in crow form, flew at her bow, knocking her sight off.
"What are you doing?" she asked him.
"Friendly fire. Don’t kill him." Those words had barely registered when the source of the noise entered their clearing. For a full minute, she couldn’t move as she stared into the face of the last man she’d ever expected to meet.
Tall, dark, and swathed in black from head to toe, he was identical to her visions except for his short hair, Stetson hat, snakeskin shit-kickers, and long black duster.
Flipping his Henry rifle over his shoulder, he inclined his head to the men with her. "Thank you, boys, for the assist. Mighty kind of y’all to scratch yourselves while we were fighting for your lives." And that thick Mississippi drawl had to be the most shocking thing of all.