Authors: Rhenna Morgan
In a world divided by war, falling in love is the ultimate betrayal.
Galena Shantos has never questioned her loyalty to Eden. As sister to the Myren king, she serves as a healer, one of the best in the army fighting to suppress the brutal Lomos Rebellion. She’s never doubted the importance of stopping the rebels bent on enslaving humans, until she spots a warrior across enemy lines—and knows instinctively that their destinies are entwined…
Rebellion warrior Reese Theron has nothing left to lose. He’s been forced to fight on the wrong side of a war he abhors in order to protect his family secret. His honor lost, as well as the trust of his own people, Reese has thrown himself into a battle he cannot possibly hope to survive. But after being rescued by a beautiful woman whose exquisite eyes seem to see him for more than the traitor he’s become—he may have just found a new reason to live…
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Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
An Eden Novel
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Copyright © 2015 by Rhenna Morgan
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First Electronic Edition: December 2015
First Print Edition: December 2015
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To my husband, Victor. For never giving up, growing, and loving me just as I am. You’ve healed us both.
The discipline it takes to get from, “Once upon a time,” to “The End,” is pretty intense. Well, for me it is anyway, and there are lots and lots of people who keep me sane in the process. My heartfelt thanks to T.D. Hart, Lauren Smith, Dena Garson, Lorenda Christensen, and Lucy Brower for your many interventions.
I’d also never make it to print without some very important people—Penny Barber, Sarah Hegger, CJ Burright, and the amazing Kensington/Lyrical Press team. Seriously, between reading all my drafts and pulling me back from the ledge when my devastatingly handsome muse goes on strike, you guys deserve a lifetime supply of coffee and chocolate.
I’ve got a pretty killer support team too. People who keep the engine running at Mach speed even when I’m writing at a snail’s pace—Jay Donovan, Fiona Jayde, Laird Sapir, and Kami Adkison.
And finally, endless hugs and kisses to the family for putting up with me day after day, and skillfully hiding those eye rolls when I say, “I gotta get my words in.” I couldn’t do this without you, nor would I want to.
A lightning bolt sheared past Reese into the smoke-filled night sky and left an acrid stench in its wake. Streaks of fire and blue-white fingers of electricity flared so bright he could barely focus. He wasn’t getting out of this. Not this battle, or this life, with any modicum of honor.
Darting through the air, he dodged another electrical strike.
An elite flashed into view and swung wide, his bloodied dagger aimed at Reese’s gut.
Reese barrel-rolled up and over his attacker, wrapped him in a chokehold, and masked their presence from the rest of the fighters. Praise the Great One, he should be fighting beside this warrior, not against him.
The warrior flailed and tried to break free, the lack of footing giving him zero leverage. He slumped, unconscious, into Reese’s ready hold seconds later.
He lowered them both to the tree line at the battle’s edge, out of site from the rebels. The man couldn’t be more than twenty years outside his awakening. Probably barely into his elite torc and cuffs. Beneath Reese’s fingers, the man’s pulse thrummed slow, but steady. At least this innocent’s death wouldn’t be on his conscience.
A twenty-five-foot wall of flame exploded across the open field and rattled the air and earth around them. The bright flare faded under heavy night, and more rebellion warriors thunked to the mottled field.
The sharp rustle of leaves against the forest floor sounded down the tree line, one quick shift and then silence.
Reese backed deeper into the foliage and strengthened the mask that kept him hidden. It couldn’t be a rebellion man. All those were engaged against the malran’s warriors. Focusing his thoughts, he sought the soulless black thread that represented the link he’d grudgingly created with Maxis Steysis, and traced his location.
No, not the rebellion leader either. His energy showed more than ten miles to the east, well away from the fight. Reese levitated off the forest floor and floated through the trees. Gnarled and leafless branches scraped his cheek and shoulders. Darkness enveloped him, broken only by the bright attacks where the forest opened to the battle beyond.
There. Not five feet from the tree line, a figure knelt facing the battle.
He drifted closer. The sweet, damp scent of soil and decomposing leaves overpowered the metallic residue of electrical strikes floating on the wind. Grunts, shouts, and the too-frequent thuds of perished men sounded in a haphazard pattern.
A flash spotlighted long, auburn hair. A woman. Bowed over a body, she cradled a fallen companion’s head in her lap.
Reese angled to better see her and nearly faltered in holding his mask. His heart kicked in an awkward rhythm and reality faded to nothingness. Galena Shantos, sister to the malran. The last person he wanted to witness his disgrace.
Seventy years since he’d seen her this close. Her elegant features were still as staggering as the days when he’d trained to serve the malran, but there was more to her now. A confidence in the way she protected her charge and watched the battle. Knowledge behind her tropical blue-green eyes that spoke of experience and age.
And he fought alongside the men who battled her brother.
Galena flinched at another blast and hugged the limp body she cradled tight. As the light dimmed, she uncurled from her burden.
Another woman, her long blond hair stark against Galena’s black tunic and leggings, and her sightless eyes aimed at the heavens.
No. Surely not. Reese crept closer, pressure building at his temples. The zings and thunder of battle rumbled louder, and his gut clenched.
Phybe. She’d been alive when Reese left her, tucked away in a zeolite mine where Maxis couldn’t trace her link. He touched down in the thick carpet of leaves at Galena’s right and dropped his mask. “I failed her.”
Galena jerked and reached for something beneath one leg. “Who are you?”
Smudges marked Phybe’s ashen face, her blue gown torn and satin slippers stained. Somehow Maxis had found her and finished the job he’d sent Reese to do. “He’ll kill me for trying to save her.”
More strikes burst through the thick residual smoke, the malran’s fighters airborne and casting one attack after another. Fewer than twenty rebellion men still lived, half retreating north.
“A cause that fights without honor isn’t worth fighting, is it?” he said.
Galena straightened and squared her shoulders. “I’d have a hard time counting on honor from any man who fights with Maxis.”
“You’re right. I gave that up the moment I agreed to his schemes.” He crouched beside them.
Galena tensed and tightened her grip on whatever she hid beneath her leg.
Reese palmed Phybe’s forehead, cool and lifeless.
May your journey be swift and your spirit find peace with The Great One.
The same Myren prayer he’d offered his mother when she’d drawn her last breath. He stepped back. Maybe it was time to find his own peace. On his own terms. “You don’t remember me do you?”
She shook her head. A terse, barely-there jerk as she eased from beneath her dead charge, crouched on the balls of her feet and coiled for escape.
“My name is Reese Theron.”
She froze, flashes of light from the battle winking off the edge of her blade. She assessed him head to toe, no spark of recognition.
Maybe if he’d been braver all those years ago, he’d have had a chance with her. Or broken his vow and killed Maxis himself when he’d had the chance. He shook the memories off. He’d taken the wrong path and now it was time to pay. “Call your guards. Make sure they know you’re in danger.”
A gunshot rattled the skies and a woman’s blood-curdling scream sounded across the battlefield.
Galena lurched to a stand and then stopped, zigzagging her attention between the shouts along the battlefield and Phybe’s body.
Now was his chance. Either he took the brave farewell, or he’d die by Maxis’ hands. “Your face is a good one to remember. Go with The Great One, Galena.” He shot to the sky and built a violent ball of energy in his palm, sharp tendrils darting from its center. Drawing back, he aimed the bogus attack at Galena. Surely The Great One would understand.
An elite guard spun from across the skies and drew back for counter-attack.
Reese braced for impact.
A streak of auburn flashed below him. Galena, spearing through the air, her trajectory centered between the elite and Reese.
The energy in his palm fizzled. Not her. Not Galena.
Lightning fired from the elite’s palm, sheered past Galena’s cheek, and pierced his shoulder. He jerked and spasmed, locked in place by the force of the strike. Blue-black spots dotted his vision and his lungs seized.
A woman’s scream ripped through the air.
Wind whipped around him, dead weight as he fell, and darkness took over.
* * * *
Galena twisted midair and shot toward Reese, wind blurring her eyesight.
His arms and legs flailed boneless as he hurtled to the earth.
She’d never make it before impact. Even if he survived the fall, Jagger’s strike had been a killing shot, off by inches at most.
Reese crashed against the unforgiving ground, his head and limbs thunking against the trampled turf.
She landed seconds behind him. The sticky iron scent of blood, dirt, and sweat surrounded her. So many men strewn across the grass, their bodies contorted in unnatural shapes.
Less than ten feet away one of her brother’s men struggled for breath, unconscious with a trail of blood at his temple. A loyal fighter who’d battled against an indecent and cruel rebellion.
But it was Reese her palms burned to touch. To feel the beat of his heart. She dropped to her knees and rolled Reese to his back, muscles surging with wells of strength she’d never felt.
His pulse fluttered beneath her fingertips, faint and irregular.
A thud sounded behind her. Her name registered, a voice she recognized.
She ignored the call. Shedding her mortal form, she dove into Reese’s unconscious body and let her spirit spread and assess. Gaping, charred flesh at least two fists wide, muscle and sinew around it lifeless from the electrical shock. She followed the damage, too much impairment radiating dangerously close to his heart. She couldn’t lose him. Traitor or not, her instincts didn’t care. Only knew this moment would shape the rest of her life in a way she didn’t dare ignore.
Shouts rang out beside her. Short, brusque words delivered with a frustrated bite. Footsteps shuffled around her and the injured moaned. Detached in spirit but still connected to her physical senses, the muffled distractions rattled as she healed.
Five inches. That was the gift of her intervention. Had she not flown in the path of Jagger’s bolt, he’d have pierced Reese’s heart. Blood seeped from the violent gash and his heart trembled with the aftershocks of the delivering jolt.
Swift and sure, she spread her spirit, cauterizing and mending the most critical lesions. A touch here. A brush there.
Near his heart, a fine opaque mist appeared.
Her spirit vision faltered. The odd substance settled into every nook and cranny. It shimmered and sparkled, a mix between morning dew and midnight fog. Seventy years she’d been healing men and not once had she seen anything like it.
“Damn it, Lena, we need you.” The admonition rang in her ear and a firm hand clamped on her shoulder.
Galena ripped her spirit from Reese’s body and spun in a levitated twist to a defensive crouch, hands lifted to protect herself. Her vision wavered.
Ramsay came into focus, the whites around his gray eyes glowing in a way that promised dire loss of control and a vicious scowl aimed squarely at her. “What in histus is wrong with you?”
Her knees nearly buckled. Maybe she’d put too much into her healing. “He’s wounded.”
“He’s a traitor. To me and to Eryx.” Glaring at her, he swept his arm behind him. “What about them?”
There were dozens of them. Good men, battered, bloody, and fatigued. Most were upright and lumbering across the battlefield, checking for rebellion survivors. Six were laid out for triage close to Maxis’ estate, Eryx and Ludan seeing to their care.
Her cheeks burned and her stomach pitched. There wasn’t any logic to defend her actions. She’d acted on pure emotion and instinct, and put the lives of loyal men at risk, but she still wouldn’t change what she’d done. Not a second. A truth she wasn’t altogether sure how to process.
“Focus on the ones worthy of your gift. Not someone—”
“Enough.” She straightened and met her brother’s scowl. Every muscle shook with fatigue. “I watched an innocent woman die tonight. Held her in my arms while she screamed.”
“Trust me.” Ramsay glowered at the unconscious man behind her. “He’s not innocent.”
For years she’d trusted her brothers. Loved and followed them with unwavering loyalty wherever they asked her to go. Until this moment. She inched forward on trembling legs, hands fisted at her sides. “Innocent or not, I saw goodness in him. Watched him say a prayer over Phybe’s body and felt his grief. Healing is my gift to use when and how The Great One guides me. Not to be commandeered and directed by a man swept up in the heat of battle. Life is life, no matter whose heart feeds it.”
Ramsay sneered. “Even Maxis Steysis?”
Nearly six hundred years their families had been at war, since their grandfather left Maxis’ grandmother pregnant at the altar in favor of a commoner.
“Everyone has a shred of goodness in them.” Well, maybe not Maxis. But she’d be damned if she let Ramsay question her judgment. There was a reason she was drawn to Reese. She just needed a little time to figure out why. “If you’d stop and think for a minute you’d know saving him is a smart move. If he fought with Maxis, he knows things. Things you won’t be able to learn anywhere else.”
Reese’s chest rose and fell, slow and steady. With a push from her senses, she registered the faint but solid rhythm of his heart. More than anything she ached to kneel beside him. To finish the job she’d begun and skim her fingers through his wild hair. Perhaps link her fingers with his long, tapered ones and rest alongside him while she waited for him to wake.
Praise The Great One, what was wrong with her? This protectiveness didn’t make sense.
Eryx’s best friend and somo, Ludan, shouted from the furthest edge of battle. “Ramsay.”
Galena knew that tone. Had heard it after too many battles. Another warrior in need of care. With a last glance at Reese to placate herself, she headed in Ludan’s direction. “I’ve got it.”
Three steps in she stopped and glared at Ramsay. “You may not care for him. May see him as the vilest of men. But do not disrespect my gift by hurting him.”
She left her frowning brother behind, and prayed the promise of a traitor’s information would stay Ramsay’s hand until she returned.
Seventy years. Seventy fucking years since Maxis had been this dumbfounded, with not one thought, word, or deed to spur him forward.
The sun beamed brighter than normal through the thick Asshur clouds. The faint winds at his back were unseasonably warm, as though nature conspired to lure him from his trance.
He wasn’t interested in moving. Couldn’t fathom his next step, and wasn’t sure he cared to bother.
More than three-quarters of his men, gone. On the red clay valley below, what remained of his army jerked and stumbled through an embarrassing display of drills.
It wasn’t possible. If he hadn’t seen the scorched fields and twisted bodies surrounding his home for himself, he’d have never believed it. When he’d left with Serena the night before, the malran’s men had been grossly outnumbered. There was no way they should have survived. But Eryx and his men had done it. Done it and saved the new malress and Maxis’ best-trained slave in the process.
All because of his traitorous strategos.
His eye twitched and the slow ache at the back of his jaws sharpened. He’d trusted Reese Theron as he’d trusted no one since his grandmother’s death. That fucking betraying, shortsighted bastard. If he’d killed Phybe as instructed, Eryx would never have found Maxis’ home or been able to save Lexi.
The warriors dropped their weapons and took up bickering like a nest of hormonal bitches. Not an ounce of organization among them. Unsurprising given the limited time Reese had led them, but still, one would think some of their brawn would extend to their brains.
Maxis reached through his link for Reese. Still not so much as a flicker, the same as every other time he’d checked this morning. Reese was either dead, or captive in zeolite.
Serena’s sultry voice crooned behind him. “If the look on your face is any indication, you should have stayed in my bed this morning.”
Maxis winced. He knew better than to lose sight of his surroundings. With Eryx out for vengeance, daydreaming was a bad idea no matter how many of his warriors were within spitting distance. That a woman had managed to catch him unaware only validated his level of distraction.
A wisp of yellow fabric billowed beside him, no doubt another of the elegant gowns Serena preferred. Why the malran had abandoned his relationship with her years before was beyond Maxis. With vivid blue eyes and ridiculously long blond hair, she was the picture perfect model for a malress. Fortunately, her thirst for revenge as strong as Maxis’.
“No good morning for your lover?” She gripped his hips and nuzzled his neck. The brush of her soft breasts at his back pricked his temper.
“Enough.” He pushed her away and crowded the ledge overlooking the training grounds. He had enough to contend with without Serena adding petulance to the mix.
Serena glided beside him and scowled at the men. “I guess if I had to take credit for that mess, I’d be bitchy too.”
He spun so quickly she gasped and took a step back. He gripped her hair before she could escape and yanked her so no more than inches separated them. “Watch. Your. Mouth.”
She froze, but the challenge in her exotic eyes held. Only four or five inches beneath his stature, she carried herself with a regal grace, and damned if her lemon and honey scent didn’t taunt him as boldly as her stance.
“Damn it all.” He shoved her away and stalked along the ridge, watching his men.
“You could talk about it.” Patronization at its finest, with a bit of dare mingled in for good measure.
“Which part? The fact that I’ve lost a chunk of my men, or the fact that Reese is captured or dead?’
She shrugged. “Both are replaceable.”
The warriors, yes, though at the expense of time. But Reese? He’d wanted to kill his strategos. To watch his eyes stretch wide with pain while Maxis shredded his brain to bits via link the same way he’d killed Phybe. So why in histus was he so agitated with the prospect of his demise?
“Recruitment’s a must with the plans you’ve laid out, but we’d be wise to find others to handle the legwork,” Serena said.
Maxis faced her. “We?”
The imperious chit lifted an eyebrow. “You got me in this mess, so yes, it’s a ‘we.’” She glared at the men below and her dusty pink lips curled in a vicious grin. “From the looks of things, you could use a little help.”
Finally. A moment of clarity. A spark of anger he could mold. He prowled forward. “Let’s be clear Serena.”
She retreated one step. A wise move from her for once.
He followed. “You’re nothing more than a fuck. A beautiful and convenient one to be sure, but a fuck nonetheless. Any plans for the rebellion will be guided by me. Not tempered by a bratty social butterfly who spreads her legs on a whim.”
She flinched, though she covered it as well as any longstanding queen and swept her arm out over the disorganized mass of men below. “By all means then. Lord over your precious kingdom. Thank The Great One my name’s not attached to it.” She shot to the sky, never once looking back.
“And here I’d thought you a smart man.”
Maxis spun toward the voice behind him. A grated baritone with a nasally bite. Familiar, yet foreign.
Adobe ground stretched unbroken but for random clumps of gray spindly bushes. Not a soul in sight. Nothing pinged against the bubble-like surface of his sensory gifts.
“Only an idiot would piss away a delectable and advantageous piece of tail mourning over a traitor.” The voice hovered around Maxis, like a shout from the center of a cavernous room.
Maxis planted his feet at shoulder width, weight forward, ready for defense against the unidentifiable presence.
“I’m the least of your worries.” The voice held more substance this time.
Maxis whirled the other direction.
A lithe, dark-haired man stood in clothes unlike any he’d seen in either the human or Myren dimensions. His black tunic shone like silk, and formed an H across his chest before it dropped to his shins. Tall and lean, the man needed a good dose of sun. As it was, his pale skin struck a harsh contrast to the black, ruler-straight hair that fell from his widow’s peak to the tops of his shoulders.
The clang and shouts of men drilling below sounded in the distance. Not one blip in their efforts to indicate they saw the unexpected visitor.
“I trust no one,” Maxis said. “Least of all a stranger.”
A low, sinister laugh filled the space, though the man’s lips barely moved. “I’m no stranger to you, Maxis. Quite the opposite.”
He lifted a hand, palm forward, and his jade eyes sharpened.
The landscape dimmed, replaced with snippets of Maxis’ life. His grandmother Evanora’s death. His mother abandoning him when he was only nine in favor of the half-human child she carried. The human bullies who’d beat him before he’d come into his Myren gifts. The subtle resistance of Maxis’ blade in his father’s chest as he’d plunged it deep. Every critical moment of his life sped by with alacrity. One voice threaded each one.
Maxis’ memories dissipated and the desolate landscape returned. “Who are you?”
The stranger’s smile grew. “Your spiritu.”
“Don’t fuck with me. I asked who you are, not what you are.”
“Ever the clever one.” The man eased into a more casual stance. “I’ve always appreciated that about you. That is, when you’re not sniveling over your worthless strategos.”
The stranger crossed his arms and waited several breaths. “The name given to me by my people is too complex for your mortal mind, but you may call me Falon.”
“And your people?”
“I thought my race didn’t interest you.”
Maxis fisted his dagger’s hilt.
Falon sneered. “You cannot force my demise. Spiritu are not susceptible to mortal death. Only The Great One rules us in such a fashion.” Uncurling his arms, he stalked forward, the air snapping with electricity. “I, on the other hand, can force yours quite nicely.”
He stopped a stone’s throw away, lifted his hand, thumb and fingers spread as though coiled around an unseen substance.
An invisible pressure blocked Maxis’ airway and crushed his windpipe. His elemental gifts wouldn’t respond to his commands. No call of earth, no fire. Darkness crept along the edges of his vision and his heart thrashed.
“I’m the voice in your mind, Maxis. The one who’s guided you throughout your life and lifted you when most needed.”
The memory of his father, bleeding out on his vast bed seconds after Maxis plunged the knife deep, leapt to life.
“Then most of all.”
Falon whispered in Maxis’ mind.
“It was I who guided you to that moment, and every critical juncture after.”
As quickly as it had begun, the tightness in his throat disappeared, and a fresh wave of chilled Asshur air rushed his lungs. Maxis stumbled back a step and braced his palms on his knees.
The crunch of Falon’s boots on clay pebbles crackled, slow, casual steps promenading around Maxis. “My people are the guides for Myren and humans alike. The passion and inspiration that feed their souls. I am of the dark contingent, those who focus on the headier passions.”
Maxis’ vision spun and his knees trembled. He couldn’t show fear. Everyone had a weakness, this man included. He just needed to find it.
“So you’ve suddenly decided to make a house call?” Maxis glared at Falon. “Don’t play me for a fool. Even if I were to believe in your assertions, your change in behavior calls for suspicion.”
“Your blubbering heart pushed me past the point of reason.” Falon paused, gripped his hands loosely behind his back, and paced away from Maxis. He studied the barren tract of land. “Deny it all you want, but your dead strategos has done a number on your head. One I’m not willing to stand by and watch. We’ve worked too long and hard on your future for you to go soft now.”
His future. Revenge on the Shantos line for the wrongs handed his family and the throne to go with it. The stranger was right. He needed to get his head in the game. Get his plans under—
“What did you say?” Maxis strode the handful of steps to Falon, gripped the spiritu’s shoulder, and spun him around.
A devious grin crept across Falon’s face. “I said dead strategos. As in not among the living.”
“You know this for certain?”
“I know his presence is no longer within the plane in which my people have purview, so yes. Dead.”
Maxis staggered and his gut lurched. “He could be in zeolite.”
Falon’s voice dripped with disgust. “Praise The Great One, what difference does it make? Look at yourself. You need to focus, reformulate your plans, and reengage. I’ve already given my light brethren an opening they don’t need by appearing in person. The light contingent and the malran don’t need any more advantages.”
Important information. Words he’d need to study. Later.
Reese was dead.
Falon clamped an unforgiving grip on Maxis’ shoulder and roared loud enough his voice echoed off the gorge walls. “Hear me.”
Maxis fired a defensive bolt of electricity toward Falon.
It passed through Falon’s chest, and his maniacal laughter filled the air.
Maxis tottered backward.
The warriors kept to their exercises. Even with Falon’s raging guffaws echoing through the canyon, not one seemed to notice.
“You want an empire, Maxis? Then make one.” Falon’s arms swept out in dramatic fashion. “Build your own. Start with family.”
Family. A poignant chord that rattled more than flesh and blood. His father had never offered a mating link to his mother. She’d escaped too easily because of it, not that his father had bothered to try and find her. He’d finished his life alone with nothing more than a broken rebellion. Evanora had been the wise one, surrounding herself with loyal family and friends. Wasn’t it she who’d fueled Maxis’ goals?
Falon had a point.
Shouts and grunts lifted from the training fields. “What about them?”
Falon inched closer, still on the furthest reaches of Maxis’ periphery. “Reese was never your best choice for strategos. You were biased with him. Always were. If you’d paid closer attention, you’d have noticed someone much more suited to your nature.”
The men had found a rhythm, groups pairing off for practical training. In the furthest section of the field, a bellow rang out. A man collapsed to the ground, a harsh line of crimson stretched across his neck and sightless eyes aimed to the sky.
His partner gripped a wicked dagger with a charcoal hilt and a blade coated in blood.
Maxis shot from his place on the high ledge across the vast valley to intercede before the man charged more of his fellow warriors. He knocked the weapon from the man’s grip. “We need more fighting men, not less.”
The warrior glared at Maxis, his odd green eyes unflinching. Sweat coated his bare chest. His short black hair was equally drenched and scattered. “If they’re weak, they’re not worth it.”
Hard to argue the man’s logic. “Give me your name,” Maxis said.
Silence settled around them, the shuffle of feet and the whisper of wind the only sound.
The men around them glanced back and forth between Uther and Maxis, weight on the balls of their feet, waiting and ready.
They feared them both. With fear came control. How had he missed such a discovery among his troops?
Falon’s voice rang in his head.
“Like I said, a much better match.”
The slow, steady rumble of hushed, masculine voices nudged Reese toward consciousness. Every muscle hung heavy and useless, his eyelids as dead weight as the rest of him. Cold radiated from the hard surface beneath him. Stone maybe, rough and uneven. He shifted and sharp jolts webbed down his spine. Praise the Great One, what the hell had he done? The last thing he remembered—
The warrior’s strike, shooting past Galena’s cheek and nailing him in the shoulder. He should be dead.
Cool, damp air swished across his torso, tainted with the scent of mold, earth, and something else he couldn’t quite place. He pulled in another breath, ignoring the tiny stabs poking beneath his ribs. Herbs. Nothing he knew by name, just a clean, crisp edge out of place with everything else. And flowers. Definitely flowers.
Out of nowhere, a pressure built at his wound, ratcheting from warm to blowtorch hot in seconds. A scream punched from his lungs and jammed in a vicious knot at the back of his throat. He needed to move. To thrash and strike at whatever it was attacking him, but his body couldn’t move, too paralyzed by pain to break free.
The pain flashed to nothing in an instant, the heat of the assault falling away with it.
He shuddered, chilled to the bone with goose bumps covering his flesh.
A flutter brushed across his mind.
His memories. Someone was trying to read him. An invasion. He forced his eyes open, tried to push away, and froze. His voice cracked. “Galena.”
Light from the torches behind her flickered off her auburn hair, and her lips curved in a tight, practiced smile. “I know that was painful, but you’ll be fine now.”
She’d healed him. That was the burn beneath his skin. But guilt shone in her eyes too. Had she read his memories before he shut her out?
Reese flinched at the clipped reprimand. He knew that angry tone all too well. The same one Ramsay Shantos had flailed him with all those years ago. He didn’t dare look up. Didn’t trust himself.
“Get him up and in the cell.” His former strategos, the man who’d trained and then denied Reese entry into the warrior brotherhood, dipped into Reese’s line of sight and pulled Galena away.
Two guards hustled forward and hoisted Reese up by his armpits and thighs. They lugged him toward a cell, every jerk and bounce lashing fresh torment against his bruised and battered body.
An icy wave pummeled him, and his stomach lurched. Zeolite. The crystal showed no mercy, crushing his powers as soundly as a boot heel on a bug.
His guards grunted beneath the impact as well, their dagger sheaths thumping against their belts with each shuffle. They tossed him toward the corner.
He slammed into a thinly cushioned cot, and his teeth clacked together, rattling as hard as the cell door the guards slammed on their way out.
Praise the Great One, he ached. Everywhere. He pushed upright, holding his breath until the fresh wave of agony settled.
A candle burned on the weathered wooden table beside him. Eden didn’t utilize electricity the way humans did, and no sane jailer would risk piping in light from above. Too much opportunity for prisoners to feed on Eden’s energy through the opening and past the Zeolite to feed their powers.
On the other side of his door, Ramsay’s voice roared, ripping someone a new asshole.
Reese struggled to his feet, locked his knees and slowed his breath. He knew Ramsay like few others did. It’d take his once friend another thirty seconds tops before he stomped through the cell door and unleashed his venom on the person he was really pissed at.
He rolled his shoulders and exhaled through the pain. Damn it, if he wouldn’t find his pride and meet Ramsay’s attack upright. His drast was gone, leaving his chest bare. Understandable with the charred mess covering his wound, but least he still had his pants and boots.
The latch on the door kachunked and the door whooshed open.
Ramsay prowled inside and shoved the door closed. His jaw looked hard enough to snap. Thank The Great One, zeolite would keep things on an even keel where powers were concerned.
Reese glanced at the door. “Where’s Galena?”
“My sister’s not your concern,” Ramsay said, harsh and cold as the dungeon.
Like histus she wasn’t. For whatever reason, she’d saved him. “Was she hurt?”
Ramsay crossed his arms and tilted his head. “Why would you care? You tried to kill her.”
Seventy years and Ramsay’s glare still sliced him.
“A warrior with something to hide has no place in the brotherhood. This candidate is unworthy to serve.”
The memory tore through Reese, slicing open old wounds poorly healed. “Why did you let her heal me?”
Ramsay uncurled his arms and stepped forward, nostrils flared. “Because you’ve got information and I want it.”
The blood rushed from his head and his knees threatened to give way. Of course, that’s why Galena had saved him. She’d thought of her race. Of her brothers, and saved him for what he knew. Not some spark of mercy or kindness.
The door flew open and the thick wood cracked against the stone wall. “Ramsay, let him heal.”
“Not now, Galena.” Ramsay kept his gaze locked on Reese.
She swayed, her face pale. Whatever she’d done to heal him, her empathic gift had taken its toll.
Ramsay stalked toward Reese. “You’re well enough. I’ll bet I can find a way to get what we need out of you.”
“Ramsay.” Galena darted forward and stumbled.
Reese dodged to the side. His legs gave out beneath him, but he broke her fall, his good shoulder snapping against the stone floor.
Galena twisted in his hold and studied his injury, her eyes flared in alarm and her mouth parted. “Reese.”
Screw the pain. Every bit was worth it to have her this close. To have her lips this close and her breath on his face. To feel her soft breasts pressed against his against his chest and let her flowery scent cart his mind miles and miles away from here.
Ramsay scooped her up and out of Reese’s arms.
“I’m fine.” Galena shoved Ramsay and tried to wiggle free. “I’m fine. Put me down.”
“You’re not fine.” Ramsay shifted her in his arms. “You look like hell.”
Reese pushed himself from the floor on wobbly legs, his breath shallow and huffing.
“I just need some rest.” She still struggled. “Now put me down.”
“No.” Ramsay spun for the open door, his guards hovering outside the door. He paused at the entrance and scowled at Reese. “She saved your ass. Not once, but twice. If you care so much about her, you’ll thank her for her efforts in the form of answers when I get back.”
The door slammed behind him and quick footsteps faded into nothingness.
Reese dropped to the cot and the wooden legs grated against the floor. What in histus was wrong with him? He was a POW, would probably hang within twenty-four hours, and all he could process was the way Galena felt next to him. He couldn’t twist the scenario more if he tried.
He fisted the cot’s coarse brown blanket. Galena shouldn’t have wasted her energy to heal him. The zeolite negated his gifts, but it also sheltered him from Maxis. The minute he stepped free of the protective crystal Maxis would find him via link and shred his brain the same way he had Phybe’s.
He laughed and banged the back of his head against the wall. What was he thinking? Ramsay and Eryx would hang him for treason whether he gave them the information they wanted or not. Even if they offered mercy in exchange for what he knew, he’d spend the rest of his life behind zeolite, which was worse than death.
Two death sentences or a lifetime in prison. He let out a harsh exhale and hung his head. No matter which way things went, he was well and truly screwed.
* * * *
Galena bolted upright in bed and gasped. Her pulse thrummed at either side of her neck and her breasts ached, tight and heavy. Cool air hit her sweat-slick skin as she blinked her eyes into focus. Emerald curtains framed a window open to dark skies. A favorite painting hung along the far wall. Her room at the castle.
Now she remembered. Ramsay hadn’t let her go home. Had insisted she sleep at the castle instead of her cottage.
Plucking the damp silk against her belly, she took a slow steady breath and dropped back to the pillows. Wisps of erotic images clung to her thoughts
Her and Reese, lips and tongues, tangled and sweaty. She pressed her legs together and groaned at the lingering ache between them. In her dream, he’d devoured her. Touched her in a way no man had in real life. Bold. Decadent.
She flicked the covers aside and shoved upright. She didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. So what if her subconscious put Reese’s face on her desires? It didn’t mean she wanted him literally. Just that she wanted to be desired. To be more than someone’s political advantage or empty-headed house warmer. Completely reasonable.
Pulling her hair off her neck, she plodded to the window and rested her elbows on the stone ledge. If she’d minded her manners and stayed out of Reese’s head in the first place, her imagination wouldn’t have had so much material to work with.
Her cheeks flared hot and a strangled cough bubbled up. She’d just wanted to gauge his intentions at the battlefield. To see if he’d meant her harm. Boy had she ended up with a surprise. Her image. Front and center in the bulk of all his last memories.
Did he really see her that way? That sexy? Voluptuous?
The wind coiled around her neck, teasing the damp stands. The barely lightening skies fell out of focus. What would it feel like to have Reese touch her there? To feel his hands in her hair? His breath at her neck?
She pushed away from the window and stomped toward her closet. Nursing those ideas wasn’t healthy. Or realistic. Dawn was close, so she’d been out what? Twelve? Thirteen hours? Plenty of time for her to bounce back. The Great One knew, she had enough to catch up on.