“You want me to strip for you?” she asked in a demure tone.
He’d started down this road. . . . Voice gone hoarse, he said, “Yes, if you enter that temple, you’ll bare yourself inside it.”
“Okay!” In a blur, she’d risen and was already at the door.
She’d acquiesced? Despite her Sorceri blood, he’d thought she would put up at least a show of resistance, and that they would negotiate: perhaps she’d only agree to revealing her breasts, et cetera.
Instead, the shameless sorceress had agreed to all. He felt like he was in a battle that had just gone sideways, like he should be jerking his head back and forth to understand his new position.
As he rose to join her, he wondered, What else will she agree to? And his mouth went dry.
She smiled up at him, her lips curling proudly. She was aware of her power over males, had lorded it over so many. She took his arm between both of hers, standing unaccountably close to him.
So the temptress was using her wiles on him? The thought should fill him with anger. Not excitement.
He must remember that this creature was descended from the greatest enchantresses ever to live. He had to be mindful of all her conquests, the ones who’d fallen before him.
“Is there a hidden lever, then? A combination to open it?”
“Yes. A combination.” As per the instructions, he’d pressed in one hieroglyph, spun another, then ratcheted down a third. “Turn around while I open it.”
Again, she went against his expectations by complying. “How did you figure it out?”
“Wasn’t difficult,” he said, unwilling to tell her, knowing she would attribute his comprehension to his alleged demon blood.
Press, spin, ratchet. The door opened once more.
She barreled past him, as if she feared he’d change his mind. Just inside, she drew up short. As her slim shoulders began to tremble, he tried to see the area through her eyes.
The temple was round, constructed of solid gold slabs and bricks that seemed to catch and magnify the weak light filtering in. A dais stood in the center, with gold benches fanning out from it, like arena seating.
The golden ceiling was divided into five wedges, each with different glyphs, like those in the cave. More had been carved into the floor-to-ceiling gold walls.
Still reeling from her assault on his senses, he decided to put space between him and temptation. Twenty feet above them was a shining shelf. He leapt up to it, crouching on one knee to watch his mate’s love affair begin.
Slowly, she reached out her hand to one of the walls. . . .
Contact. She visibly shuddered, as if she’d touched a live wire. Would she react so sensually during intercourse?
With a look of wonder, she ran her fingers over a row of gold bricks, her eyes glimmering.
She was experiencing joy. The last time he’d experienced that for himself had been on their final day in the meadow. Rain had fallen, and he’d taken her under his wings. . . .
Now she hastened to the dais, spinning in place atop it, laughing with delight. When they’d been young, the sound of her laughter had made his heart swell. Now that sound affected a different part of his anatomy.
Perhaps he would approach joy once more when he saw his mate’s body for the first time.
Lanthe hadn’t caught her breath since she’d entered, her captivated gaze taking in every detail.
Happiness coursed through her veins. How had clever Thronos found this place?
Though she was in a room full of gold, her attention veered to him, crouched on that shelf. The muscles of his torso flexed with his movements. His stern, intense expression and that gargoyle-like position made him look very demonic.
She’d never bedded a demon before. Huh.
Yet as she strolled the temple, his constant scowl eased. Without that scowl, he was . . . gorgeous.
There was no more denying it—or her attraction to him.
Some females might consider his scars unsightly. Lanthe thought they made him look tough and warlord-y. Besides, who could care about them when those silver eyes were so compelling? When his warrior’s body seemed to have been sculpted from granite?
He’d once believed that she was “everything missing” from his life. Could he still feel that way? And why was she contemplating these things—instead of how to transpo this gold to Rothkalina or calculating karats?
Why did she have the urge to peer up at him with equal captivation? She surrendered to her impulse, turning to him. He seemed surprised by her perusal but held her gaze.
They were—dare she say it?—having a moment.
“You face me when surrounded by gold? Perhaps I rate after all?” The scowl returned, as if he was hardening himself. She wanted to cry, No, no, no, just a few more minutes!
“We had a deal,” he said. “I grow impatient.”
She could imagine—he’d waited so long to see her. And now she knew he’d already been struggling with his lust and curiosity when he’d been a young man.
A deal was a deal. She would take the sight of this gold into her, a memory to last forever. Unless I can return. . . .
“Be about it, sorceress.”
Since she’d planned to enthrall him, this would be a good start, but the way he was crouching forward, as if on the verge of pouncing, made her hesitate. “If I do this, how do I know you won’t try to touch me? You’re not supposed to, right?”
“I only intend to look,” he said, though she could sense his aggression mounting.
“Do it, then.” When she still hesitated, he said, “Don’t feign shyness—I know you’ve done this with a horde of males before me.”
And just like that, her interest was checked. Though she was neither ashamed nor proud of the number of men she’d been with, his cruel jabs wounded her.
At least now she better understood his resentment. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to put myself in a sexual situation with you.”
He growled at that. “After your purported year of celibacy, I would expect you to be climbing the walls for any male’s attentions. And if I’m not mistaken, you’re in season.”
She flushed, lips thinning.
“I’ve heard tales of females like you.” At her raised brows, he enunciated the words, “Easy quarry.”
How could a maddened Vrekener hurt her so much?
Because he once looked at you with perfect acceptance, Lanthe. And she feared she’d been searching for that look ever since she’d lost it.
In order for her to be interested in a male, he needed to make her feel special—even if she knew it was a ruse. Despite Thronos’s mind-blowing body and heartbreaking past, he stood no chance. “Even we ‘easy quarry’ girls have standards. And you, Thronos Talos, are leaving me cold.”
He scoffed. “I could seduce you with ease. You’ve welcomed scores before me with only minuscule effort on their part. But I’ve no intention of taking you, nor even of touching you. Both are offendments. I only want to see my female.”
“You think you can resist seeing your mate naked?”
“You think I can’t?” A cunning light shone in his gaze. “You Sorceri like to gamble? To make bets? Then I’ll enter into a wager with you—my first.”
Dudley Do-Right makes a bet.
“If your body tempts me to touch it, then I’ll tell you how I found this temple and opened the door.”
“And if it doesn’t tempt you?”
“The blow to your enchantress pride would be reward enough.”
That is it! Now it was imperative to wipe that smirk off his face. “I’ll take your bet.” She thought she spied a flash of surprise in his expression. “No sex, though.”
He glowered, as if she’d suggested something ludicrous. “I’ll breed no bastards! Already my offspring will be half Sorceri. Do you think I’d allow the first to be illegitimate on top of that?”
Asshole! Only Thronos could ruin this: her, in a temple full of gold with a physically attractive male. He was like the anti-Sorceri—created to repel her.
Forget enchanting him! He didn’t deserve her beguilement. “I’ll remember this.”
“That you kill joy wherever you find it.” She gave him her back as she unfastened the first of three clips on the side of her breastplate.
Had his breaths quickened?
She gazed over her shoulder, saw his claws digging into the gold shelf, his throat working. His voice dropped an octave when he commanded, “Off with it.”
She unfastened the second clip.
“That’s it,” he murmured, his words dripping with pent-up lust.
As she was undoing the last clip, she heard something from beyond the main cave, and paused. The sound came again, growing in volume—movement down the mountainside. Something big was approaching. “Thronos, what was that?”
“Heard nothing. Continue.”
“Come on, demon!” She began fastening the clips again.
“There’s nothing to fear out there!”
When the entire temple rocked, she snapped, “Oh, really?”
He made a coarse sound of frustration; then she heard the swoop of his wings. She whirled around to find him charging toward her, that determined look on his grave face.
His eyes appeared to have darkened, and she could swear his horns were straightening—just like a demon’s would when he became aroused.
In other words, Thronos doesn’t live here anymore.
Reaching for her, he bit out, “To tide me over.”
A roar sounded in the cave. Seeming to wake out of a daze, Thronos dropped his hands. And she could have sworn upstanding Dudley Do-Right grated, “Fuck.”
Thronos lunged for her, shoving her behind the stone door that led to the main cave. He pulled her close, then wrapped a protective wing around her.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“I smell a creature, but scarcely trust my senses. I thought they were going extinct across all worlds.”
He couldn’t be talking about a dragon? When she heard some great beast breathing at the outer cave entrance, she shuddered. Two bright lights blazed inside like a car’s high beams.
Thronos craned his head around the door to catch a glimpse. His heart pounded at whatever he’d seen.
She delved into his thoughts . . . then sucked in a breath.
A dragon had its head in the cave opening, its brilliant yellow eyes glowing. Heated air blurred around its nose. Its scales were onyx and silver, glinting like metal.
She switched to telepathy. —This place, the benches . . . —
As if reciting something, he muttered, “Sacrifice the pure, worship the mighty, behold a temple unequaled.”
So this place was dedicated to virgin sacrifice for mighty dragons? She wasn’t surprised. Many demon cultures worshipped dragons. Rydstrom had the image of one tattooed on his side.
In Rothkalina’s Grave Realm, the badlands of the kingdom, basilisks roamed wild. Lanthe had gone to visit them with Sabine a few times. Her sister had the power to communicate with animals, and had gotten to know one or two well.
But Lanthe wasn’t Sabine. And this dragon looked hungry for a sacrifice.
If she weren’t petrified, she might have laughed. Lanthe was no cherry-holder of yore; the dragon would probably spit her out like a pit.
The headlights shining into the cave shuttered off and on. Oh, gods, the dragon had blinked. Then the entire mountain rocked and claws skittered into the cave. Had the beast shoved its lethal paw inside?
The dragon sounded like it was blindly patting around the cave, reaching all the way to this door. It must have locked in on them!
Pat . . . pat . . . pat . . . pat.
Oh, yeah, the dragon knew they were in here, and it wanted its treat.
Thronos whispered, “Easy, Melanthe. Stay quiet.”
Quiet? Did he think she’d cry out in hysterics? Galling!
—Quiet, yourself! I have some experience with such situations. For instance, in that haystack, I never made a sound, even when pitchfork tines stabbed me.— She held up her hand, showing him the two puncture scars on the back. Granted, you had to really look for them, and she usually wore gauntlets. . . .
He clasped her hand in his, turning it this way and that. She sensed his anger and confusion, but he made no comment.
When the dragon snorted with impatience, Thronos drew her hand to his side and wrapped his wing tighter. She frowned down at it.
Metallic onyx and silver scales. Just like this dragon had. In Rothkalina, the basilisks’ scales were red-toned.
Curiosity made her brave, and she darted a glance around the door, before Thronos dragged her back. This dragon differed from its cousins in Rothkalina in one other way.
It had four horns instead of two. Just as Vrekeners had four instead of a customary pair.
As if with annoyance, the dragon pummeled its wings against the mountainside, causing a shower of grit and dust even deeper within the cave. Finally it gave a blood-curdling roar, then flew away.
“Thronos,” she murmured, “you come from this place.”
“Are you mad? I do not come from this place,” Thronos snapped the moment they were in the clear, releasing her from his wing. “One more time, sorceress: I am not a demon! Vrekeners are descended from gods. We have purpose.” His tone was harsher than he’d intended, because . . . because he had felt an affinity for the beast.
There was no mistaking the similarity of their scales, their horns. Some said demons sprang from the same tainted well as dragons, that they lived and evolved on the same types of hell planes.
Such as Pandemonia.
“I thought Vrekener horns were only for show,” Melanthe said with obvious glee. “Yours straightened when I began to undress.”