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|Pleasure(Shadowdwellers #3) by Jacquelyn Frank|
He took the stairs as fast as she did despite his compromised vision. There were half a dozen flights, and they blew down them. The wood grew damp and slick the farther down they went, some of it even rotted away. But Guin had repaired what was necessary and they were safe clear to the ledge of the cavern. By the time they hit bottom, Guin could see again. Mostly. As they continued, he swept his princess from ledge to ledge out of automatic courtesy and protectiveness, even though she could have easily leapt the distances for herself, perhaps even better than he could, with her light frame and flexibility.
They only paused when Guin felt Malaya tug on him hard to stop him. He pulled up, turning to her as she pushed him against the cavern wall and leaned her entire body up along his as she laid her hands against his wounded shoulder.
“I knew it!” she hissed to him, her troubled eyes turning up to his as she gripped the fabric of his shirt near the hole shot through it. “I knew you’d been hit!”
“It’s nothing.” He dismissed it curtly, thinking it only would have been something if it had punched through him to hit her as she stood behind him. Luckily, he was as thick as an oak tree. He could actually feel where the bullet was caught against his shoulder blade. It would have to be dug out because it was interfering with his ability to move his arm.
“Drenna, Guin, I’m so sorry!”
“You damn well better be sorry!” he spat at her. “What in Light were you thinking? We talked about this! A thousand times, we talked about this!”
She bit her lip as she tore open his shirt a few inches, inspecting his wound a moment before pressing her palm hard against it in an effort to stop the bleeding.
“I am sorry! I couldn’t help it! I felt my whole body, my whole spirit scream for him. He is my brother, Guin. I couldn’t leave him.”
Guin watched as her darkly beautiful eyes filled with a rare show of tears, the heavy drops falling down her lashes and cheeks, each one becoming an arrow that pierced through him far more painfully than the bullet had. If she had known how much it affected him to see her cry, the little minx would have probably done it far more often to get her way with him. Usually he brusquely reassured her, saying something nonsensical or by rote and moved on.
This time, feeling her tremor with her own adrenaline rush and her tormented guilt for getting him hurt, he simply couldn’t blow it all off. He was furious with her for what she had done, for putting herself at risk, but at the same time he was unable to lay into her again and make her feel any worse than she did. In the end, when their vastly differing roles in their world were stripped away, it came down to the fact that he spent almost every minute of every day with her, not just protecting her, but sharing every detail of her life with her. He had done so for nearly forty years. They were best friends, unable to help themselves after so many years of having their lives be so deeply connected. His faith and his loyalty in her would always lay him like a sacrifice at her feet, to say nothing of his devotion and love for her.
He raised his hand to her face, making her click her tongue at him because it was on the end of his injured arm. He trailed his thumb through the river of salted tears on her right cheek.
“K’yatsume,” he said, his deep voice as gentle as something so naturally rough could achieve. “Malaya, I know you better than anyone. Call me a traitor, but I will say I know you even better than Tristan does. So you have to believe me when I say I understand why you reacted that way.”
She shook her head, unwilling to forgive herself while his blood was seeping through her fingers.
“No. I should be shot myself for behaving so stupidly.”
“Aiya!” he exclaimed with frustration. “Just what we need! What an asinine thing to say!”
“Shut up,” she snapped back. “You should have let me go! I would have deserved what I got!”
“Yeah, but then there’s that whole part where it’s my job to protect your ass no matter how stubborn it is!” His voice and his temper escalated with every frustrated word. He grasped her shoulder and shook her. “I swear, Malaya, there’s more danger of me wringing your neck than there is of anyone else ever getting a shot at you!”
“Nice. I’m amazed anyone would trust you with my care,” she said dryly.
“Because it’s a damn sight better than trusting you with it!”
“Don’t tempt me, Princess, I already owe you one,” he rumbled dangerously.
Malaya’s dark eyes lifted, the whiskey-warm color almost like darkest gold to his night-suited vision, and he watched a sly smile slowly spread over her sensual mouth.
“I suppose that was rather bad form,” she admitted, though she looked far more amused than she did contrite. “But it was the closest target. And might I say that is one extremely tight ass you have there, Ajai Guin. I could barely get hold of you.”
To Malaya’s surprise, she saw heat flush up his neck and face, and her brick wall of a bodyguard actually looked away and all but blushed. She watched with amazement as his throat worked to swallow, yet no retort emerged. His reaction was clumsily brushed aside, though, when he set her back a step and swept her hand away from his shoulder. He moved away from her and now the retort came. “Don’t think flattery is going to get you anywhere,” he groused as he snagged her wrist and pulled her forward into the cavern. “I’m going to remember this.”
“What are you going to do, tattle on me? ‘M’itisume,’” she said, mocking his deep voice and puffing up her chest and shoulders, “‘your sister bit me on my ass. Then she spanked me.’”
“You did not spank me!” he burst out, turning on her and dwarfing her under his indignation. “You hit me!”
She snorted a giggle, far from intimidated as usual. “I hit you…on your ass. Better known as a spanking.”
“Malaya, I swear to Darkness and Light and every other god you can think of, you are pushing me too far!” he warned.
“Okay, okay,” she relented, holding up her free hand in a gesture of submission. She waited for him to turn away again and then said, “It’s not as though you get off on that sort of thing, now is it?”
Wounded or not, or maybe especially because he was wounded, it wasn’t wise to piss Guin off. Unfortunately, Malaya seemed to have a knack for it. She might even say it was a calling. Not a day went by where she wasn’t butting heads with Guin over one thing or another. The very familiarity of it was already calming her frazzled nerves.
That is, until she found herself spun roughly up against a damp wall, her massive guard trapping her there with the entire monument of his hard-muscled body until she felt like she was quite literally caught between a rock and a hard place. She looked up as he lowered narrowing gray-black eyes closer to hers, his breath hot and furious against her face. She was not a small or helpless woman, certainly not a weak one, but Guin could make a tribe of Amazons faint from intimidation.
“Listen to me very carefully, Malaya,” he said with midnight dark menace in his almost purring tones. “The next time you ask me a question like that, I will give you a deeply in-depth and guided tour into what ‘gets me off.’ Claro? Do not push me any further tonight, K’yatsume.”
The thing was…he meant every word of it. Watching her come so close to getting herself killed had snapped his patience to an end. Oh, he loved her sass and the way she butted heads with him without so much as a hesitation, but when it came to her safety…her life…he was the end authority. He was God and Goddess. And damn her, she would learn to take him seriously and obey him for her own sake if it was the very last thing she ever did! If that meant shaking her up a bit, then that was exactly what he was going to do.
Guin moved his head down around to the side of her neck, exhaling warmly over her as he nosed himself under the heavy curling mass of her hair. He smelled her warmth and the scent of natural jasmine that lifted from her skin, delicious and enticing and easily making him shift from vacant threats of anger to a window of opportunity for deeply hidden cravings to shimmer to the surface.
“Is that what you want?” he demanded of her, his coarse voice suddenly rolling over Malaya as smooth as dark, melted chocolate. “Do you want to push me that far?”
Malaya wanted to laugh at him, but the suddenly nervous expression seemed to catch in her throat. The overwhelming presence of his big, rough body was pressing against hers, smothering her in his heat and the heavy scents of leather, blade oil, and blood. His breath on her neck sent shivers of sensation skipping down her vertebrae and, to her unimaginable surprise, she felt her breasts tighten with the stimulation, her nipples drawing into taut points against his chest. She couldn’t seem to help it. Companion or no, decades familiar he might be, but there was no denying that Guin was a great deal of male animal packed into a barely civilized package, and there was something inside her that found that all too exciting.
He wouldn’t win any beauty contests with his thickly callused hands and scar-nicked body, his rugged features with his broad forehead and deep-set granite-colored eyes making the blade of his nose and chiseled cheekbones that much sharper. But for a brute, he was as awesome and sexually magnetic as they came. He reeked his own particular brand of savagery, wore the aromas of his trade in a cocktail of virility, and bore his body with proud dynamics that seemed sometimes to draw all the breathable air from the room.
This was one of those times. It didn’t matter that they were in a vast cavern that Malaya knew full well opened out to the beach from a wide cave—Guin still ate up every molecule of oxygen and made it his own.
“Now you’re just being a bully,” she said, wincing inwardly when her voice fell breathily from her, with a betraying catch in it and everything. Damn it, she didn’t want him to think he could get to her. In fact, neither of them wanted the other to have a smidge of advantage in their constant battle of wills and willfulness.
This was why Guin pretended not to notice the way her nipples were prodding against him so suddenly. If she had any idea how the simple sensation cut the knees out from under him, she would just as well have him wrapped up for herself with a pretty bow and everything. Malaya would never let him live it down. She would taunt him until doomsday about how he secretly wanted her. Or worse, she would use the incredible sensuality she had thriving in her outrageously perfect curves and vigorous body to manipulate him whenever she wanted to. She would never follow through, cock-teasing him until he would want to scream for mercy or, more ideally, do anything she asked of him, making him into a much devoted and well-heeled pet.
Guin growled meanly at the thought, shoving himself away from her and storming off as the idea raged through him with contemptible disgust. She was, as she had always been, miles out of his league. She was cultured and refined, highborn and beautiful, the promising heir to an entire species. She was as religious as he was agnostic, as talented as he was deadly, and so damn clever she wore him out as she challenged his less educated mind to keep up with her. She would always have power and prestige, responsibilities she embraced wholeheartedly, and the dynamic fate of a destiny so much greater than his would ever be.
Malaya was, in every way, a queen. It was because he knew this through to his soul that he called her “K’yatsume” even though she had not been crowned as yet. The same was true of her brother. He was M’itisume to Guin and nothing less.
And Guin was nothing more than hired muscle that had the great fortune to own her trust and friendship although he didn’t always understand why she found him deserving of it.
With his temper thoroughly fouled, this time he left her to her own devices as they traveled through the cavern, no longer helping her along her way. Not that he didn’t keep a close eye on her every second, because he did, but he wanted her to remember how much she had infuriated him. She would know that had it been any other circumstance, he would have aided, held, and touched her every step of the way. Despite the way they bickered in private, Guin had always and would always treat her with the queenly respect he knew without a doubt that she deserved.
When they were closer to the mouth of the cavern, harmless moonlight cutting back the shadows and making possible exposure to potential enemies more dangerous, he drew her into the darkness behind himself as he searched for opponents. It was not an easy thing to do, since all ’Dwellers could blend into the shadows around themselves with near perfection. Some were so good at it, it was possible to walk right through their bodies and never know it. Provided you weren’t a Shadowdweller, of course, because breed almost always could sense breed.
Guin could sense others nearby.
The voice was soft and feminine, easily recognized. Not Xenia, but Rika, Malaya’s vizier. She slid into the shadows with them, out of breath and shaking with obvious fear and adrenaline.
He drew the smaller woman close, ready to protect her behind him as well, like a mother hen gathering chicks. He heard her sob softly, trying to muffle herself as Malaya wrapped her arms around her advisor and friend to comfort her.
“They took Trace!” she whispered in despair. “I saw it. He was helping defend Xenia and Tristan and took a blade through his belly. He fell…I think he is dead!”
If he wasn’t, he soon would be. Trace, Tristan’s vizier, was a strong male and a wicked fighter in his own right, but few survived the kind of wound Rika was talking about even with the best of care…never mind after being taken captive by an enemy.
Guin’s next worry would have been for those Trace had sacrificed himself for, except Tristan and Xenia both sidled up to them just then, joining their group and looking only a bit worse for wear. Malaya threw herself into her brother’s embrace, wrapping her arms around his neck with a cry of relief, not caring a bit that he was covered in the blood of enemies.