He lived sex. Breathed sex. Ate sex. He was sex. Maybe that was his name. No. That wasn’t what she called him. She—his heart. His reason for being. She would straddle his waist, feed his aching length into her hungry body, and say, “My slave needs me more than air to breathe, doesn’t he?”
My Slave. Yes. That was his name.
My Slave wanted his woman. Craved her like water to drink.
Must have her.
Only she would do. He couldn’t live without her smoke-and-dreams scent...mmm, or her too-close-to- the-sun heat...or her fiery claws. How deeply those little daggers cut into his bare chest. And her peekaboo fangs...how deliciously they nipped at the vein in his neck.
She was perfect, and only when she was with him, her strong body taking and receiving pleasure, was the gnawing hunger within him finally satisfied.
Must. Have. Her. NOW.
But...he looked around. She wasn’t with him. He tried to rise from the bed. Something bound his wrists and ankles again. Not rope. Not this time. Too cold, too hard. Steel? He didn’t care enough to look.
Problem. Solution. My Slave gritted his teeth and jerked with all his considerable might. Skin tore, muscle ripped, and bone snapped. Pain. Freedom. He grinned. His woman was out there. Soon he would find her. He would thrust inside her and slake his need for her. Again and again and again...
Nothing and no one would stop him.
“He’s loose again,” someone grumbled.
At the pond washing clothes and dreaming of salted caramel cupcakes...and frosted brownies...and, oh, oh, oh, peanut butter cookies, Elin Vale lumbered from the over-warm water. Brittle grass covered the small bank provided by the gorgeous desert oasis of Sahel, abrading her bare feet. As the sun glared from the clear morning sky, golden sand dunes undulated on every side; she sought shade under one of the handful of trees. A gentle breeze carried more grit than she was ever able to wash away.
At least there was a silver lining. A free daily body scrub meant her sunburned, freckled skin always glowed.
Now, if only she could accomplish her life goals so easily. 1) Escape the Phoenix warriors holding her captive, 2) make big bank, and 3) open a bakery. She would sell every kind of dessert known to man...except peanut butter cookies because she would single-handedly consume the entire stock.
Life would be over-the-moon crazmazing. She would be doing what she loved and eating what she craved. Except, there was a wee problem. Crossing item one off her list had proved slightly, well, impossible. Phoenix were immortals with the ability to flame to ash and rise from the dead, stronger than ever before. They were vicious. And, ironically enough, they were cold-blooded. They enjoyed pillaging and plundering, and killed for grins and giggs.
Elin had seen the worst of their handiwork up close and all too personal, and even now, a year later, the memories were formidable enough to break her down. Memories she couldn’t stop...please, please stop...but there they were, flashing through her mind. Her father’s head rolling across the floor—without his body. Bay’s pain-filled moan echoing in her ears as he sagged to the floor, a sword sticking out of his chest. Silence descending. Such dreaded silence.
Even now her heart rate went full throttle, with enough horsepower to break records. Going to vomit.
The frantic shout was a welcome and wonderful distraction, the only life raft in a sea of horror, halting the oncoming breakdown.
Her gaze scanned—there. Oh, blimey. He’s magnificent. Because of Elin’s supposedly disrespectful mouth—some people couldn’t tolerate the truth—she had spent the past two weeks stuffed inside a small, dank hole, unable to see the new prisoner “worth toppling an entire empire to possess.”
The quote had come from every female in the village.
For the first time, Elin had to agree with her captors. The princess’s immortal slave was a god among men. He stomped through the sand, flinging expert soldiers out of his way as if they were stuffed animals.
He did this despite the fact that his wrists and ankles looked like raw hamburger meat.
His scowl was dark, frightening, and despite her fascination, she instinctively lowered her gaze.
Oh, wowzer. Hello, massive erection. The beast was in no way concealed by the leather loincloth the slave wore.
The ability to breathe abandoned her. Who knew penises did actually come in size magnum, as romance novels proclaimed? And, sweet fancy, as the scrap of material rose...and rose...and eventually fell to the side, she saw a glint of silver. Was the head of his shaft—
It was! It was actually pierced with a long, silver barbell.
Her knees went a bit weak.
Eye-raping the princess’s slave, Vale? Really? Stop!
First, entertaining lustful thoughts for another woman’s man was a crime punishable by death. Second, it was 100 percent skeevy.
That was why she would look away...in a second. A peek at the rest of him, that was all she needed. He was at least six and a half feet of primal male aggression, with the defy-me-at-your-own-peril muscle mass of a dedicated, centuries-old warrior. But what truly snagged her attention—besides the jumbotron, of course—were feathered wings of the most luminous pearl and gold arcing behind wide, bronzed shoulders. Actual, honest-to-goodness wings, fit for the most cherished of angels.
But if the whispers and giggles she’d heard about the male were to be believed, he wasn’t actually an angel, and calling him one would have been an insult, since angels were lower on the totem. He was a Sent One. An adopted son of the Most High, the ruler of the highest realm of the heavens.
Sent Ones were expert trackers and merciless demon slayers. Defenders of the weak and helpless. They were honest to the point of seeming brutality. And, okay, wow, that was like a checklist of awesome. But the things that were supposedly specific to this male’s character: cold, calculated and demented. Not awesome.
Apparently, he laughed when he killed his enemies... and laughed when he killed his friends.
But...that couldn’t be true. Could it? He was too pretty to be so cruel.
What? She was starved. A mind was mush when a body was hungry.
Well, it’s not like you can actually feast on man- candy.
Whatever. According to gossip, he was part of the Army of Disgrace, one of the Most High’s seven heavenly defensive forces. Six of those forces were well respected and admired. The AoD, not so much. They were a group of wild, untamable mercenaries in danger of losing their homes, wings and immortality; in other words, permanent time off for wicked behavior.
The twenty or so men and women were on a year- long probation, their every action scrutinized. One more screwup, and they would be adiosed forever.
The grapevine hadn’t stopped there. The male directly below the Most High was named Germanus, and he was the Sent Ones’ boss. Or rather, had been. Germanus was killed recently by demons. But before his death—obviously—he controlled the Elite Seven, the seven men and women who were the fiercest of the fierce, and the leaders of those seven defensive forces. After his death, the Most High appointed a new second- in-command, Clerici, and this Clerici guy had tweaked some long-standing rules.
Before: do not harm anyone or thing but demons.
After: unless a fellow Sent One is being held against his will.
Then, and only then, the entire race could play a Kill Everyone Card.
Elin’s takeaway: once Sex On Legs’ army buddies found out what had happened to him, everyone in the village would bathe in blood. And—if the expert-tracker thing proved true—bath time would come soon.
Have to be long gone by then.
“Woman!” he bellowed, his voice more smoke than substance. And yet, that one word dripped with command, expectation and raw animal carnality.
She shivered with vibrant anticipation.
Reacting to him, too? Why don’t you just chop off your own head and call it good?
He belonged to Kendra the Merry Widow, Princess of Clan Firebird; she’d addicted him to the poison her body produced, a nonlethal substance worse than any drug, making him desperate for her touch. Then she’d cinched the deal by tricking him into killing her.
With Kendra, everything began and ended with death.
Shortly after drawing her final breath, she flamed to ash, reformed and rose again, the bond between mistress and slave firmly in place.
Apparently, she’d done the same to six of her husbands—and was currently doing it to her seventh, who was away from camp at the moment, the lucky jerk.
Because, when she tired of her men, she cut out...and ate...their hearts, ensuring they stayed dead.
A shudder crawled the length of Elin’s spine.
As punishment, the late King Krull, Kendra’s father, had bound her with slave-chains to negate her abilities and sold her on the black market.
Where and when the Sent One had come into play, Elin wasn’t sure. She only knew he’d returned Kendra to camp decades later, dropping her from the sky and flying away. Krull, thinking the time apart had mellowed her, had removed the chains and given her to his third-in-command, Ricker the War Ender.
But with her abilities fully restored, she’d been able to addict Ricker to her poison, and gain his permission to leave the camp to hunt the Sent One.
The princess was sweet like that. “Woman! Now!” Elin swallowed a dreamy sigh. Even laced with anger and annoyance, the Sent One’s voice elicited images of strawberries dipped in warm, rich chocolate. Mmm. Chocolate.
Maybe I should help him.
The thought struck her, surprising her. She wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with courage, and to be effective, she’d have to endanger her own life. But if she could free the male from the princess’s bond, she could use him to escape.
Elin pored through every bit of information she’d gleaned during her enslavement but came up with only a few ways to free him. None that were particularly helpful. She could kill him but that kinda threw a wrench in her plan because he wouldn’t come back to life. She could kill Kendra (again), but the princess would come back to life, and Elin would have a very determined enemy for the rest of her (probably) short, (definitely) miserable life. Like the Sent One, death was the end for her.
Elin was half Phoenix, half “weak, lowly human,” with zero abilities to show for her dual parentage. And it sucked, because here—or in any immortal colony, really—halflings were an abomination. A stain against the race. A threat to the vigor of the bloodline.
She’d known she was half-immortal, but she’d had no idea she was so despised, living in happy ignorance until a group of Phoenix ambushed her mother, Renlay, a little over a year ago. All because her mother—a full- blooded soldier—had fallen in love with Elin’s father—a human—and had deserted her clan to be with him. As punishment, the group murdered Elin’s father, as well as sweet, innocent Bay.
So much loss... She tried to ignore the knot growing in her throat.
She and Renlay were taken prisoner. Then, four months ago, Renlay experienced the ultimate death. It happened to all Phoenix eventually—even if their hearts weren’t eaten—leaving Elin alone, so alone, suffering in the cruelest of ways, battling loneliness, grief, sorrow. Heartbreak.
Oh, the heartbreak. It was a constant companion. Cruel and merciless, darkening her days and soaking her nights with tears.
To be honest, the beatings and degradation did not compare to the torture of her emotions. Not even when she was treated like a dog, told to eat her meals on her hands and knees, without the use of her hands. Not even when she was made to take care of her bladder’s needs in front of a laughing audience.
Elin blinked away tears.
In a sick, twisted way, she kind of...welcomed the abuse, she supposed. After all, she deserved it. Her parents and Bay had been strong and brave. She was a weak coward.
Why had she lived and not them? Why did she continue to live? As if you don’t know. Her mother’s final words echoed in her mind. Whatever proves necessary, my darling, do it. Survive. Do not allow my sacrifice to be in vain.
“Woman! Need. Now.” The Sent One once again ripped her from the past. He neared the river...neared her...
Soon he would pass by, and the opportunity would be lost...
Her hand twitched as she debated whether or not to palm the glass shard another prisoner—now gone— had given her. A shard she’d hidden in the fabric of her leather dress, just in case one of the males decided to stop looking at her and start taking. She would have to do something drastic to break through the Sent One’s obsession long enough to capture his attention. Maybe cutting him would do the trick. Maybe not. Maybe it would enrage him, and he would snap her neck with a single flick of his wrist.
Should she risk punishment? Death?
Pro: there was no better time for an escape. Many in the camp were distracted, as King Ardeo—who’d replaced the late Krull—had taken his most trusted men to who-knows-where to hunt Petra, Kendra’s aunt, the Phoenix who had murdered Malta, Krull’s widow and Kendra’s mother and, for a short time, Ardeo’s most beloved concubine.
Ugh! What a mind-maze of names.
Ardeo had waited centuries to claim Malta, only to lose her two days later when a jealous Petra stabbed her in her sleep—and, taking a page from Kendra’s How To Be A Psycho book, ate her heart.
Con: Elin wasn’t in possession of Frost, a new “medication” for immortals, and the only thing capable of diluting Kendra’s poison.
Pro: she might be able to get some.
Krull had purchased a handful of cubes right after Kendra’s marriage to Ricker. Kendra now kept them inside a locket she wore at all times.
If Elin could steal that locket...
Another pro: never again having to worry about Orson.
He was away with Ardeo, but when he returned...
She shuddered as she recalled his parting words to her. “I will have you, halfling, and the way I’ll take you, there’ll be no chance of a babe.”
Con: she could die horribly. The Sent One was almost in front of her. Any second now... If her mother were alive, she would tell Elin to go for it, despite the risk.
Well, then. Decision made. Moving as fast as her reflexes would allow, Elin palmed the shard and swiped the jagged edge across the Sent One’s arm. As crimson droplets trickled down his skin, she gagged. Dizziness struck her, and a burning tightness bloomed in her chest.
Panic...threatening to consume her...already re- stricting her airways...
No! Not this time. She focused on her life goals— freedom, money, bakery—breathed in and out with purpose, and the storm passed.
The Sent One ground to a halt.
He’s a slave, like me, and I’m his only hope. Heck, he’s my only hope. I can do this. For my family.
He turned his head, looking at her over the arch of his wing, and she shivered. Curly blond hair innocently framed the face of a born seducer...exquisite, flawless. In contrast, his bedroom eyes were at half-mast, beseeching a female to naughtiness.
Anything for you...
Too bad those eyes were so poison-fogged she couldn’t guess their color. Long, spiky lashes of the deepest jet rimmed his lids, and his soft, full lips practically begged for reckless kisses.
A ring of angry scars circled his neck, and she frowned. Evidence of an injury, no matter how great or small, did not usually remain on an immortal’s flesh. Had someone tried to kill him before he’d been old enough to regenerate?
Even with the imperfection, he was beautiful. A visual feast. A rare eye candy. A delicacy to be savored. And now I’m struggling to breathe again, drowning, seriously drowning in his utter masculinity, and now in guilt...grief... I haven’t lusted for a man since Bay, my sweet, darling Bay, my husband of only three months, dead now, and I should be ashamed...
The smoky voice caught her off guard. What the flip am I doing? Concentrate!
“What’s your name?” she asked, the words scraping against her throat.
Scowling, the warrior faced her fully.
Note to self: gaining his attention is a mistake. His expression was all kinds of scary: hot and dark, radiating the evilest of intents. She gulped, expecting to be batted aside like everyone else foolish enough to engage him. But maybe she’d be gutted first.
Instead, he reached out to pinch a lock of her hair, the dark color an intriguing contrast against the bronze of his skin. His scowl softened. “Pretty.”
Her rebellious heart hitched into her still-throbbing throat. Another living creature, touching her with no intent to harm...making her tingle...so danged good.
How starved she had been for some kind of affection, she realized.
A distant shout jolted him, and he dropped his arm to his side. She swallowed a humiliating whimper. Like an addict, she already wanted more from him. Nothing sexual. Never that. Bay would be her first and last lover. There would be no second chances for her. But she couldn’t help wanting the Sent One’s big, strong hands on her...rubbing her nape, maybe...or massaging her aching shoulders...no, her feet...as a friend! Just a friend.
A friend with a magnificent body surely chiseled from solid gold.
He turned away to resume his stomping, Elin already forgotten. No! She tried to wrap her fingers around his biceps, but couldn’t. He was so large, his muscles so knotted with purpose. But, oh, his skin was deliciously warm and smooth.
“Please. What’s your name?” she whispered. “Think.”
Again he paused. His head tilted to the side, as if he gave serious consideration to the question. “I am My Slave.”
“Wrong. What’s your real name?” The more he reflected on the answer, the faster he would fight his way through the fog. Without the aid of the medication she may or may not be able to steal.
“My Slave,” he repeated, angry now. O-kay. Message received. Conversation over. He moved away as a group of Phoenix soldiers inched closer to him, their determination to subdue him by any means necessary evident with every step.
He threw them aside as easily as he’d thrown the others.
Hunting his prey, he tore several tents apart.
In the fifth, the infamous Kendra sat in front of a vanity mirror, brushing her gold-and-scarlet hair. She rolled her eyes as the Sent One approached.
“You didn’t have permission to leave your bed,” she said, standing and glaring at him. “Therefore, you must be disciplined.” She drummed her fingertips against her chin. “I know. You will spend an entire night away from me.”
Oh, no. Not that. Anything but that, Elin thought drily.
Low growls erupted from him as he snatched Kendra by the waist, turned and tossed her on the mattress. The muscles in his back and thighs rippled with strength. “My Slave wants his woman.”
“Thane!” Kendra scrambled to her knees, excitement now glowing in her eyes. “You didn’t have permission to touch me, either. If you do it again, I’ll have to deny you the luxury of my body for a week.”
Thane. His name was Thane. Seductive, like the man himself.
He moved in front of his mistress, breathing hard and fast, his hands clenched into fists. Elin could guess his dilemma. He wanted to do the princess’s bidding, but he also wanted—needed—what only she could give him.
“Nothing more to say? Oh, how the mighty has fallen,” Kendra cooed, tracing a fingertip down the center of his chest. She must have forgotten about her audience—or she just didn’t care. “I wish the male you were could meet the male you’ve become. You’d realize just how desperately you crave the woman you once abandoned.” She thought for a moment, brightened. “You’re in luck. I can arrange a meeting.” She unsealed the locket hanging from her neck and scraped a few flakes of Frost onto her fingertip.
“Open,” she commanded, and he obeyed.
He groaned with pleasure as she rubbed the flakes against his tongue.
With such a small amount, he would be aware of his predicament, for a little while at least, but unable to deny his body’s needs. Far more would be required to break the bond between master and slave.
Tense, Elin watched him. What would happen when reality hit?
A minute passed. Then another. Then he threw back his head and roared with unfettered rage.
The Frost had worked. Part of him had just realized what had become of him.
Elin covered her mouth to stop a cry of dismay.
“That’s right. You worship a woman you despise.” Grinning, Kendra stretched out on the bed. “I’ve changed my mind. You will take me, my slave. You will take me now, while your mind curses me.”
“No,” he snarled, even as he stroked his erection. “Oh, yes. Do it.” Her tone hardened. “Now.” Gritting his teeth, as if he fought a war within himself, he tore at her tank and shorts. How did he treat a woman when he wasn’t enthralled? Gently? Would he care that others watched him have sex? Or that his lover actually belonged to another man?
“Isn’t this fun?” Kendra purred. Never had a person so emanated evil.
What had caused her to become...this? Didn’t really matter now. She was what she was. They all were. Survival instinct 101. Put your head down. See nothing. Say nothing.
“Hate you,” Thane spat.
Kendra laughed. “Do you really? When you love me so thoroughly?”
Crack. Elin’s gaze jerked up. The warrior had just punched a hole in the headboard.
“Now, now. None of that,” Kendra cooed. “You’ve been given an order. See to it.”
Thane flipped her over and pushed her face into a pillow. Not wanting to look at her, even though he was still desperate for her? He nudged her legs apart with his knee, and Kendra gave another laugh.
“Just the way I like it,” she taunted, glancing back at him to smirk.
He turned his head to the side, and Elin could see the humiliation and disgust contorting his features.
A conflicting blast of emotions raced through her. Pity that he was being driven to this. Anger that he was being treated this way. And raw determination. He was a slave, like her, and needed a savior.
Screw survival instinct. Elin raced inside the tent. “Stop. Please, Thane. Stop.” He grabbed the base of his shaft and positioned himself for entrance. “Thane!” she shouted, trying again. Fight Kendra’s allure. Don’t give her what she wants.
He halted just before the damage was done, his entire body vibrating as he resisted the urges thundering inside him.
“Please,” she repeated, and cupped his shoulder. “You don’t have to do this.”
His nostrils flared as he drew in a sharp breath. Then he licked his lips, as if he’d just scented a tastier meal.
Me? she almost squeaked.
“How dare you speak to my slave, human.” Kendra swiped out a claw, intending to rake Elin’s thigh. Only, Thane grabbed the princess by the wrist, saving Elin from a severed artery. “Ow! Let go.”
"No...hurt,” he gritted.
The Phoenix guards snapped to attention, realizing they needed to protect their princess, and attacked Thane in unison, wrenching Elin from his side.
Stomach rolling from the sight of the attack, dizziness swimming in her head, she scrambled from the battle and waded shakily into the pond. She ducked under the surface, submerging herself, and vowed to stay under water as long as her lungs would allow.
Yes. Yes, she was. But there was nothing she could do about it. Violence was her kryptonite, and if she didn’t hide, if she saw it happening, she would splinter apart.
Aren’t you already?
At least Thane’s life would be spared. Upon his arrival at camp, he had been clear enough to realize he was in the middle of a crap storm, and had killed Krull, who would not be coming back. Ever.
Kendra had been due a punishment for what she’d done to Ricker, and, to avoid it, she’d reverted to her old ways and eaten the old king’s heart. Ardeo had then taken the throne and as thanks for Thane’s part in the whole deal, granted him life eternal among the Phoe- nix. As a slave, yes, but life was life.
Elin came up for air, gasping, relieved to see Thane and the warriors were gone. She wiped the water droplets from her lashes and trudged to the shore.
“Human!” Kendra screamed. “We have business.”
Uh-oh. Time for my newest beating. Her mind whirled with a new plan. Bear whatever happens next, recover and steal the cubes out of the locket. Kendra has to sleep sometime.
Thane would come to his senses and fight his way out. Grateful for her service, he would take Elin with him. Finally, she could start her new life.