He was luring out every ounce of anger she had the strength to launch at him. “Please! Lalimore? The festival? And the,” she hated stuttering over the bathhouse incident and decided a cough would be a good excuse for losing track of her words. “—bathhouse, then the griffins, in Myttica. What was all of that if not some ploy to keep me in check? Playing with my feelings, Kaden. Making me feel foolish for thinking . . .” She stopped, realizing her candor was about to reveal more than she intended.
“For thinkin’ what?” Either the lantern light was playing tricks on her or he’d somehow managed to shift closer.
“Nothing,” she said curtly.
His face looked like it’d been etched in stone, strong, rigid, perfect. She was disgusted with herself for letting her thoughts go that direction, and tried ignoring whatever look he was giving her. He hadn’t given her a chance to know him, know who he really was, and she was growing tired of trying to figure him out.
“Foolish for thinkin’ what?”
“Nothing. Just leave me alone.”
“Tell you?” Her voice abandoned softness and he took the cue to sit up and give her more space. “Kaden, why should I tell you anything? You say I’m stubborn? You’re the most closed-off person I’ve ever known. I don’t know anything about you other than what you are and you expect me to just talk to you as if there weren’t any problems between us? ‘Cause there are. Plenty. So I ain’t talkin’ ‘til you do.” She crossed her arms.
It didn’t help the situation any that he was trying to cover his amusement. He couldn’t hide it from her and it only brought on more anger. She was tired, hungry, and thirsty. She wanted to be left alone and regretted even asking him to talk. She glanced over to Vallas, the man sleeping like a baby, and the snake of envy coiled around her chest.
“I can do that.”
Lusa jerked her head back to him and parted her lips to say something then thought better of it and sealed them. She’d wanted to know more about him for a long time and wasn’t about to let her ire ruin a chance at having it. She stared at him expectantly.
“Right, well.” He scratched the back of his neck and let out a sigh, shifting his gaze to the tent. “Not really sure what ya wanna know.”
She made a point to let the silence linger long and uncomfortable before she answered him, happy to be in control of who’d be feeling foolish for once. “Why are you here?”
His eyes found hers. She wanted to shy away but forced herself to stand her ground. Lusa wasn’t in control like she’d thought, back to feeling foolish again with the reverent look he gave her.
“You really think I’m here just to keep you from runnin’?”
She was afraid to answer.
He sighed and leaned in closer, taking her hands in his. His damp palms sent waves of warmth through her body despite the frigid air around her. She wanted to pull away but couldn’t seem to convince her body to move. Instead, she concentrated on not breathing erratically.
“Lusa, no man, let alone a bounty hunter, is foolish enough to run ‘round fightin’ for Izier while tryin’ ta’ keep a mage on a leash unless there was more to it than the reward.”
Her efforts of breathing normal were pointless. She shook her head. “No. You said it. More than once.”
“To the right people, yeah.”
“No, you said it to me. The festival. You said you’d be there to make sure I wouldn’t run.”
His hold on her hands lessened and his shoulders slouched. “For so long I’ve made it a point ta’ be alone. I was afraid to let you in.”
In the span of a breath, Lusa’s pent up emotions slammed her in the stomach. She had convinced herself there was no chance to fulfill the feelings she’d grown to have for him. In one conversation not interrupted by arrogant imperials, threatening monsters or painful injuries, she almost had what she wanted. Him.
But Lusa still couldn’t wrap her mind around it. It was hard to grasp after believing for so long it was a torturous, one way journey she’d been on. Words failed her. Her hands were sweaty with his, the lantern light flickered across his face, and in that moment she wanted to stay there forever, holding onto him, staring into his eyes.
“I had every intention of turnin’ you in and collectin’ the reward. I didn’t wanna like you. I wanted to prove I could do somethin’ right for once, somethin’ better than anyone else. Its easy bein’ who I am around others who don’t know. But those that know, know I’m an outcast, disowned by both bloods. S’why bounty huntin’ serves me best. I don’t need no one and no one needs me. I don’t hafta worry ‘bout belongin’. I did what I had to ta’ keep you from escapin’. I’m sorry for trickin’ you.” He rubbed his thumb on her wrist.
A tremble started below her navel and traveled up through her chest. Her heart beat harder, threatening to mute out whatever he had to say next.
“But when they put you in the dungeons, sentencin’ you to the gallows, I knew I’d made a mistake.”
Flames seemed to burst in her stomach, blazing a path through every vein and every limb. She couldn’t explain to herself what it was she was feeling. The most treasured thing in the world. Nothing mattered but this. Her heart felt like it was swelling out of her chest. She squeezed her fingers tighter around his.
“I almost lost you more times than I care ta’ think about, Lusa. I ain’t gonna let you go to Lazorious alone, not if I can keep from losin’ you forever.” With gentle ease, Kaden pulled her closer. When the bundled up blankets between them made it impossible for her to be pulled any further, he leaned in. His peppermint breath brushed against her lips. She couldn’t help but wonder what he’d been eating but when his lips grazed hers all thoughts fled her mind.
Lusa closed her eyes as a million butterflies burst from the cocoon that was her heart and pressed her lips to his. His hands found her face, caressed her cheeks, pushed her hair behind her ears, and held the back of her head with a ravenous desire. She’d never felt this passionate about anyone or anything in her life, not even the false notion of power the Magics had tried to implant in her mind. It was raw, real, and pure. Lusa was scared to let go, afraid to stop. She feared as soon as it was over it would vanish, slip away with reality. A reality that was destined to kill one if not both of them in the next few days. In her mind, her own voice warned her that this was a mistake, a path to more heartache. But at this moment, she knew all the heartache, all the pain, all the torture and evil in the world was worth facing if it meant having his love.
Kaden sucked gently on her lower lip, kissing the corners of her mouth, her chin, teasing her. His scent stimulated her, made her want control. She caught his lips with hers and savored his sweet, peppermint salted taste. His arms tensed as she ran her fingers up them, over the hard planes of his shoulders and behind his damp neck. She’d never been kissed before, not like this. There’d never been a boy worth risking feelings for. Kaden was worth risking everything.
She let him lay her back on the cot. He was careful, as if she were the most precious, fragile thing to him. She kissed him deeper until they finally had to break for breath. The cot was small but managed not to break under the pressure of two. He rolled onto his side and propped his elbow up, resting his head in his hand. His lopsided grin prompted her own smile and she rubbed her lips together, sure she was blushing.
He brushed a strand of hair out of her face and she pushed his bronze hair behind his shoulder and traced his jaw line with her fingertip. She wanted more of him and wondered if he felt the same. His eyes seemed to smolder over her body, his fingers running up and down her arm, leaving tiny bumps in their wake.
***Conversation begins here. Wanted to make sure that was noted. It didn’t stop here for other reasons :P