Binding Ties
Page 30

 Shannon K. Butcher

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She had the strangest urge to snuggle up against him and let him shield her from the carnage for just a little while.
As if he knew what she needed, he pulled her against his body in a tight hug.
She closed her eyes, reveling in the heat of his skin. He shielded her from the breeze and the stink of burned homes it carried with it. His big hands stroked her back, moving slowly enough to help unknot the tension that had been riding her so hard.
He didn’t say a word or offer any empty platitudes of comfort. All he did was hold her, giving her the support she needed to find the strength to stand on her own two feet.
Lyka breathed him in, burying her nose against his chest. The smell of his skin worked its magic on her, the same way those tendrils of sparkling heat connecting the two of them did. The pale skin around his neck where the luceria used to lie was a stark reminder of their recent change in status. She was no longer hidden, holding her Theronai side hostage. It was out and free, and soon everyone would know what a freak she really was.
Maybe if she saved Eric and the young, her people would find a way to accept her.
Hunting for those kids was what she really needed to be doing, not hugging a man who seemed content to hold her until nightfall, if that’s what she wanted.
She pushed away from him, forcing herself to stand on her own, face her grief.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I will be.” Once she found the creatures responsible for this destruction and ripped them apart with her bare hands.
He surveyed the area, his expression grim. “Andreas wasn’t exaggerating. This is . . . unbelievable. How many demons were there?”
“Too many,” she said, her voice rough with emotion. Tears had left cooling trails on her cheeks, which she ignored. He’d already seen her crying, but if this much death and devastation wasn’t reason enough to show her grief, she had no idea what would be.
“Why did you come?” she asked. “Why did you follow me?”
“Do you want to hear what you want to hear, or would you rather have the truth?”
“I never took you for a liar.”
“Sometimes the truth is too much to bear. I don’t want to upset you more than you already are.”
“That would be impossible.”
He sighed and his shoulders bowed slightly. “I didn’t want you out here alone. You and I are bonded now. As much as you may hate it, I plan to do whatever it takes to keep you safe for the rest of my life. Even if it means locking you away at Dabyr.”
“Well, at least you’re aware I wasn’t going to enjoy hearing the truth. Points for that, I guess.”
He wiped her cheek dry with his thumb, staring over her shoulder at the rough wooden grave markers. “I won’t let you end up like them.”
“I’m too tired to fight you, Joseph. Please don’t make me.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any sense in knocking you unconscious and dragging you back home, is there?”
She looked around at the charred logs and poisoned earth. “This is my home. And there’s no way in hell I’m letting what was done here go unpunished. I’m finding those kids. I’m finding Eric. I’m killing those responsible. You can help or you can get the fuck out of my way.”
“I figured that’s what you’d say.”
“I brought enough supplies and gear to launch a small war against the Synestryn.”
Relief fluttered through her, but died a swift death when he opened his mouth again.
“But it won’t be enough,” he said. “If you really want to be able to take these demons down, you need to use every advantage you have.”
“You think I won’t?”
He stared at her pointedly. “I know so.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You have access to more power than most people ever dream about. It’s right here.” He tapped his chest. “But you don’t like the way you reach it, so you’re just walking away. Pretending it isn’t real or that you don’t need it.”
“I’ve heard all the stories. Heard the bonded women talk. They all love their men. Trust them. You know as well as I do that I could never trust you like that.”
He flinched as if she’d kicked him in the crotch. “Why not? I’ve never harmed you or your people. Even when we were at war, I ordered my men to defend themselves from attack but never initiate one. Never provoke the Slayers.”
“Because you were afraid we’d kill you.”
“No, because we’re spread thin, and the only way we’re ever going to beat the Synestryn is if we focus all our efforts and resources on them, rather than each other.”
“Andreas feels the same way. Under his rule our people never attacked yours. It is forbidden.”
“Good. Then we can move on from this animosity you’ve got going here, and do what we both want: find Eric and the kids.”
He made it sound so simple.
Maybe it was. Maybe she was complicating it by bringing in generations of baggage.
Still, he didn’t understand what he was asking. “I know things, Joseph. Secrets. Strategies and tactics. If you go poking around in my head, you’re going to see them. What if the treaty doesn’t work out? What if the next leader after Andreas sends us to war against you again?”
He went quiet for a moment, simply staring at her. “Which side would you take, kitten?”
“I’m a Slayer,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t make her be any clearer. She really didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she couldn’t lie to him about it, either—not something this important. Her loyalty was to her own kind, and the little bit of Theronai blood running through her veins wasn’t going to change that.
He pressed his lips together so hard, they turned pale. “We’ll talk about that again later. Right now you and I have bigger problems. So do those kids. Those are the people we need to be worried about. They are the reason you need to open up a little—just enough to do what needs to be done to save them.”
“You really think that tapping into your power is going to make that much of a difference?” she asked.
“It’s the kind of thing that could mean the difference between life and death.”
She sighed. He was probably right. “Can’t I find another way to access it? Some kind of shortcut?”