He wasn’t certain how he had come to be walking along the road in the driving rain, his sword gripped in one hand, the taste of blood in his mouth. He tried to reach back far enough to figure it out, but a dark haze seemed to cloud his thoughts. He was aware that the side of his head ached fiercely, and duller pain echoed it from other places on his body, but the discomfort was nothing he couldn’t handle; he could tell that he wasn’t seriously injured. What angered him was the idea that someone had done him harm and he couldn’t recall who it was, or even if he’d killed them. It was an intolerable situation.
No one could be allowed to get away with doing such a thing to him.
Lightning shattered across the sky, thunder shuddering after it. The wind picked up, hurling icy rain against his already-drenched body. His only concession to the elements was to angle his head slightly to avoid getting splashed in the eyes—eyes which burned with fierce energy. How he’d gotten on the road in this condition might be a mystery, but he knew where he was going.
It was instinct and simple habit that made him break away from the road just before the gates of the estate came into view around the bend. Sliding the sword back into its scabbard, he made his way through the woods without effort, circling around to reach the ten-foot stone wall. Though it had been expertly laid by skilled stonemasons, it was no barrier to the greatest assassin alive; he found finger- and toe-holds that were invisible to the eye, climbing the wall as if it were no more than a pasture fence.
Dropping to the ground inside the wall, he scanned the area for a moment. No dogs or guards patrolled the property yet, only a few weeks after the young lord and his wife had taken up residence. The assassin’s lip curled slightly in amused contempt; although few others might be able to match his skills and enter the grounds, he felt that every possible precaution was best taken if the young lord wished to safeguard his territory and his most precious possessions.
He flowed silently across the wide yard, unseen. Only one light still glowed inside the house, this late at night, but he circled to avoid a direct line of sight nevertheless. It was only sensible to take the least number of risks, a rule of thumb that he had picked up quite early in his career. It was no challenge at all to slip into the house and make his way through its quiet halls—usually on the floor, but occasionally making use of some fairly exotic tricks to evade possible security measures. He didn’t question his knowledge of the building’s layout, merely followed it with absolute confidence.
The door was in front of him now. Light glowed softly under it, but several moments of listening convinced him that no one was moving about. With exaggerated care, he eased the door open and stepped inside, shutting it behind him just as softly and without turning his back. His eyes were riveted to the single occupant of the room.
She slept, but not easily, a slight frown of discontent marring her flawless features. The tumbled condition of the bedcovers suggested that she had been tossing and turning for some time. She lay half-curled on her side, one arm reaching out toward the empty half of the bed as if seeking someone who ought to have been there, her light sleeping robe twisted around her legs and askew on her shoulders. Creamy skin gleamed with a satiny sheen in the soft candlelight, and sparks of gold and red shone in hair that looked nearly black as it spilled across the pillow.
He walked soundlessly to the bedside, never taking his eyes from her. Wanting, needing, he reached out to touch that dark splash, sinking his fingers into its silken weight. Her scent came to him, making his gut clench with hunger, and he curled his free hand into a fist for a moment.
Though he had made no sound, she moved, perhaps just another iteration of the miserable tossing that had been going on already. She rolled onto her back, slender limbs sprawling gracefully, her head turning to the side until her brow nearly brushed the fingers that he’d sunk into her thick dark mane. Her robe was barely held closed at all now, and his eyes flicked to trace the line of her breasts, the curve of her hip, before returning to that lovely face. The faint look of misery made him scowl, his eyes narrowing a fraction as his mouth twisted. She shouldn’t look so unhappy.
Without more than a slight flicker of warning, her eyes opened, deep and fathomless green in the candlelight. Drowsy, she looked up at him incomprehendingly for a moment, and then a sweet smile curved her lips.
“Kara . . .”
He jerked inwardly at the sound of the name, his eyes widening slightly.
“You’re very late, did something—Kara, you’re bleeding!” she cut herself off sharply, pushing up onto one elbow as the sleepiness cleared from her eyes to leave alarm in its place. “You’re soaking wet and you’re bleeding! What happened?”
He didn’t reply, but that didn’t seem to slow her down. She swung her legs off the side of the bed and stood up, taking his face gently between her hands and tilting his head, her eyes intent on the site of the ache that had been present since he had become aware of himself on the road. “This could be bad. What were you thinking, walking home alone in a storm like this? Did someone try to rob you?”
He was vaguely fascinated by the way she was apparently capable of holding an entire conversation without any input from him at all. She caught his hand and pulled him after her; bemused by his own docility, he followed her down the small side hallway into the bathhouse.
Larger than most, the room’s concentrated warmth felt good where it pushed back the chill on his skin. The woman lit the lamps and returned to him at once, her hands firm as she again tilted his head. “It doesn’t look like a normal cut. It looks more like someone hit you hard enough to make the skin split.” Circling around to stand behind him, her slender fingers worked gently back through his hair, probing. “I don’t feel any breaks in the bone. How long ago did this happen? The flesh has only swollen a little, though the blow had to be pretty hard to break the skin like that, so it can’t have been very long ago. What happened? Did you slip on the road and hit your head on something?”
He’d reached the end of his personal restraint. Turning swiftly, he saw her eyes widen in surprise before he caught her in his arms, sweeping her off her feet. Rather than dropping her carelessly, he followed her all the way down to the floor, taking the impact on one hand without effort.
She was wide-eyed with astonishment beneath him, water dripping from his hair to spatter her face. Her startled words were smothered beneath the hard, demanding kiss he pressed to her mouth; after a moment of shock, her lips softened eagerly under his, parting willingly to let his tongue slide past unhindered. He cradled her chin in his hand a moment, then slid his fingers down the sleek line of her throat and shoulder to close over her breast. Gods, but she felt good, warm and soft and responsive to his touch.
She shivered, a hand fluttering impotently against his forearm to try pushing his hand away, but he ignored the feeble resistance. Damp from the rainwater that had soaked his clothing and transferred to hers when he took hold of her, the thin robe did nothing to shield her breast; he stroked his palm in a circle until she arched, the soft bud tightening to a hard point, then captured her nipple between two knuckles and tugged gently. The cry she gave was muffled by the kiss, but a surge of masculine delight rolled through him. His lips left hers, trailing down her throat and lower.
“S-stop it. I need to take care of that wound on your head,” she argued breathlessly, and hissed as his tongue trailed through the valley between her breasts. “What’s the matter with you? Why won’t you answer me, Kara?”
“Not Kara,” he said in a near-whisper, his voice deep and low and thrilling, lifting his head to look down into his mate’s face.
Jurnia stared into his eyes, seeing the golden fire, the hunger, the unbridled masculine power. Her voice came out as a shocked gasp.
His mouth curved in lazy amusement. “I like that.” He flexed his fingers on her breast, rolling her nipple lightly between his fingertips. “Say it again.” When she blinked in mute confusion, he bit gently at the side of her neck. “Say my name,” he ordered softly, his voice a purring rumble next to her ear.
“Khuradasu,” she whispered again, her mind spinning. What could have happened to cause this? Kara sometimes showed flashes of his less controlled side during their lovemaking, but she hadn’t seen the assassin so obviously dominant in his personality for quite some time.
He chuckled, rewarding her with another deep, drugging kiss. His hands on her body were strong and confident, infinitely sure, possessive. There was a metallic taste in her mouth this time, and she gagged involuntarily as she realized it was blood. She twisted in protest, and he lifted his head with a curious expression. His thumb stroked the corner of her mouth and came away red; he reached up to his own cheek in realization, feeling the blood that had run down from the head wound, diluted and spread further by the rain.
Blood held no horror for Khuradasu, but Jurnia clearly had a different opinion. “Stay here. Don’t move a muscle,” he murmured, releasing her, and rose to wash the side of his face with a cloth dipped in one of the bath buckets.
When he turned back, she was sitting upright, wiping at her mouth with her sleeve, pulling her robe tightly shut with the other hand. Her eyes were wary, but not afraid, and he liked that. He didn’t like that she’d disobeyed him, though.
“When I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed,” he pointed out softly, crossing the room with silent steps. “And I told you not to move.”
She gave him an incredulous look. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Currently, what’s wrong is that I have a very willful and headstrong woman,” he mused, circling behind her. “So willful, in fact, that she actually tied me to a ladder and refused to let me go when I told her that I wanted to touch her.”
“You agreed to let me do that,” she argued furiously.
“No, I didn’t agree. Weren’t you told that it’s a pleasure to excite and satisfy you? Some women would be very content, but not you.” He was standing behind her now, and she absolutely refused to turn to face him, her arms crossed over her chest and her head up.
“I wanted to touch you for once,” she snapped. “And as I recall, you enjoyed a great deal of it.”
“Hm. True, your explorations have led to some very pleasant interludes, but the fact remains that you didn’t untie me.”
“Kara, what is—”
“Not that name,” he cut her off.
Worry crept in, and she swallowed hard. “What happened? You’re not acting right. You’ve never been like this.”
“I don’t know what happened. I do know what’s going to happen in the very near future.” He was quite close behind her now.
“And what’s that?” she inquired sweetly.
“My woman’s going to learn that it’s very unwise to defy me, and perhaps a bit of just how frustrated she made me.”
Before Jurnia could demand to know what he meant, he was moving. The long belt of her robe was whipped free of its loops, and he was pulling her arms and folding them behind her, crossing her wrists above the small of her back. She struggled, outraged, but her strength was nothing compared to his. In a few moments, she was neatly bound, the belt securing her wrists and pulling her elbows back enough that her spine was slightly arched forward, pushing her breasts out proudly as she sat red-faced and scowling on the floor.
“I am going to kill you,” she said in a quiet, utterly serious tone.
He laughed. “No, you aren’t,” he disagreed, kneeling down in front of her and pulling the top of her robe open to frame her torso, then sitting back on his heels to admire the view. “That’s better.”
“Better?” she sputtered indignantly, trying to work her arms free, which mostly resulted in making the already delightful view move in a fascinating way.
“Much better,” he emphasized, leaning forward. His arm went around her to hold her still for his greedy mouth as he began to suckle at one round, firm breast, his free hand palming the other. She let out a little shriek of dismay, which earned a faint chuckle in response.
If she had truly resisted, if she had shown fear or true anger, he would have stopped. The thought of actually hurting her in any way was completely repulsive to him; rumors claimed Khuradasu was responsible for any number of crimes, but he was not and had never been a rapist, and to commit such an ugly deed on this specific woman was almost literally impossible for him. He might be lacking in some of the gentler habits that characterized his lighter side, but Khuradasu was, if anything, even more protective. He would tolerate no threat to Jurnia’s well-being, whether physical or mental, not even from himself.
But despite her indignation and furious words, her body was telling him something completely different. Her nipples were tight and peaking at the rasp of his tongue, her heart quickening, her breaths shorter; in the steamy air of the bathhouse, the scent of her growing arousal was strong and sweet. When his hand slipped down between her legs, the wetness that slicked his fingers betrayed her, as did the way her hips jolted forward, eager for his touch.
Jurnia bit her lip, stifling a moan. There was no question that he excited her; the sole cause of her reluctance was her concern for him. Something had happened to him, something that had hurt him and caused him to revert to this more dominant and aggressive state, and she was worried that his injuries might be more extensive or serious than she had seen so far. But it was getting very difficult to remember why she was reluctant at all, with him skillfully wearing down her resistance. She tried to clamp her thighs together to deny him access, but only succeeded in trapping his hand against her treacherous flesh—and promptly ruined her defiant gesture by grinding herself against the heel of his palm, making herself shudder.
He chuckled again, releasing her nipple after a last long, drawing pull. “No, no . . . you won’t tempt me to end this that quickly.” He drew his hand back and looked around the room, rising to his feet. His eyes fell on one of the benches, and he grinned.
Picking her up, he strode to the bench and arranged her on it, flat on her back with her hips just at one end. She promptly crossed her legs as tightly as she could and glared at him. When he tried to urge her knees apart, she squirmed away and promptly fell off the bench.
Having expected to land hard on the floor, Jurnia had squeezed her eyes shut; instead of smacking into wood planking, however, she was again cradled in strong arms. She opened her eyes to see Khuradasu frowning down at her in exasperation; he shook his head as he lifted her back up to the bench.
“Let’s see. I don’t want you falling and hurting yourself, but you seem determined to make this difficult.” He tapped a knuckle thoughtfully against his lips, studying the enticing scene before him. Jurnia was pouting, but the blush of arousal on her face and throat belied her seeming aggravation.
He nodded after a moment. “I have just the thing.” Standing, he slipped his sword out of its accustomed place and leaned it against the wall, then unknotted his sash and began unwinding it. Jurnia’s eyes got bigger with each loop that came free; he grinned at the look of anticipation and dread she was giving him. He stepped casually out of his pants as they slid down his legs, now wearing only his shirt, socks, and rather stressed loincloth.
Kneeling down, he laid the middle of the sash over Jurnia’s flat belly, then wrapped the long strip of cloth twice around her waist and the bench, tying it snugly on the underside and ignoring the threats she was showering on him. He leaned back and grabbed one of her calves; before she could get her other leg crossed over it and try to stop him, he pulled her leg up and knotted one of the trailing ends of the sash around her ankle. Jurnia swore at him as he calmly repeated the process with the other leg. Due to the shortness of the ends he’d used to tie her ankles, her feet were tucked almost under the bench, behind its sturdy legs, and her knees were rotated slightly outward. The only way to position her legs that put no strain on her hips or knees, therefore, was for her to spread her thighs quite immodestly wide. The stream of complaints, threats, and curses faded as the rosy blush of excitement darkened into the red of real embarrassment, and Jurnia turned her head away and tucked her chin down into her shoulder as if to hide her face.
Khuradasu hesitated, and his hands were astonishingly gentle as he coaxed her to turn her face back to him; her eyes were screwed shut, her lips pressed tightly together in an expression of unhappiness. “Jurnia? Did I hurt you?” he asked softly.
“Then what’s wrong?” He kissed her throat.
“I’m . . . I’m all exposed,” she whispered, her face reddening a little more. “I’m ashamed.”
“Ashamed? Why?” He stroked a hand down her cheek. “There’s no one here to see you except me, and I find you incomparably beautiful.”
“But I’m all exposed and I can’t cover myself up . . .”
“I couldn’t do anything when you had me tied up either,” he pointed out reasonably, his hand slipping down lightly over her breasts and belly. “Do you see why I was so annoyed with you?”
“Yes,” she muttered, wriggling a bit.
“That’s a good start.” His hand reached its destination, probing lightly; she arched involuntarily. “I would ask if you want me to turn you loose, but since you wouldn’t untie me, I don’t think I’m obligated to untie you until I’m good and ready.” He chuckled, watching her lashes flutter, and she moaned softly as he slipped his middle finger slowly into her. “Or until you’re good and ready, as the case might be.” Which won’t take long in either case.
He knelt at the end of the bench, stroking her smooth, lovely thighs with reverent hands. It was difficult to believe his good fortune in finding a woman who not only had the spirit and strength of will to meet him on equal terms, but was so astonishingly beautiful that she took his breath away. There wasn’t a single part of her, from the top of her head all the way down to her dainty toes, that wasn’t perfect. With an appreciative rumble, he bent his head to worship this exquisite creature as she deserved.
Jurnia had known quite well what he had in mind, but the first brush of his lips still made her jump, arching against the sash that secured her to the bench. Kara normally took his time, teasing her, but this was most definitely Khuradasu; rather than make himself wait, he took a far more straightforward approach. He tongued and nipped and suckled, demanding her response, and helplessly, she gave it. His fingers stroked and pressed and slipped deep, unerringly locating the place inside that sent shocks of white fire through her mind, making her whimper and gasp as she twisted on the smooth wood.
Khuradasu savored her taste, salty and spicy and sweet all at once, her alluring fragrance making his head spin. She was slick and hot around his fingers, welcoming their entrance and clenching against their withdrawal. His body was hard and eager for her, but he was determined to push the little vixen as far as she’d pushed him.
Did he ever. He brought her to the edge, then pulled away, instantly ending the contact of his body with hers, leaving her whimpering in frustration. Not just once, but two, three, four times, he coaxed her toward the peak and left her teetering on the edge, unable to go over—in the position he’d arranged her, she had no recourse at all to bring herself over that edge.
“Please!” she sobbed, writhing desperately as Khuradasu knelt between her legs again, his tongue delving into her, his thumb rubbing over the swollen bud that throbbed with need. “Please, please . . .”
“That’s my intention,” he murmured. “Pleasing you.”
“Then don’t stop!”
“Do you know why I was upset with you?” he asked, his free hand unwinding his loincloth and tossing it aside.
“Will you be good now?”
He knelt up, licking the taste of her from his fingers, a decidedly smug smile on his face. “Have I mentioned how delicious you are?”
“Kara . . .”
“Who?” he asked, rising to his feet, brows arching over his darkly-gleaming amber eyes.
“Khuradasu,” she whispered, her eyes focused with unabashed intensity on his rampant erection. Recalling another aspect of the encounter that had agitated him so, he curled his fingers around himself, stroking slowly, tipping his head back as if he were getting into it so much that he might spend himself before giving her what she was begging for—just as she’d teased him.
“Please,” she whimpered, tossing her head restlessly on the bench; in humid air of the bathhouse, sweat beaded on her skin, and he considered making her wait even longer while he licked her off. “I want . . . I want . . .” She shuddered, her tongue running over her lips, not taking her eyes off him as he touched himself.
“Is this what you want?” he murmured, giving his wrist a little twitch to illustrate.
He knelt again, his free hand caressing the incredibly soft skin of her inner thigh. “Now?”
“Yes!” Jurnia cried, and keened her delight as he thrust into her, sinking himself to the hilt in one long plunge. He groaned involuntarily as her heat soothed the ache of his flesh, closing snugly around him as if she had been made for him.
He pulled the knots at her ankles free; she took immediate advantage, wrapping her legs around his waist, fighting against the sash at her waist to match the hard, driving rhythm he set. Not wanting her to somehow hurt herself, he reached under the bench and untied that knot as well, letting her move more freely. Slipping his arms around her, he was distracted suddenly by the feel of her hands—her fingers were colder than they should be, and he swore out loud at his carelessness. Either he’d tied her too tightly to begin with, or the position flat on her back, her weight on her arms, had gradually restricted the blood flow to her hands. He tried to disengage in order to move her and untie the belt, but she whimpered in protest, digging her heels into the small of his back to keep him from withdrawing.
“Jurnia, love, your hands are getting cold—I need to untie you,” he tried to explain, panting.
Her response was mostly incoherent, but seemed to include the phrases “don’t care” and “leave ‘em”.
An inspiration struck; he caught her under one thigh. “All right, then . . . but let me turn you over.”
She acceded to his request, evidently not really caring what position she was in as long as he remained within her. The sensation of her rotating a full hundred and eighty degrees while still clasped around his shaft made Khuradasu’s eyes roll back and he fought for his self-control. With Jurnia laid belly-down on the bench, it was only a moment’s work to slip the knots and pull the belt away, freeing her arms. She clutched at the bench, her nails digging into the wood, arching to push herself back against him to meet his thrusts as he resumed. He slid one hand over her hip and down, enough to touch that sensitive bud again, and Jurnia’s world came apart.
She screamed breathlessly, her legs shaking, her sheath convulsing around him; that was the final straw, and he groaned as he drove himself deep one more time and gave in to the release, curling forward over her back and gripping her shoulders. Though it took about as much strength as he would have needed to pick up a mountain, he managed to move again—short, quick, hard little thrusts deep inside her, knowing that it would prolong the already overwhelming orgasm that had her crying out and shaking violently under him.
Khuradasu lay flat on his back on the floor, Jurnia lying slightly beside and mostly on top of him like a blanket, one arm cuddling her against him and the other folded under his head. His smile was full of pure masculine satisfaction and pride in a job—or, rather, a woman—well done, and he drifted along the brink of sleep.
Jurnia’s hand touched the side of his head, reminding him of the stinging ache that remained there. He made a low grumbling sound and tried to move away from the contact.
“Let me take care of this,” she said, half request and half command.
“It’s nothing,” he insisted irritably.
Her hand moved downward and closed firmly. His flagging erection immediately started to respond to her, and he groaned. She sat up and swung a leg over his hip; he opened his eyes and looked at her foggily while she stroked him hard again. “What are you doing, woman?”
“Persuading you to behave,” she answered sweetly, sitting up on her heels a moment and then sinking back down, enveloping him in her delicious warmth again.
He groaned again, curling his fingers over her knees. “This is an excellent means of persuasion, beloved.”
“I thought you might like it,” she said, her breath coming faster as she rocked on his lap. “Now will you be quiet and let me take care of that swelling?”
He sat up with some effort, scooting just enough to prop his back against the wall, and wrapped an arm around her hips as he rested the uninjured side of his head on her breasts. “I can’t guarantee that I’ll be quiet, but you’re attending to one swelling so well that you might as well soothe the other one too.”