Jared felt the emotional blows as if they had been directed at him. He was so intent on reaching the boys and letting that little prick-ass feel the lash of his temper, he didn’t see the Gray Lady until her hand connected with the back of Eryk’s head hard enough to make the boy stagger. The waves of fury coming from her hit the rest of them hard enough to make them freeze.
“How dare you?” she screamed at the cringing boy. “He has every right to his share of the supplies. He has every right to be treated with courtesy. He has every right to live, you selfish little prick!”
With a shriek of rage that had fear skittering up every male spine, she lunged at Eryk.
Jared lunged at her.
Their bodies hit with a thud. While he struggled to keep his footing in the slippery mud, she struggled to break free and reach the focus of her anger. They slid around in an ugly, fear-filled dance. Jared’s hands tightened on her upper arms hard enough to bruise, but that didn’t lessen her struggles or her venom-coated curses.
As she threw herself to the right, almost breaking his hold, her foot slipped and twisted. He saw pain beneath the fury in her eyes, felt the change in her body as she tried to ignore it.
Hell’s fire, what was he thinking of to slide around on a muddy road in the pouring rain, challenging a Gray-Jeweled Queen? The boy had no claims on him. Why should he care if she tore the little prick into pieces? All she had to do was send one bolt of power through the controlling ring and she’d have all of them rolling in the mud begging for mercy.
Since it hadn’t occurred to her yet, he wasn’t going to give her the chance to think of it.
“Lady,” he said through gritted teeth.
Fear shivered through him. Now that he’d committed himself to opposing her, he couldn’t back down and hope to remain intact. All right then. Balls and sass.
He put all the arrogance and temper he could summon into his voice. “Lady! It’s the males’ right to discipline their own.” That was true in a court. It was true in a Blood community. Slaves didn’t have that privilege, but he was hoping she was too angry to remember that.
Apparently she was because she stopped struggling. As he loosened his grip on her arms, her hands tightened on his coat, and he realized she couldn’t put her weight on her right leg.
Sliding one arm around her waist, he pulled her tight against him to support and distract her—and found himself distracted by the way his body responded to being so close to hers.
A hint of wildness floated up from somewhere deep inside him. Following that instinct, Jared wrapped a faint seduction spell around her as he lightly kissed her lips.
When he was done, she just stared at him. Well, good. Now he wasn’t the only one feeling confused.
“Let us take care of the discipline,” he coaxed as he stroked her wrinkled cheek with a finger and wondered why her skin felt so delightfully soft. “Believe me, having been boys ourselves, we’re better at it.”
He held his breath, waiting for her answer.
“All right,” she finally said. “Just . . . keep him away from me.”
“It will be our pleasure, Lady.”
Her lips curved in a reluctant smile. “I think this is what my father calls ‘things it’s best a Queen pretend not to know.’ ”
Calls? Her father was still alive?
“I’d say that’s just about right.” Jared put some sass into his answering smile and watched, amazed, as color flooded her cheeks.
Looking around, she finally noticed Brock and Randolf holding Eryk and Tomas, and Blaed and Thayne watching everything while they soothed the nervous horses. Twisting her upper body in the other direction, she met Thera’s frosted stare. The color in her cheeks deepened.
Feeling absurdly protective, Jared glared at Thera. She met him, look for look, and finally said in a voice so carefully neutral everyone knew she wanted to tear strips out of somebody, “Are you intending to help her into the wagon anytime soon, or are you waiting for that knee to swell up to the size of a melon?”
The Gray Lady let put a startled squawk when he swung her up into his arms and carried her into the wagon. Settling her on a bench cushioned by a couple of blankets, he knelt in front of her. Thank the Darkness his mother had taught him a little healing Craft. He couldn’t do anywhere near as much as a Healer could, but at least he could do something to help her.
Except he didn’t have a chance. He’d just pulled off her boot and was debating how to broach the necessity of removing her trousers when Thera stormed into the wagon, followed by Polli, who stared at him as if removing a boot was a prelude to rape.
“We’ll look after her,” Thera said coolly. “You’ve other business to attend to.”
Setting the boot on the floor, Jared rose slowly.
Polli pressed herself into a corner and started muttering about it being her moontime, her stock reaction to being within a male’s reach.
Thera’s answer to the unspoken challenge was to turn aside just enough for him to reach the door and leave.
He wasn’t sure if it was seeing the Gray Lady in pain or Thera’s dismissal that scraped at his temper, but by the time he reached the other men, he was looking for a fight.
And the best target was the sulky boy who had started all this.
Grabbing Eryk’s coat, Jared hauled the boy up until he could look right into Eryk’s startled blue eyes. Then he bared his teeth, and snarled, “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t beat the shit out of you.”
Eryk wailed, “I’m an aristo! My family’s important!”
Pulling the boy so close their noses almost touched, Jared said with murderous calm, “Well, now you’re an aristo slave, and your family’s not here. But I am. You feeling cocky enough to take on a pissed-off Red-Jeweled Warlord? Because I won’t hold back or pull back.” As his anger swelled and became hot enough to burn away his control, Jared gave Eryk a fierce shake. “Don’t you realize what could have happened? You put us all at risk! Didn’t that aristo family of yours teach you anything about courtesy and honor? We could have all been hurt because of you!”
“I don’t care!” Eryk weakly pounded Jared’s arms and shoulders. “I hate you! I hate you! I hope she does hurt you!”
Jared shoved him. Hard.
Eryk’s feet shot out from under him. With his arms frantically windmilling, he landed on his back. Then he just lay there in the mud, looking up at the circle of grim-faced, hard-eyed men.