Kat didn’t take Achilles’ arm on the return trip—he took hers, practically keeping her feet from touching the sand as he propelled her through the Greek camp and then across the stretch of beach and dunes that separated them from his Myrmidons. Even had she not needed all of her breath to stay upright, Kat wouldn’t have bar-raged him with the zillions of questions she had. In just a few minutes, Achilles had turned from a scarred, almost shy man to an imposing warrior king, and Kat needed a little time to process the change in him.
For the first time she began to wonder about this berserker rage that overtook him. Kat thought he was still himself. He wasn’t foaming at the mouth or violently out of control as he would be with what the historians called a berserker rage. She glanced sideways at his stony face. His entire body seemed to be alert. No damn way could anything or anyone sneak up on him. His sword was unsheathed and it glittered dangerously in the moonlight reflected off the sea. But Achilles’ sword wasn’t the most deadly thing about him. It was Achilles himself that was a weapon—and the scars on his body now truly made sense. He’d used himself as a tool—as a machine. A killing machine.
Finally they reached the Myrmidon camp and Achilles slowed, and then released her arm.
“Automedon!” he shouted. “To me!”
A short, muscular man whose leather chest plate had the image of a chariot carved into it ran up to Achilles.
“Agamemnon has deluded himself into believing he can command me. He may try to press the point. Double the watch.”
“Yes, my lord!” Automedon saluted and jogged off.
Achilles continued walking through his camp and with each step he took Kat could see the tension release from him. By the time they reached his tent, the stony look that had overtaken his face had relaxed and he had sheathed his sword.
“Are you still hungry?” he asked, speaking to her for the first time since they’d left Agamemnon’s tent.
“The dinner meal is served there.” Achilles pointed to a campfire situated between his tent and the rest of the camp. “Come, the food is simpler here than in Agamemnon’s tent, but much less bitter.”
They walked over to the campfire where delicious scents wafted from a huge iron caldron that was simmering over it. About a dozen men were seated on large rocks and driftwood that had been pulled in a circle around the fire. They were being served by a couple women who were pretty enough, but wearing plain linen robes. Jacky was, unfortunately, nowhere to be seen.
The men greeted Achilles familiarly, speaking to him with obvious respect, though there was no bowing or scraping. Immediately a woman handed him a bowl filled with aromatic stew and a hunk of fresh bread. Kat noticed she avoided looking directly at Achilles. He motioned to Kat, and the same woman hurriedly filled another bowl and brought it and bread to her. As her eyes met Kat’s there was an obvious shock of recognition. Almost imperceptibly she bowed her head and murmured, “Princess.”
Kat was eating the excellent fish stew and thinking that it would probably be best if she avoided the other women as much as possible for the short while she’d be here. It only made sense that many of the war prizes were Trojan and they would know her, or at the very least recognize her as their princess. Or, more accurately, recognize the young body she now temporarily inhabited as their princess.
“How goes it with Agamemnon?” an older warrior asked Achilles.
“He’s much the same—arrogant and rude and under the mistaken impression that he can rule me.”
“You set him aright, didn’t you my lord?”
Achilles’ lip twitched in what Kat was beginning to recognize as his version of a smile. “I did, which is why the guard will be doubled tonight, and every night hereafter.”
The men grunted wordless agreement.
“I have formally withdrawn from the battle against the Trojans.” Achilles dropped that bomb nonchalantly between bites of his stew. Kat watched the men’s faces carefully, and saw expressions that ranged from shock to disbelief and even to anger, though it was only the older warrior who spoke.
“For how long, my lord?”
Achilles shrugged. “Until I feel the need to fight for another man’s glory.”
“But, my lord, we have been fighting for the glory of Achilles,” blurted one of the younger men. “So that your name will be sung for centuries.”
Achilles nodded and looked from man to man. “And you have all fought bravely in this war for almost ten years because of a fate not of your own choosing. It may be time for each of us to reevaluate our fates.”
“Do you ask that we fight on without you, my lord?” the younger man said.
“I ask only that each of you follow his own conscience, as I will follow mine.”
No one spoke for several minutes, and then the old warrior yawned and stretched and said, “I believe these old bones deserve a rest from battle. I will stand down with Achilles.”
“And I,” said the younger man.
“I as well.”
All of the Myrmidons present chimed in, siding with their leader. Kat studied Achilles as his men chose him over battle and glory. He stared sightlessly into his bowl of unfinished stew and made little response to any of them.
When he finally spoke again, it was to her and not to the men who had resumed their casual conversation around him.
“My tent is now your home. Anything Briseis left within is yours. If you lack anything, these women will bring you whatever you need.” Then he tossed his bowl down by the fire, grabbed a wineskin that lay nearby, and without another word strode off toward the shore.
Kat didn’t have a clue what she should do. The men ignored her. The women, who were sitting a little way off from the men, kept shooting her furtive, yet curious looks. The only thing she knew for certain was that Achilles had just annoyed the crap out of her. Hadn’t they been getting along okay? It had seemed like it. Then that business with Agamemnon had screwed up everything. With a sigh she got up and approached the woman who had given her the stew.
“Hi. Uh, I was wondering if you knew where my, um, servant, Melia, is,” Kat said.
“No, Princess. We have not seen your maidservant.” The woman fidgeted nervously. “How may I serve you? Are you well, Princess? You have not been harmed, have you?”
“No, I’m fine. Perfectly fine,” Kat assured her.
The woman stepped closer to Kat and whispered, “Princess, I am Aetnia, a kitchen maid from your father’s palace. I was captured with a group of servants who were buying fish outside the city more than two years ago. It will be difficult, but we can help you escape. Once you are within sight of the walls, Hector will surely come to rescue you.”
Kat blinked in surprise, taken aback by the earnestness of this woman who wanted to help her. “Oh, no, I don’t need anything else tonight,” she answered loudly enough for the men to hear. Then she lowered her voice and whispered, “Thank you, but I don’t want to escape. At least not right now.” Raising her voice again, she continued, “I think I’ll turn in. It’s been an exhausting day.” And she retreated quickly to Achilles’ empty tent.
Okay, it wasn’t exactly empty. It was just Achilles-less. The tent itself was filled with beautiful things. Kat gave a low, appreciative whistle. No way was the man who had collected all of these treasures a mindless killing machine bent only on war and destruction. The tent was huge, though not as large as Agamemnon’s. It was softly lit by scented oil lamps suspended from ceiling supports. Under her feet was a thick crimson carpet with birds and wild flowers woven throughout it. Hanging on the tent walls were tapestries of exquisite detail. Most of them showed sea scenes, though a few depicted a lovely temple-filled city on a hill that overlooked the sea. Except for his helmet, a few spears, and a golden shield that bore the figure of an eagle on it, there was no evidence that the tent belonged to a soldier at all. In the rear of the tent Kat could see a bed, thick with linens and canopied with gauzy curtains. She was studying it nervously and thinking that it might seem big at the moment—minus Achilles laying on it—but she was sure that with him present there was no way she could sleep all chastely without brushing against his skin and touching him and his battle-hardened muscles and…
Then she noticed the thick pallet of comforters and pillows that made an opulent nest situated way on the other side of the tent—literally as far away from the bed as was physically possible for it to be and still be inside the tent.
“That’s where the war prize must sleep,” she said aloud to herself. And, hell yes, regardless of how stank and trifling it made her, Kat was disappointed. “Yep. I’ll admit it. Out loud. It would have been interesting to sleep next to him and try to keep my hands off him. Ur, I mean try to keep his hands off me.” She laughed at herself. “Katrina, honey, it has been too damn long since you’ve had sex. With a partner.”
She continued looking around the room and, with a happy little cry, found a pitcher filled with red wine sitting alluringly next to a couple empty goblets. “Well,” she said as she poured herself a generous cup full. “He did say the stuff in here is my stuff, so I’m definitely commandeering the wine.”
There was a chair beside the table she’d found the wine on, and Kat sat while she sipped.
Okay, well, today hadn’t really gone so terribly. Besides the whole she-and-Jacky-dying part, that is. Plus, that was just temporary. Hera was definitely going to owe them, and soon. It almost didn’t seem fair. Achilles was doing her work for her. It was obvious that he was sick of fighting and pissed at Agamemnon, which Kat could totally understand. So the little tiff about Briseis was the proverbial straw on the camel’s back. All that was left for Kat to do was just encourage him in the direction he was already going. She could actually relax and pretend like this was an unexpected vacation. She looked down at her new body, stuck her leg out, letting the drapey, togalike robe fall to the side to reveal the young, tight, well-formed limb.
“So does what happens in the ancient world stay in the ancient world?” she said absently, peeking inside her outfit to check out her perky young boobs.
Kat wondered where Jacky was and what she was up to. “Probably nursemaiding that blond cutie.” And she should take a lesson from Jacky. She should learn to loosen up and have a good time—make the best of this situation. “In other words, if I want to shtup Achilles, I shtup him. Hell, it’d be good for both of us. I’m always telling my clients to be sexually empowered. Okay. Shrink, heal thyself.” Kat refilled the wine goblet and left the tent, walking purposefully toward the shore.
It wasn’t hard to find Achilles. The moon was high and full in the sky. Reflecting off the calm sea it was like a giant nightlight. Plus, Achilles was a big guy who was making no attempt to hide. He was sitting on a rock facing the water. He’d taken off the breastplate of his armor, as well as the metal things that covered his shins and he was wearing a loose thin tunic that opened at the chest and left his arms and legs bare. Kat thought he looked like a Greek statue sitting there, illuminated by the night and bathed in ancient mysticism.
“It is dangerous to walk alone at night.” He spoke without looking at her.
“I’m not alone—I’m with you.”
Achilles turned his head and looked at her. “Is there something you require, Princess?” The question was cordial, but his tone was remote, almost cold.
“Yes, company,” Kat said honestly, and was pleased by the surprise she saw in his eyes. “It’s my first night here. It’s not what I’m used to and I’m a little homesick,” she said honestly.
“You must hate me for stealing you away from your family—your kingdom.”
“You didn’t steal me; Athena did.”
“And do you hate the goddess?”
“No.” Kat shook her head. “She was just doing what she felt like she had to do. Plus, you’re not so bad.”
He made a sound that seemed part laugh, part snort. “You are so odd, Polyxena of Troy. Are all the princesses of your city like you?”
“Absolutely not,” she said with complete certainty.
Then he did laugh—really laugh, and Kat thought what a great sound his laughter made echoing musically with the lapping of the surf.
“Got any more wine in that floppy thing?” she asked, moving closer to him and holding out her empty goblet. He filled it up and the two of them sipped wine and gazed out at the sea. The silence between them was companionable, and Kat thought how weird it was that a man who supposedly scared the crap out of women could be so easy to be around. Which reminded her…
“That was a good thing you did today in Agamemnon’s tent,” she told him.
He glanced at her and raised his brows. “So says a Princess of Troy. Of course you would believe my being absent from the battle against your people a good thing.” He said it as a simple statement without sounding angry or resentful.
“I suppose you’re right, but I wasn’t thinking about that just now. I was thinking that I wouldn’t want to fight for a man like Agamemnon, either.”
“It probably wasn’t wise for you to insult him,” Achilles said.
“Why not? It’s not like he and I weren’t enemies already.” Achilles turned on his seat so that he could look directly into her face. “And what about you and I? Are we not enemies, too?”
Kat’s mouth went dry. He was looking piercingly into her eyes and she could feel desire for him start to burn deep within her. She opened her mouth to remind him that she was his war-prize bride—his property, but she couldn’t make herself say that bullshit. She didn’t care if she was in a strange body playing the part of a princess in an ancient world; Kat was still Kat. Even the goddesses agreed that it was the soul that carried the essence of a person, and not the body. There was no way she could consider herself someone’s property, and no damn way she would act like it, either. Kat held his gaze and said, “Right now you and I are a man and a woman who are alone under a full moon by the shore of a beautiful sea, and that’s all we are.”
Slowly Achilles lifted his hand and touched her cheek with just the tips of his fingers. Kat could feel their roughness against her soft skin. She could also feel that he was trembling.
“I wish that were true,” he said.
“It is true,” Kat said. “At this moment in time—this instant—that is all we are.”
“And you don’t fear me.”
He didn’t frame the words as a question, but Kat answered him anyway. “And I don’t fear you.” She stepped close to him so that she stood between his legs. Slowly, deliberately, she slid her hands up his arms to rest on his shoulders. Achilles didn’t move. Kat thought he was barely breathing. Sitting on the rock he was still tall enough that she had to go up on her toes to reach his mouth. She kissed him softly, questioningly, mixing her breath with his and learning the taste and texture of him. He was salty like the sea beside them and he tasted of sweet wine. His lips were soft, but everything else about him was unbelievably hard. His shoulders under her hands were like iron, and the hands that he had automatically placed on her waist were rough and callused from decades of swordfights. The difference in textures—his hardness and her softness—was exquisitely erotic and she leaned into him, craving more of that difference.
The tips of her breasts pressed against his chest. Her body gave, molding into his. There was so little separating their skin, just her silky robes and his thin tunic. The tips of her sensitive nipples tingled and hardened. Kat moaned into his mouth and deepened the kiss, demanding more of him, and suddenly Achilles’ hands were cupping her buttocks and his legendary strength was holding her as his mouth possessed her and the hard length of his cock throbbed hot and insistent against her stomach. She rubbed herself against him, wishing they were lying down… wishing they didn’t have these damn clothes between their bodies… wishing she could—
“No!” With a strangled cry Achilles pushed her away from him as he practically vaulted off the rock, stumbling several paces away from her.
“What is—” she began, moving toward him.
The word was an icy command Kat automatically obeyed. His voice had deepened, gone rough and harsh and unfamiliar. She froze where she stood and stared at him. Achilles had one hand up and held it palm out toward her, as if he expected to have to push her away again. The other was wrapped across his waist, and he was bent over a little. He seemed to be in pain as he gasped for breath.
Kat thought she understood at least some of what was happening to him. She’d tripped some kind of trigger, and Achilles was fighting to control what the goddesses had described as his berserker rage. Okay. Fine. This she could handle.
“Achilles, you should get in the water,” she said in a calm, clinical voice.
He looked up at her then and Kat had to quell a surge of fear within her as she saw that his face, his entire body, literally seemed to be changing, growing bigger, stronger. His eyes flashed in the darkness with an eerie scarlet fire that reminded her of old blood.
“What are you saying—” He struggled to speak between heaving breaths.
Kat forced herself to continue sounding calm. “You have to break the cycle of what’s happening inside you—confuse the reaction that’s trying to take place in your body. Get in the water,” she repeated. “That might do it.”
He started backing toward the waves with lurching, almost painful-looking steps. Just before he threw himself into the sea he yelled a single word to Kat.