“You know what happens when you stir up a hornets’ nest, right?” He nuzzled her neck, enjoying the sound of her soft moan.
“Good thing I’m not allergic to bee stings.”
He opened his mouth over her jugular and allowed his vampire canines to just brush her skin. “My sting is a lot more potent.”
She sagged against him, and he’d have been content to play this scene out, but they’d be pulling into Aswan in a few minutes. “I’m going to go grab my bags. I want you to have eaten everything in the box by the time I get back.”
She stepped out of his arms and jammed her fists on her h*ps in annoyance, which might have been more effective if she hadn’t whacked her elbow on the wall. “You sure are bossy.”
He shrugged. “Part of the bad boy thing. Now eat. I don’t want you passing out before we even get to the hotel.”
“I’m not going to pass out—”
He cut her off with a kiss. “If you did, I’d catch you.” Gods, he’d laugh at either of his brothers if they said that to their mates, the pussywhipped idiots. So he tried to tell himself this was all part of the seduction. That it was all part of his dastardly scheme to take Serena’s virginity and her charm.
That it was anything but the truth, because the truth was that Serena was turning out to be so much more than a mission.
They don’t come badder than me
Josh’s words rang through Serena’s head as they approached the hotel on foot. She didn’t believe him. Oh, he walked the walk, talked the talk, and all those other clichés, but she sensed vulnerability beneath the handsome, tough exterior. Like when he’d talked about his childhood. That had been a knife to the heart.
His mother had kept him in a cage? And her family had killed his father? How had he gotten away from that situation? And what had happened to his mother?
Serena prayed she was rotting in jail somewhere. Josh had lived a hellish life, but the fact that he’d survived—with a sense of humor, even—said a lot about his strength.
He walked beside her, sunglasses on, clearing a path through the crowds with nothing more than his size and presence. The cool breeze coming off the Nile ruffled his hair, and every once in a while he’d rake it back from his face to reveal the angular profile she’d never tire of admiring.
He slowed to pet a cat hanging out in front of a meat market. The mangy tom eyed her warily, but it rubbed against Josh like an old friend.
She just shook her head in amazement that someone so strong, so powerful, could be so gentle with a little animal. Then again, his touch with her last night had been skilled and nimble, and she heated up just thinking about it.
“I wouldn’t have taken you for an animal person,” she said, when the cat ran to some scraps tossed into a dish near the shop’s side door.
He shrugged. “For some reason, they like me. My brother’s… wife… has this weasel that won’t leave me alone. She says he’s a traitor.”
“Well, the weasel has good taste.” His faced colored, and she couldn’t help but smile. “My mom used to say that a man who hates cats is insecure, but a man who likes them is one worth keeping. If he can appreciate a cat, he can appreciate a strong, independent woman.”
He snorted. “Sweetheart, I can appreciate any woman.”
“But the strong, independent ones are the best, right?”
At her teasing—okay, fishing for compliments—tone, he grinned. “I’m starting to see the benefits.” He adjusted the bags he carried on his shoulder. “So, where are we going?”
She crowded next to him to avoid getting run over by a man on a bike who had swerved to avoid a vehicle popping up on the curb. She loved Egypt, but seriously, no one in this country knew how to drive.
“Philae,” she said. “The Temple of Hathor. I believe that hidden inside one of the pillars is a stone tablet with writings that are supposed to work in conjunction with the coin I found in Alexandria.”
He ground to a halt, jerking her to a stop with him. “What is it you plan to do with these artifacts?”
“Why do you ask?”
“When I’m merely curious, I don’t squeeze anyone’s hand into a pulp.”
Josh cursed and loosened his grip. “Did I hurt you?”
“I’m tougher than that. But why are you so curious?”
“Ancient magic isn’t something to f**k around with.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to perform a ceremony myself. The items are for Val. You know there’s something going on. Something bad, or demons wouldn’t be after me and the artifacts, right?” Speaking of which, she needed an Internet connection as soon as possible. She had to find out what might have affected her charm, and Val’s Aegis research site seemed the best place to start digging.
Josh rubbed the back of his neck, the movement making the muscles in his arm flex and roll beneath his tanned skin. “I guess. We going to go, or what?”
She glanced at her watch. “I suppose we should check into our hotel.”
“Yeah. But here’s the thing.” He stepped into her, so close she took a step back, but he moved with her. “You’ve got something after you. I can protect you. We share a room.”
“I can protect myself.” From everything except Byzamoth. And maybe other demons. And Josh.
“I can do it better. I can do a lot of things better,” he said, and the husky, wicked tone told her he was thinking of the orgasm he’d given her. “You need me.”
From somewhere deep inside, she felt like she wanted to protest, but he was right. And the way he was looking at her, his gaze heated and hypnotic, seduced everything that made her female.
“We get a suite, and you can have the couch,” she managed, even though she knew he’d end up in her bed.
His cocky smile said he knew it, too. But he had the grace to not say anything. Instead, he dipped his head. She thought he was going to kiss her, but he didn’t. Not on the mouth. No, he tipped her chin back with his hand and opened his mouth right over her jugular. Right in the place he’d bitten her in her dreams.
She swayed, her knees going weak. His teeth scraped her skin and for a crazy moment she thought he truly would bite her, like this was some sort of fantasy come to life. She moaned and clutched at his shirt, holding him there, encouraging him, wishing they were in private, because a deep ache had taken root between her legs, and screw the one-time deal thing she’d told herself last night.
She was so going to do some of those other things tonight.
There was a Harrowgate on the island of Philae. Wraith knew because he could sense it. And because he’d used it twenty years ago when he’d come here in search of a statue of Isis.
The fact that the island hosted a Harrowgate was bad enough, given that demons were after Serena, but worse, it had recently been activated.
Something was very, very wrong. Whatever had come out of the Harrowgate was still here. In fact, Wraith could sense multiple evil presences. It wasn’t unusual for demons to be on the island—it was, after all, a hot spot for demon rituals. But not during the daytime, and certainly not in the number Wraith sensed.
He and Serena had come by boat after checking into the hotel. He’d been annoyed, at first, by her insistence on a suite, but the extra room had given her the space she’d needed to feel comfortable, and anything that made her comfortable worked to his advantage.
He’d done the medication thing while she showered, giving him a chance to head off the nausea that had taken hold right after they’d checked in. He didn’t need to deal with getting sick again.
Hell, he didn’t want to deal with any of this. He’d kept himself awake last night wondering why he hadn’t taken her virginity yet, but this morning, another horrifying thought had come to him. Was he dragging this out because he wanted to get to know her? Was he hoping she’d get to know him, learn to love him, and want to show him by making love to him?
He almost laughed out loud. Who the hell would love someone enough to give up their life for a night of sex?
No one. Which meant he might as well give up. He could stay with her, protect her until she got home, and then he could go out in a blaze of glory, killing vamps or something.
He’d had worse plans.
So… that was it, then. He was going to die, and Serena was going to live.
He waited for panic to set in, or at least, a change of heart. But nothing happened. If anything, he felt… lighter. Was this what it felt like to do something unselfish?
The sensation was weird. Uncomfortable, yet… not awful. Like liquor that tasted like shit but went down smooth.
Wraith watched Serena standing in the sun, her delicate profile a stark contrast to the harsh landscape. She wore no makeup, but her bronze skin glowed with vitality, and the toned lines of her body spoke of strength and stamina.
Gods, she was magnificent.
And he was a dumbass for admiring her when he should be guarding her. He forced himself into battle mode, staying alert as Serena wandered through the ruins, completely oblivious to the danger surrounding them. When a stick snapped beneath her foot, he whirled, fists clenched and ready to strike.
“Geez, you’re jumpy,” Serena said. She gestured to the multitude of visitors swarming the island. “Are you worried we’ll get caught?”
He stared off in the direction of the Harrowgate. “It’s not that. Something else. Bad vibes. Maybe we should go. Come back later.”
“Does this have something to do with Byzamoth?” The way she asked, with a slight hesitation in her voice, surprised him. Up until now, she’d been incredibly nonchalant when it came to the demons they’d encountered.
She appeared to consider his suggestion to come back later, but after a moment shook her head. “We’ll be fine. This is too important to wait.” She started for the Temple of Hathor, and he had no choice but to follow. He kept his eyes peeled, scanning the landscape for anything out of place or unusual. The hair standing up on the back of his neck told him something was watching. Waiting.
They worked their way across the hot, dusty land to the temple, which rose up out of the island, a broken shell of the great building it once had been. Its small courtyard was empty of visitors, but then, the courtyard was pretty much an uninteresting pile of old rocks.
She stopped at the enclosure wall. A breeze, cooled slightly by the surrounding water, blew her hair into her face, but she didn’t seem to notice. She’d gone statue-still, her eyes twinkling like amber caught in the sun.
“Can you feel the history?” She finally brushed the hair off her cheeks. “I love the places I get to visit. I love the way they come alive. The vibes here are almost overwhelming.”
“You can say that again,” he muttered, but he wasn’t talking about the same vibes. He was still picking up demons on his radar. But he knew what she meant. Back when E had first asked him to be UG’s artifact hunter—a job created solely to keep Wraith out of trouble—Wraith had been game because he liked the chase. The danger.
But gradually, thanks to all the research and travel he’d done, he’d come to appreciate the history—both human and demon—bound to the places that turned up the treasures. They all possessed a different feel, some good, some bad… most somewhere in between. But always there was a palpable imprint of past activity that energized him.
She moved off, working her way carefully over the stone slabs, a hand-drawn map in her hand. The sense of malevolence grew stronger, almost with every step she took, and he was seriously ready to get the f**k out of there.
“We need to hurry. How can I help?”
She held up her hand, her concentration so fierce she obviously didn’t want to be interrupted. Frustrated, he kept an eye on their surroundings as she muttered to herself, checked each pillar with methodical precision, poked around the rubble at the bases.
“Oh, crap.” She kneeled next to a broken pillar lying on its side.
“What is it?”
“The pillar. It’s been destroyed. It either fell over or was pushed.”
He crouched beside her. The broken edges were sharp. This was fresh. “Serena? What is this tablet you’re looking for? Straight up. What’s it do?”
She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms. “Val—and the Elders—believe there’s some sort of demon invasion coming. The Tablet of Mons Silpius is supposed to work with the coin to provide some sort of protection. I think… I think it’s supposed to render the Harrowgates useless.”
That was some damned powerful magic. And any demon in his right mind would do whatever it took to prevent The Aegis from carrying out their plan. Maybe that was why he was sensing the evil presences—demons had taken the tablet already, and they were either on their way off the island with their treasure… or they were waiting around for the person who carried the other half of the equation.
He grabbed her wrist. “We’re out of here.”
“Absolutely not.” She tried to jerk free, but when that didn’t work, she started peeling his fingers off her arm. “I can search the broken stone and see if the tablet is still there. And intact.”
A tingle shot up his spine and spiked through his brain. This was bad. Very bad. Inside he was chafing, all his instincts spinning like blades in his chest, telling him to grab Serena and run.
And goddammit… his stomach had chosen now to act up with poison reflux. “No—”