She eyed Loke. He probably wouldn’t let her near it anyway. It was clear that he used that one knife for everything. Shaving. Cutting his incredible blue hair. Cooking. Everything revolved around that knife.
It was obviously quite precious to him.
If she stole it, would he let her go in exchange for having it returned?
“It’s a nice knife.” She nodded towards it and his left hand came down, settling on the spiralling metal grip.
He drew it from the sheath and stared at it for long seconds, his handsome face turning pensive and his blue eyes filling with emotions she couldnít decipher, ones he decoded for her when he spoke, his deep voice echoing around the cave.
“It was my father’s.”
“I can see it means a lot to you.” She hadn’t expected it to mean so much though or that just mentioning the knife would affect him so dramatically. He looked lost as he stared at it, and a little broken, no longer the strong and determined male he had been just a moment ago. “Have you lost your father?”
He nodded and his expression shifted, turning even more sorrowful. “I lost my mother at the same time. The dragon wars took them both when I was two hundred. My aunt too.”
Anais’s heart went out to him. She couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to lose so many people who were close to him at the same time. It must have devastated him. She didn’t know whether two hundred was young or old for a dragon, but she guessed from his look that he had been young and that those two hundred years hadnít been enough time with his parents.
“I lost my sister.” Those words slipped quietly from her lips, spoken from her heart to his, born of a need that seized control of her.
A need to connect with him and show him that he wasn’t alone in his pain.
They had both experienced loss.
He lifted his head and looked across at her, a softness in his eyes and his expression that touched her and felt dangerous. She looked away, unable to keep her gaze on him, because he was tearing down her defences again. Or maybe she was the one to blame. She had reached out to him after all. She fought the fierce gravity that tried to pull her to him and cursed herself for seeking a deeper connection with him. She didnít want to get closer to him. She needed to focus on escaping.
Even though she felt certain it was more dangerous for her out there than it was in the cave with him.
“How?” he whispered and slowly sheathed the blade.
Anais focused on it, mentally cursing herself again for raising her sisterís death. She should have known he would ask about it and would want to know the particulars. It had been a long time since she had thought about it and even longer since she had spoken to anyone about what had happened, but it still hurt. The pain of grief was still raw even after all these years.
“I lost her nine years ago.” She kept her eyes on the blade sheathed against his left hip, afraid to look at him while she told him about her sister, letting him into her heart. She didnít want to see how he would be looking at her. She didnít want to see the sympathy in his rich blue eyes. She didn’t think she could bear it. “I never knew that she was a member of Archangel. I only found out after she had died. I didn’t even know the man she had married was a light fae. Christ, I had been so happy for her when she had brought him to meet me. They had been so in love.”
She closed her eyes and suppressed the sigh that wanted to leave her lips. Her sister really had been in love with him, the sort that rarely came around. True love. One that would have lasted forever. Literally in her case.
“They had a kid, a little girl.” Her throat closed and she swallowed hard, fighting the tears as she thought about Annabelle and how she was growing up in a world without her mother. “She was only a baby when Suzanne, my sister, was killed in an attack on their family home. Suzy’s husband’s enemies targeted her and the baby. He managed to save Annabelle, my niece… but my sister… the injuries… he couldn’t—”
She cut herself off as tears filled her eyes and she couldn’t breathe. Pain consumed her, tearing her heart to pieces all over again, so strong that it felt as if the attack had happened only yesterday. It had killed her when she had discovered what had happened to Suzy, and that they had almost lost Annabelle too.
She had been so angry with Aevys. She had blamed him for what had happened to her sister. He had come to her and explained, and she had wanted to hate him, but she hadnít been able to bring herself to feel that emotion towards him. He had been devastated by the loss of his mate. He had been broken.
And he had never recovered.
Whenever she visited him and Annabelle, he slowly gained a look, one that told her that seeing her pained him, even when it gave him pleasure too. He had told her once that she looked too much like Suzy. She didn’t want to hurt him, and she had told him so. She had even offered to meet with Annabelle elsewhere. He had refused, had hugged her, and told her that she was always welcome before confessing that he liked seeing her, because it reminded him of his mate.
Archangel constantly pressed her about him and she constantly lied and said she had no contact with him or her niece. She protected them. She had to, in honour of her sisterís memory, and for the sake of her niece and Aevys.
She wouldn’t let Archangel hurt them and she feared they would if they found them, shattering her fragile and carefully constructed image of the organisation that had become like family to her and was now her home.
“Anais?” Loke whispered softly and she lifted her head, a little gasp escaping her when she found him standing just inches from her, his handsome face etched with concern.
“Sorry… I was just thinking about Annabelle and Aevys.” She scrubbed her hands across her eyes and drew down a deep breath to steady herself.
“Do you still see them?” he said and she nodded.
“I pretend not to know where they live though.”
Loke’s deep blue eyebrows dipped low. “Why?”
Anais sighed. “Because of Archangel. They want to study him because he’s one of a rare breed of fae that they don’t have documented. Annabelle is just like him too.”
He backed off a step and his face darkened. “Study. It is a nice way of saying capturing, torturing and dissecting.”
She wanted to reassure him that Archangel wasn’t like that, but she couldn’t bring herself to lie to him again. Her earlier words to him still haunted her. She had been so quick to defend Archangel, spouting the lie without flinching, even when she knew they did bad things as well as good. They actively studied species and he was right, it did mean capturing them, holding them in cells, and often forcing them to reveal their abilities. She didnít condone it, but she couldnít pretend it didnít happen.
Archangel were her family though. It was her home and it meant the world to her. She couldn’t stop herself from defending it, even when she knew deep in her heart that they did terrible things to some of the people they captured, and not all of those people were guilty of committing a crime against a human or good non-human. There was a shadier side of Archangel that many of their hunters didn’t know existed anymore, or perhaps they were like her and turned a blind eye to it because Archangel was the only family they had and the only place they could call home.
It was the only place where they belonged and fitted in, a part of something that made sense to them in a world that was no longer the one they had grown up in. She was sure many hunters felt as she did, as if Archangel was the only place for her now because she couldn’t turn back the clock and return to the time when she had been unaware of the dangerous fae and demons who shared her world.
It was a place where she could be with others like her, others whose eyes had been opened and whose heart beat with a need to protect the innocent and unsuspecting humans from the dangerous world around them.
The light from the fire faded and she glanced at it. The branches were black, nothing more than ash, threaded with glowing orange cracks. Loke looked there too and moved away from her. He gathered more wood from a stack against the side of the cave, placed it onto the dying fire, and crouched in front of it.
He leaned closer to the stack of wood, shut his eyes and frowned as he opened his mouth.
Shock rippled through her as he breathed fire.
It ceased and he raised his head, his eyes opening and locking on her. “You are surprised. Why?”
She shook herself and shrugged. “I just didn’t think you’d be able to do such a thing in your current form. Yesterday, you said you wouldn’t breathe fire… and I sort of figured that meant you couldn’t… not when you’re not a dragon.”
“You think strangely.” He sat back on his heels and prodded the fire with a stick, encouraging it to spread to the other branches. “There is no dragon and no man. There is only me. I am both. Both are one. I merely have two forms and I am comfortable with both. I do not think, feel or act any differently depending on my form. My mind and my heart remain the same. However… it is more difficult to breathe fire as I am now.”
Anais supposed that made sense, even when her mind rebelled against it. “Archangel teaches us to view the animal separately from the other form. The animal is always the more dangerous form.”
Loke’s lips curled into a smile that held no warmth. “From what you have told me, and what I know of your kind, it would appear the other form is the more dangerous one… the person and not the animal.”
Anais fell silent and sat down on the furs near the fire, on the opposite side of it to him. She couldn’t argue with him. Humans were dangerous. Animals tended to live in a sort of harmony with each other and their environment. People tried to control their environment and each other.
She frowned at her knees and then at Loke. “Your kind are no different though. You mentioned a war.”
“Wars.” He loosed a sigh and tossed the stick onto the fire, his blue eyes fixed on it as it caught and burned. The golden light played across his bare torso, highlighting his honed muscles with accents and shadows, and danced across his face as his expression turned pensive.
“That’s even worse then.” She didn’t flinch away when he raised intense eyes to meet hers. She weathered his dark look, not heeding the warning. She wasn’t going to sit in silence and let him make her species out to be the more dangerous one when his kind had gone to war many times. “Your species didn’t learn their lessons. Humans don’t either. We fight over everything.”
Loke shook his head, causing a slender thread of blue hair to fall down across his brow. He swept it back into place and ran his fingers through his hair. “Mortals fight over one thing. Land. The same as dragons. The wars did their work. Entire clans were wiped out. Our numbers are few now and our lands no longer crowded. Mortals will end up the same way if they are not careful.”
Anais couldn’t argue with that either. It was only a matter of time before humans unleashed Hell on Earth, killing vast numbers of the world’s population with weapons of mass destruction.
“So dragon numbers are low now?” She leaned back against the rough black wall of the cave and resisted looking off to her left towards the huge arched entrance to it. “How many dragons remain?”
Loke shrugged again. “I do not know. In my clan… perhaps no more than fifty when once there were over three hundred.”
“Does your clan live near here… in another cave?” Maybe a bigger one. She couldn’t imagine fifty people sharing a cave like Loke’s one.
He shook his head and shifted position. He sat on his backside, crossed his legs and leaned back, bracing his palms on the black ground and showing off his torso. Anais did her best to keep her eyes off him, but it was difficult. She didn’t want to appear rude, or as if she was avoiding looking at him. She also didn’t want to end up blatantly staring at his chest either, and she knew she would if she dared to look at him longer than a few seconds at a time.
“They live in the village. I have not been there in many weeks. I prefer it here.”
He looked around his cave and she had to wonder why he liked it here more than he did down in the village.
“How long have you lived here?” She took in the cave again. Sparse. Grim. Far from comfortable. The word village conjured images of homes, structures with roofs and furniture. Maybe even more modern conveniences.
Like a razor. Perfume. Clean clothes.
Loke tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling of the cave, his blue gaze distant.
She fought the urge to run her gaze over him while he was distracted and failed. Her eyes drifted down the strong line of his neck, lingering on his pronounced Adam’s apple again as he swallowed, and then wandered over the square slabs of his defined chest and down the thick ropes of his stomach. Eight pack. She had never seen a man with an eight pack before. She lost herself in counting each muscle, only stopping when she reached below his navel. A dusting of dark blue hair led down from it, into the tight waist of his rich blue leather trousers.
They were laced over the crotch.
Anais’s cheeks heated and a wave of desire crashed over her, ratcheting her temperature up and making her heart beat harder.
The intense sensation of Loke’s eyes on her caused the blush on her cheeks to darken and she dragged her eyes away, pinning them on the fire instead. She fought for her voice, needing to say something to dispel the tension in the air, the thick buzz of desire and passion that stemmed not only from her, but from him too.
“Eight centuries.” His deep voice curled around her, and her body reacted as if he was speaking low words of seduction rather than stating facts.
She heated inside, heart fluttering weakly against her chest, skin prickling with awareness and need, a yearning to feel his strong callused hands skimming over it and maybe pressing in a little to give her a glimpse of how powerful he was.
She coughed to clear her throat, battled her out of control emotions, and focused on what he had said, trying to use it to distract herself enough that she could rein in her desire.
Eight hundred years.
Anais raised her chin and looked across the fire at him.
There was heat in his eyes, but something else too, a feeling that struck a chord within her. Loneliness. He had lived in a cave, high in a mountain, for eight centuries, and he looked as if it had taken its toll on him, whether he knew it or not. He was lonely.
A dragon in his mountain.
But he was no longer alone.
She was here with him.
But for how long?