In all that’s holy. This one’s big.
Sofia’s first thoughts made her smile. She compressed her lips to hide her amusement.
Since he blatantly studied her, she did the same as she approached. The kids and the scattered litter she had to dodge made pretending not to study him easier. Smart, sexy, and Asian. This had to be him—Dankyo of House Kevonis. He didn’t frown, but disapproval radiated from him. She tightened her hold on the case tucked under her arm.
He stood slowly, brushed off his tan trousers, and straightened the buttons, one by one, on his white shirt.
Her long stride made the distance close fast.
Rumors said he could be a ruthless bastard. But she could be a ruthless bitch. The struggle for university grants had taught her how important it was to pretend to be friends with your enemies. But, in the face of such an intimidating man, her certainty faltered. Stop this. I will not doubt myself.
Maybe if she kept practicing being ruthless, one day she’d believe her own press.
The man’s a little taller, maybe. Brawn does not beat brains. I can handle him.
“Hello. You must be Dankyo of House Kevonis?” She grinned and held out her hand. Her contralto voice came out warm. Perfect.
“Yes. Good morning.” As if he’d not already seen every inch of her, he examined her top to bottom and back up again. “Sofia White?”
She lowered her arm. Like that, huh?
“Of course.” Who the hell else would I be?
“Your clothes are inappropriate.”
“For a slave. You’ll have to change your attire.”
Was he trying
to upset her? She bit out her words in a sweet voice. “I’m not
a slave. I’m pretending. Once we reach Byzantium…”
“You will obey, or I am not taking you.”
“What? You can’t do that! You’re supposed to be helping me
His eyes narrowed the slightest before he steamrolled onward. “Let’s be clear from the start. Two-minute explanation. If I’m in charge of your safety, you will follow my directions. Your clothes are inappropriate. Now. Here. Not just in Byzantium.
“We are going to a city that has centuries of slavery ingrained in its system and spying is like milk to a baby to them. There will be someone assigned to watch us there.” He swept his hand in a small arc. “It is possible there is someone here. Slaves do not question. They wear far less”—he tweaked an eyebrow upward for a fraction of a second—“clothes. You need to be a slave to access the harem where the tomb lies, fine. To their eyes, you must be, not pretend. Emperor-Bey Constantin’s enemies will destroy him if they guess what you are truly doing. Mistakes may kill.”
She opened her mouth, sure from the burn on her cheeks that she was blushing furiously. “Look—”
“Here.” He held out a small paper-wrapped package. “I checked your luggage that you sent here and saw the deficiency. These are your clothes.”
At the last second, she remembered, there may be watchers,
and lowered her voice to a furious whisper. “You checked my luggage! How dare you. How—” The anger closed her throat down, and she shook her head vigorously.
“Yes. I did. It was my job to do so. I seek out weak points. If you’re an enemy, I use them to take you down. If a friend, I fix things. Do you want to come to Byzantium, or not?”
“I…” She wound down. Keep yelling at him sotto voce—a behavior she hated in others—or shut up and take her medicine because this was what she wanted?
The implacable set of his face reinforced his words. Or I am not taking you with me.
She had to go. This was the chance of a lifetime. Giving up this close to success was not an option. All the angry, argumentative words avalanched up in the back of her throat, dying to be said. Could this be as dangerous as he said?
To their eyes you must be, not pretend.
She’d be okay in her own rooms or even in the emperor-bey’s harem while she studied the tomb. This was temporary.
Damn. I can see the logic, to a degree, though spies watching us here seems crazy. Damn. Medicine-taking time.
This was going to taste bad.
“Very well.” She sniffed, then took the bundle from him. “Thank you. A porter should be bringing another small case. The contents are important to my work. Send it on to the airship, please.”
“I’ll go get changed.”
“Do that. In Byzantium, you’d be doing this in front of me.”
Oh sure. Not in a million years.
Now he smiled? Bastard.
In the ladies’ room, she found a spare cubicle and took out the clothes. Little red silk bandeau top, matching panties, as well as a flowing dress-like top, and pants that cinched in at the ankles, and were as see-through as a mist of rain. Teensy diamantes glinted from the fabric. Plus there was a pair of red shoes like ballet flats, and a black leather collar.
“Oh God.” This was a slave collar. But no worse than wearing the clothes. It would be stupid to stall about this one thing, wouldn’t it?
What evidence had he given her that proved there might be spies here? None. There’d been that kerfuffle some months back and the assassination, but nothing since. Why would anyone watch her or Dankyo? They’d have to be suspicious already. Knowing what she’d heard of Dankyo, he was just being super conscientious and protective. Damn him.
But… She heaved out a sigh. No matter how much she told herself she was brave, the man daunted her. And he’d said he would leave her behind. Risking his displeasure seemed unwise.
She scrutinized the collar. Maybe she could meet him halfway? Well, nine tenths of the way.
She shut her eyes and counted to ten. Getting changed took five minutes, summoning the courage to walk out into the airfield boarding area took another five. But she did it.
As she walked back to Dankyo, she made sure to keep her gait businesslike. No swaying of hips, nothing feminine at all, yet every eye in the place seemed to center on her. She clutched to her chest her old clothes and the collar she’d not donned and prayed the outfit covered the essential bits.
The pile of baggage had gone and only Dankyo remained. The line of his trousers suggested a person who liked order. The close cut of his black hair said military.
And the flagrant regard of her figure as she approached, well, that rumbled male
, through and through, all the way up her spine.
She faltered. Her nipples tightened against the cool silk.
He stared at the collar.
“Can we skip the collar? I mean—”
He shook his head. “No.” Then held out his hand. “Your clothes?”
One day she’d get revenge for all this. She thrust the clothes at him, took a deep breath, and put on the collar. It didn’t feel so different. Just odd—like painting a target on herself.
“My other case?”
“It arrived. I sent it on. Follow me a few feet behind.”
She rolled her eyes, then trailed him out onto the landing field, feeling like some sort of lost puppy dog. The drone of passing gyrocopters and chug of pump engines drowned out sounds, but the salt tang in the air reminded her of the sand and waves beyond the perimeter fence.
Every half minute she had to stop herself from adjusting the fit of the collar.
She walked a bit faster to catch up to Dankyo.
“Excuse me, but is all
my luggage aboard?”
Dankyo didn’t turn his head. “No. Most of it was wrong for a slave. You’ll find I kept the essential equipment of your profession and some toiletries but not much else.”
She gaped. This seemed ridiculous. But Dankyo was the supposed expert. It would also be ridiculous of her to ignore his advice without more facts.
“We’ll be lucky to get on board in any case. That much baggage would’ve gotten us grounded.”
Anxiety flared again and gave her courage. All this pretending would be pointless if she couldn’t do her work when she got there. Sofia tapped hesitantly at his broad back with her finger. “Much of that was equipment. If you’ve left any—”
He swiveled on his heel to face her, and she ran into his chest. “You must be smart, or you’d not be here. Use your brains. Slaves do not poke their owners.” His mahogany-brown eyes glared into hers. “Can you remember that?”
And not snapping at him took effort. She sucked on her lip, then took three calming breaths. This close she could smell him—a mixed, earthy and bitter scent. Gun oil? Cordite? It reminded her of her dad and shooting cans off tree stumps. Back when things were good between them. She blinked, then sighed. “Can we talk, please, on board?”
She searched his face and found blankness. Damn, as readable as the wrong side of a playing card.
The midsized airship they headed for had a pale blue envelope with gold and black running wolves decorating the midline. At the bottom of the boarding ramp they met an Asian woman, Captain Kaysana Onomi, with her black hair perkily done up in a bun. Though she greeted them, a giant of a man called Sten had the final say. His fringe of messy blond hair swayed across his eyes while he poured a mean stare over Dankyo.
“Shall we let them aboard?” Kaysana cocked an eyebrow at Sten.
“Sure. Might liven the Princess Kay
up if we get them to walk the plank.”
Dankyo drew in a long breath.
Is he going to get angry? And he wants me to be low-key?
Panicking, she lurched forward into his back, rocking him. No one would know it was a deliberate distraction.
“Excuse me.” Dankyo swung around and inserted a finger under her collar. “Thank you for allowing us aboard. I must attend to my clumsy slave’s punishment.”
What? She’d been trying to help him. Being towed up the ramp with his finger hooked under the collar was the last straw. Her temper shot to boiler level.
She hissed. “You are not—”
His palm clamped over her mouth, but he kept urging her upward. “You need to control yourself.”
She bit him, hard, and though he glowered, he left his hand there.
By then Dankyo had tucked her into his body and held her even tighter. His hip and hard muscles rolled against her as they walked. That no one stopped him gagging her was alarming, but what worried her more was the way she warmed between her legs. A couple in long, flowing Eastern dress watched wide-eyed.
“It’s just a slave,” the man muttered to his partner, and they turned away and entered the airship door.
“No matter how you feel about this, no owner would allow that to go unpunished. You should
be crawling to the cabin.”
Embarrassment, anger, and confusion flooded her. She so wanted to kill him. This was taking the pretending too far. By the time they reached the cabin door, Sofia had stopped biting, and his palm was moist and hot on her lips.
“I’m letting you go so I can open the door. Are you sensible now?” He loosened his hand.
Just to annoy him, she licked his palm as he lifted it away, then wiped her mouth with her fingers. While he turned the knob, she dragged her wet hand down the pretty finery of her clothing as if getting rid of something distasteful.
“Enter.” The word came out like a growl. On his palm she caught sight of the red and white marks from her bite.
“Why, thank you, Sir.” She walked in feeling lost and cross yet determined to keep her head.
Her two lonely suitcases waited next to a neat brown bedroll. A row of tiny bottles in a timber carry case was perched next to it. Another suitcase lay on the bed, which was covered with a peach quilt. There was a chest of drawers, and a door to the right that must lead to a bathroom. Along the far wall behind the bed ran a row of small brass-rimmed portholes. The scents of lemon and furniture polish teased her nose. She sneezed.
The door clicked shut behind her, and Dankyo strode past. He sat on the bed, making it dip and creak, and crossed his legs, showing black socks above his black shoes. As if she wasn’t ready to strangle, emasculate, and claw him to pieces, he unlatched his suitcase, pulled out a revolver, and proceeded to check its mechanisms.
The pistol made her pause only a second. He wasn’t going to shoot her. “If that’s for me to kill you, I don’t need it. My fingernails will do.”
He grunted and unloaded, then reloaded the gun.
Two sleeping places.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Alarms rang in her head. “Um…” She almost didn’t want the answer. “Where are you sleeping?”
“Here.” He raised one eyebrow. “I’m here. You are there.” He pointed at the bedroll.
When she only frowned and pulled a face, he added. “Again, you are a slave. I can’t do otherwise. There’s no other room in any case. And there are servants and passengers here. I trust no one.”
“And if I said you were taking this too far? That the chances of anyone watching are infinitesimal.”
“Infinitesimal is bigger than zero chance. The reason Theo is still alive is because I’m thorough. One day, you’ll thank me.”
Uh. Unlikely. She was more likely to get hit by a meteor than be seen by a spy…wasn’t she? He wasn’t giving in, though.
So she had to sleep in the same room as him? As this gargantuan man with muscles like rocks and a body as wide as a river barge? Surreptitiously, she flicked an assessing look over Dankyo. He was nicely built. Her mother would no doubt approve. God. Snap out of it. Stop drooling. My boyfriends, when I have them, are far less…dangerous than this.
“Very well, then you have the floor—”
“No. You can share the bed if you wish”—he smiled slightly, and she knew she must look appalled—“or not. But I will not sleep on the floor.”
She sighed, rolled her eyes, then let her shoulders slump. The man imagined spies around every corner. Military life had warped his view of the world, and she had to suffer because of it.
“Go wash up, and then we will have this talk you wished. There’s courtesy soap etcetera near the bedroll.”
Only this man would say
etcetera. The small, lidless carrying case with the row of bottles enticed her. Multiple clangs
and the toot of a horn warned the ship was taking off. She braced herself. The floor softly rocked, and then the world outside the porthole fell away.
“The pilot is smooth,” Dankyo murmured.
“Yes.” She knelt and eyed the case. Thoughts slotted into place. Six little cut-glass bottles with painted labels. Each label hand-done with letters hidden among pale foliage and rainbow butterflies. The artwork was gorgeous. The more she stared, the more the leaves and tiny flowers beckoned her and formed into lines and letters.
“You’ve been looking at that case for two minutes.”
“Each of these bottles, though at face value seem labeled with words like”—she selected one—“perfume
, has the name of a poison entangled in the artwork.”
“Put it down!” He was beside her in seconds and grabbed her wrist.
“Put it down!” He made her set the bottle back into its niche. “Damn it, woman. Even touching might be dangerous. This is a trap.”
“Yes.” She smiled lopsidedly at him. “But too obvious to be real. Someone wants to scare us.”
“How did you see this?” He let go of her hand, leaving it tingling.
“It’s what I do. I solve puzzles. You must know that?”
He sat back on his heels and seemed to assess her, his stark brown eyes relaxing a little. Then he rubbed his chin and stood. “I did. And then again, in a way, I did not. I see you know your business. I also see that this has intrigued you more than scared you. Perhaps that was their intent?”
She shrugged. “Perhaps.” It was true—she did want to go to Byzantium more than ever. Puzzles made her alive, woke every part of her brain, and made the world itself like an immense puzzle that she had to solve.
However, she had to admit this strange little teasing perfume puzzle only emphasized how right Dankyo might be. Someone had been watching them.
“Hmm.” He indicated the pistol. “Can you shoot?”
“Yes. A little. I hit what I aim at, mostly.”
“Good. You may need that skill. Don’t move while I check the rest of the cabin.”
For ten minutes or more, she watched as he examined everything—vases, books, containers, the bed, and the bathroom, then returned to sit on the bed. “I can find no other traps, but if you see anything else suspicious, say so. Leave the poisons. I’ll dispose of them. Go wash your hands to be safe, though. Then we will talk.”
She returned, flicking the last drops of water from her fingers. A high-backed cane chair caught her attention, so she pulled it over to face the bed, and sat. And was suddenly again aware of how flimsily she was clad. Red bandeau and panties and little else except this overtunic that might have been made of whimsy, it was that see-through. Well, damn him, he could look if he wished. After all, he was quite an eyeful himself. She lingered on Dankyo where he sat against the pillows, pistol in his lap, with one hand resting on his thigh and the other hand laid palm down on a white pillow.
With big hands like that, whatever he touched seemed his. She shivered. Maybe this little adventure would have side benefits? Dankyo, that immense body, curled around her, on her…in her. The thrust and wet passion of sex came front and center to her mind. The shiver turned into a flare of heat that shook awake every particle of her flesh.
Oh, yes. If only he was agreeable. Already she’d thawed a little of that stern steel exterior. Dankyo was another puzzle she wished to solve.