And while Hauk might show loyalty to his friends, his brother had coldly turned his back on her sister, for no other reason than because Omira was afraid of having his child. Never once had Fain tried to contact them and, to the day she died, Omira had been terrified that their paths would cross, or that Fain would hunt her down and kill her for divorcing him. Her pacificist sister had even carried a small blaster wherever she went.
Just in case he found her.
Sumi would assume that callousness ran in their blood. That Hauk would be every bit as vicious as his brother. Especially if he was betrayed.
For now, she’d play her part and do what Kyr had demanded. But when the time came, she wouldn’t hesitate to do whatever she must to get out of this alive and unscathed.
No one’s life was worth more to her than Kalea’s.
Waking with a start, Sumi cocked her head as she heard the most incredible music of her life. Low and haunting. Soulful. At first, she thought it was something the kids had on a player, until she left the tent and found Hauk sitting on the ground, with a beautiful violin tucked under his chin while he played with his eyes closed. He was so large and it so tiny in comparison, that it looked more like a toy than a real instrument. But there was no mistaking the skill he possessed as his fingers flew through an extremely complicated melody.
Now there was the last thing she’d ever expected to find. An Andarion who played a delicate instrument with the expertise of a virtuoso. Unbelievable.
Damn you, Hauk. You need to stop being so unpredictable. So unexpected.
So damn alluring. It was wreaking too much havoc with her convictions and sanity. He made it way too easy to see the beauty that was him, and not the cold-blooded killer she knew him to be.
She took a step. He immediately stopped and rose as if expecting an attack. And she had no doubt he could easily impale or even decapitate someone with the flimsy bow in his hand.
When he saw her, he relaxed into the sexiest, most masculine stance she’d ever beheld. It exuded confidence and lethal grace, yet simultaneously managed to be adorable and hot. “Do you need something?”
Yeah, against all sanity, she needed a taste of that hard, ripped body, but she wasn’t about to say those thoughts out loud… and never to him. “A change of scenery.”
And all that wealth of tawny male was definitely the most interesting thing to look at on this godforsaken rock.
“Ah.” He set his instrument aside then came to help her. Before she could protest, he swept her up in his arms and carried her over to the small fire pit, where he set her down on the air cushion he’d been using. The ease with which he could do that given her height was extremely disconcerting. Standing just over six feet in shoes, she was used to being taller than the average man by quite a few inches. By the time she’d turned five, her own father had refused to pick her up at all, claiming she was too big for him to manage.
Yet Hauk carried her about as if she weighed no more than his boots.
It was very unsettling.
Without a word, he went to return his violin to its case.
“You don’t have to stop.”
He closed the case and set it aside. “I don’t like to play in front of others. It’s something I do alone.”
She could understand that if he played badly. But his skill level said that he’d been playing for a very long time. It also seemed like an odd hobby for an Andarion warrior. Far too peaceful.
And speaking of peace… she suddenly realized it was eerily quiet.
Concerned, she glanced around the darkening camp and saw no trace of Thia or Darice. Only the remnants of Hauk’s dinner. “Did you get so irritated at them that you finally ate the kids?”
At first, he scoffed at the question, then he appeared to seriously consider it. He gestured at the vibrant pink tent that was to the left of his. “Thia’s off, drawing.” He pointed to the black one on the right. “Darice is tied up in his.”
“Tied up with what?”
“Rope,” he said simply. “I considered using the violin strings, but didn’t want to get blood on them. Given the amount of venom flowing in his veins, it might damage the wood.”
Aghast, she stared at him. “You’re serious?”
The innocent, almost childlike expression on his face was comical. “It was that, or kill him. It seemed the lesser evil, if not the better good.”
She pressed her lips together to keep from laughing. “How long has he been tied up?”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “How long has it been quiet?”
Eyes wide, she covered her mouth with her hand. She was appalled at what he’d done, and by the fact that she actually found it charming. And probably warranted. “You’re so bad… Aren’t you worried about him?”
“I’d be more worried about his continued well-being if he were untied and still running his mouth around me.”
Lowering her hand, she shook her head at him and his cavalier demeanor. “I wish I could be more on Darice’s side, but given his attitude…”
He handed her a bottle of water as he sat down beside her and opened a bag of dried fruit. “He is his father’s son. Stubborn. Hot-tempered. Rash. And he never knows when to shut up for his own good.”
“Why do I have a feeling that someone has rattled that list off for you as well?”
He licked his fingers. “Probably because they have. Many times.”
Grimacing, she tried her best to unscrew the cap from her water. Had someone hermetically sealed it?
Hauk took it from her hands and effortlessly opened it. As he returned the bottle to her, she hesitated. Before she even realized what she was doing, she placed her hand over his, marveling at the strength and size of it. Unlike humans, Andarions had fingernails that were more akin to claws. Another natural weapon they were born with, like their fangs and heightened hearing and eyesight – they were a true predator race. Things that had terrified her sister whenever she thought of birthing such an alien creature with Fain. Omira had even feared that a hybrid fetus would claw its way out of her stomach while she carried it.
Andarions were extremely dangerous to humans.And still, against all rationale, she was attracted to him, while she considered the differences between an Andarion male and a human man. Hauk’s hands were more beautiful than she would have thought, especially given the stories she’d heard about Andarion savagery and battle skill.
“Your hands are massive.”
He stroked her knuckles with his thumb. That single sensation sent chills all over her body and made her hormones sit up and pant. “And yours are incredibly delicate. How is it a woman with hands so soft and tiny has managed to take a man’s life?”
“With great regret.” As soon as the words left her lips, she cringed at the slip. For some reason, her guard evaporated every time they spoke. It was way too easy to forget what she was supposed to be doing.
Hunting him – the predator.
But it wasn’t her fault. He reminded her too much of Fain, and in spite of her hatred for Fain Hauk, the little girl inside her wanted to feel safe again, like she’d done whenever Fain had rocked her to sleep while she’d stayed with her sister at their flat. It was easy to silence that stupid, needy voice when she was alone. Easy to tell herself that this was how life was supposed to be. Brutal and lonely.
Yet now that she was with Hauk, and saw how he protected his niece and nephew…
That whiny little bitch was back with a vengeance.
Appalled by her own train of thought, she glanced away.
Hauk reluctantly let go of her hand. “That bastard beat you, didn’t he?”
She stiffened as his unexpected question jerked her back to the days when Avin had felt threatened by her height and intelligence. Jealous of the job she had that she loved and the one he did that he hated. Back to when she hadn’t been a trained assassin, and had lived her life in stark terror of her boyfriend’s bipolar mood swings. “Excuse me?”
“Your boyfriend. It’s why you killed him.” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement of fact.
Sumi wanted to deny it, but how could she? He spoke the truth. And while she’d learned how easy it was to physically kill a man, even one who was a lot larger and stronger than her, it was never easy to live with the guilt that forever remained afterward. “Yes.”
Hauk saw the horror and shame in her hazel green eyes before she glanced away again. It was a mannerism so similar to one Omira had once used that it sent a chill over him.
Nor did he miss the way her hands trembled as she noticed how much room he took up on the ground beside her.
“It’s why my size unsettles you.”
She nodded as more awful memories surged. “You’ve no idea what it’s like to be trapped and helpless. To be held down with no way to fight back, no matter how hard you try.”
“That’s not true. You’ve seen the scars on my back. I know exactly how it feels to have my life in the hands of someone else, and to hate it with every part of my being.”
She scowled at his angry tone. “What happened?”
Hauk ground his teeth. Her question knotted his gut and took him straight back to that day he would rather forget. A day that had forever changed his life, in more ways than one, and set him on a path he’d never foreseen. While it’d destroyed his destiny and cost him the respect of his parents, it’d compensated him with a battle brother he was grateful for every day of this existence.
Sipping his water, he narrowed his gaze as visions from the past haunted him. He’d been in a training pod at the academy with what he’d stupidly assumed were two Andarion friends. Unfortunately, all of them had been schooled with humans long enough that some of humanity’s finer traits had infected them. When Nykyrian had been sent to their academy, the full-blooded Andarions had declared it open season on the hybrid.
Something that was not in their culture. Fighting an equal or answering a challenge was Andarion. Picking on the weak was human. But Prince Jullien had insisted that they attack the hybrid, and drive him from their school so that they wouldn’t have to look at him.
Unaware at that time that Jullien and Nykyrian were fraternal twins, Hauk had assumed the animosity came from Jullien’s fear that the full-bloods would remember that he was a hybrid himself and turn on him. Jullien appeared mostly Andarion and usually passed without much comment as one of them.
Nykyrian had never been so fortunate. One look, and it was woefully obvious he was born of both species.
Now, Hauk knew Jullien had done it to protect his grandmother, who had abandoned Nykyrian to a human orphanage, hoping that the humans, in their hatred of Andarions, would kill the boy. Jullien had pushed them all hard to attack Nykyrian, and keep him in trouble so that he’d be kicked out of school.
Or die from their hazing.
In those days, Nykyrian hadn’t been the invincible warrior his extensive League training and adoptive family’s brutality had turned him into. He’d been a skinny, skittish boy. Unable to defend himself. All he’d wanted was to be ignored by everyone. Especially since the humans in his past had left him horrifically scarred, defanged, and declawed.
Instead of following the ways of their ancestors and teachings, the Andarions had banded together to traumatize Nykyrian, as if they were afraid he was infectious and would destroy them all.
On that particular day, Jullien had intended to run Nykyrian down with the pod.
Hauk had taken issue with their plans. And they had taken issue with him. While fighting each other over it, they’d caused the pod to malfunction and crash.
Jullien and Chrisen had abandoned Hauk. Left him in the wreckage to burn alive. Even now, he could swear that Chrisen had intentionally shoved him into the panel that had fallen on his leg and trapped him inside the pod. That the bastard’s eyes had gleamed in satisfaction.
While the flames had singed his flesh and the smoke had closed in on his lungs, he’d heard them outside, blaming his “incompetence” for the crash. Along with them and the other students, their teachers had made excuses as to why they couldn’t do anything for Hauk. Why it was acceptable to let a kid burn to death.
Knowing they had no intention of helping him, Hauk had held his breath as best he could, while he tried desperately to free his damaged leg from the searing hot metal. He knew he was completely alone. That no one would ever put their ass on the line for his.
At least that had been his thought until a shadow fell over him.
Nyk, well aware of the fact that they’d been trying to hurt him when they’d crashed, had run inside the craft, oblivious to the danger. For all he knew, Hauk had been as determined to hurt him as the others. But Nyk hadn’t let that stop him. And as he struggled to free Hauk, he’d been burned and wounded to his bones.
Still, Nyk had fought to save his life when no one else could be bothered, and then, wounded himself, he’d lifted Hauk up and carried him to safety right before the craft had exploded and sent debris raining down all over the two of them.