At first Dev thought Aello would summon another bird and go after her.
They watched as Sam guided the bird to the pedestal and knocked the glass case from over the girdle. It landed on the sand and shattered, then dissolved. The cobras hissed and reared in protest of being disturbed. Sam diligently hovered above them, out of striking range. Using the tip of her spear, she very carefully hooked, then pulled the girdle up, taking care to shake off the cobras that tried to cling to it. Several of the snakes launched themselves at her and the bird from the pedestal. Sam had the bird pull back so that the cobras missed and fell to the ground. They were quickly devoured by the sand.
A minute later, it spewed out their bones which were quickly dissolved into a red puddle.
Dev grimaced at the gory mess.
Sam ignored it as she draped the girdle over her lap, then turned the bird back toward them. She flew over Aello’s head to land just in front of him.
Her smile was wide as she dismounted and held her grandmother’s girdle high. Dev couldn’t have been prouder for her win.
Aello came running at her back.
Before he could warn her, Sam turned around, prepared to fight.
But that wasn’t the intent. Aello skidded to a halt, then dropped to one knee in front of Sam. Clapping her right fist to her left shoulder, she bowed her head reverently. "My queen."
Sam froze at a title she hadn’t answered to in so many centuries that it seemed odd to hear it now. And it along with the contest she’d just won awoke vivid memories, good and bad, of a time and place she’d never have again. A past that burned inside her.
At one time, she’d lived for competitions such as this one. They had invigorated her. Had proven her honor and her skills as a warrior. How important all of that had been to her then.
Now she knew that things like that, while they were nothing to shirk at, were not the most critical things in life.
Those were what people needed to battle for. To hold tight to until their knuckles blanched. Everything else was just an icing and while it tasted good, it wasn’t filling and it couldn’t sustain a person.
A life alone was hell itself.
Dev came up behind her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. She trembled as foreign emotions swept through her. He was her present, and right now she needed him to ground her to reality. All she wanted was to feel him there, against her forever.
This was what mattered to her.
He nuzzled her hair before he laid a chaste kiss on her cheek that set her on fire. "You were amazing."
Funny, she didn’t feel that way. She’d done what she had to. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Aello looked up at her. "Why did you save me?"
How could she not? How could she have allowed a woman like Aello to perish so horribly over something so petty? "We are sisters. Why would I allow my family to die over a difference of opinion?"
Even though her own sister had killed her for something that in the end amounted to nothing more than table scraps.
Aello took her hand and kissed it. "You do honor to Queen Hippolyte and it is with honor that you take her girdle. May you live a long, happy life."
If the poor woman only knew….
Not wanting to taint her heartfelt wishes, Sam inclined her head to Aello before she turned to look up at Dev. "Anyone know how we get out of here?"
Aello rose to her feet. "You must fly the birds as far south as possible. Once there, when the ground breaks, let it take you home. But you must keep your thoughts focused on where you want to go or it will take you where they drift."
Ethon scoffed. "Who says that’s a bad thing? I hear the south of France is incredible this time of year."
Fang gave him an arch stare. "It’s also daylight there. Can you say Krispy Kritter?"
"Well there is that." Ethon shrugged. "Fine. Take all the fun out of my dreams. You bastard."
Sam summoned enough birds for all of them. Once they were mounted, she took flight. Something that wasn’t that intuitive to the men. Fang was the first to slide off. Then Scorpio.
Dev kept his seat….
Ethon held on, but only because he was low and had his legs locked like he was a terrified toddler.
Laughing, Sam circled back.
"Do these things have training wheels?" Fang asked.
"Unfortunately not. Just do what Ethon’s doing. Wrap yourself around them and they’ll fly on their own."
Fang’s expression was filled with doubt. "What if it gets spooked?"
"You would be screwed," Sam said in a dry tone. "Royally. Pray that doesn’t happen."
Fang hissed at her before he pulled himself back up onto the back of the bird. Before he mounted, Scorpio used his whip to make a bridle. His bird fought it for several minutes, then settled down to take it.
He flashed a cocky fanged grin at her.
"Show-off," Ethon sneered.
Laughing, Sam headed south with the men following behind her. It didn’t take too long to get to the border. There was a red haze around it that was so thin she could see the spot in New Orleans where they’d been.
Darker now on the human side of the veil, the haze made it look like infrared.
Sam urged her bird down so that she could dismount. The men quickly joined her as she fastened her grandmother’s sword belt around her waist.
Ethon tapped his fingers impatiently against his thigh. "Why is it when you want the ground to swallow you whole, it decides to stop trying?"
Fang sighed. "Watched Pot Syndrome."
Sam ignored them as she heard something odd in the background. The birds chittered and danced, then flew off abruptly.
Dev met her gaze. "That can’t be a good sign."
No, it couldn’t.
Sam glanced around as she tried to find the source of the sound…a sound that was steadily getting closer.
"Oh. My. God."
She looked over at Ethon who was staring up at the sky to his right. Following his gaze, she gasped.
"It’s the attack of the flying monkeys."
Only these weren’t the cute little bluish-gray monkeys from The Wizard of Oz that were dressed in adorable hats and jackets. These were huge with fangs that made hers look like plastic Halloween wear. With dark-gray leathery skin, their eyes were yellow and their tails were razor sharp.
They all drew weapons as the fire-breathing monkeys attacked.
Ethon dodged one that tried to blast him, then whirled and slashed at its wing. "You know, there are just some things you never expect to face even on this job. A flying primate that shoots fire out its nose is one of them."
Scorpio snorted. "Yes but are they cercopithecoid or platyrrhine primates?"
Ethon glared at him. "Get your head out of the Discovery Channel and on the attack."
"At least they’re not farting flames that would stink in more ways than one." Fang ducked one monkey only to have another one attack him.
Sam threw her knife, catching the monkey between its shoulder blades before it could bite Fang. Shrieking, it fell to the ground.
That attack seemed to set off something fierce that called in more reinforcements.
Her stomach hit the ground. Yes, the men were fighting like demons and holding their own, but this was about to get ugly. The sky above them was darkened by the wave of incoming primates.
Just as that thought went through her mind, the ground below her shook. She started sliding.
"Think home!" Fang shouted to remind them.
Dev wrapped himself around her right as the ground below her opened and she plunged straight down. Sam held on to him with everything she had, grateful he was with her. She focused on his room in Sanctuary.
One minute they were plummeting and the next…
They were nak*d in Dev’s bed.
A wicked grin teased her. "You thinking what I was thinking or were my thoughts just that intense?"
Heat exploded over her cheeks. Honestly, this was exactly what had been in her mind. Laughing, she went to kiss him only to have her body fade back into her ghost form.
Dev cursed in anger. "I’m going to kill Thorn."
"I would say it’s okay, but right about now, I’m with you one hundred percent." She rolled over onto her back and stared at the ceiling. "It’s so unfair."
Dev ached to kiss her. But he had to get her back into corporeal form first. "Let me take the girdle to Fang and then to Thorn. I’ll see you shortly." He ran his hungry gaze over her body. "And I want you just in this position ten minutes after we get back."
She laughed. "Yes, sir."
Dev got out of bed and dressed himself in his jeans and a shirt before he went to find Fang. He pulled his phone out and rang Ethon.
"You make it back?" Ethon asked him.
"Yeah. Where are you?"
"Don’t ask. It’s too embarrassing. I’m headed back to Sanctuary as soon as I get cleaned up."
Not that that brought up all kinds of images in Dev’s mind. "Exactly where are you again?"
"I told you not to ask. Cause I’m not going to say. Asshole." Ethon hung up.
Dev called Scorpio.
"I’m in the bar. Where are you?"
Dev was impressed. "I’m at Peltier House. Is Fang with you?"
Fang stepped out of his bedroom and jerked his chin toward Dev’s door. "Looks like you had the same thoughts I did."
God, he hoped not. The thought of Fang with his sister made him sick. Not that he was stupid enough to think they weren’t hav**g s*x, he just couldn’t mentally handle the concept of his baby sister with any man.
Get out of my head….
"Take me to Thorn." Dev hung up on Scorpio.
Fang placed his hand on his shoulder and teleported him from the hallway to the door outside of Thorn’s office.
This time when Shara answered, her expression was impressed. "You’re not dead."
Shara withdrew from the steel and opened the door to admit them into the room, which seemed unearthly chilly given the fact that the fire burned even brighter in the fireplace than it had earlier.
Thorn was on his feet, waiting for them. Still impeccably groomed and dressed, his hands clasped behind his back. He glanced to the clock that was still ticking.
Dev’s jaw dropped as he saw the time. No. It couldn’t be…. One minute more and he’d have missed the deadline. "What the hell trick is that? It hasn’t been twenty-four hours yet."
Thorn arched one perfect brow into the most arrogant and disdainful expression Dev had ever seen. "Oh? Did I fail to tell you about the time? It travels differently on the other side. You’ve missed an entire day here while you frolicked with some of my friends."
Anger erupted inside him. "You bastard!"
Thorn’s eyes glowed vibrant red. "Don’t push me, Bear. You have your belt and you’ve won. For now. Take your prize and be grateful I didn’t change the rules on you." He turned his attention to Fang. "Get them home."
All of a sudden he and Fang were in a small room where Sam was pacing. The sight of her there…of her safe and sound and in corporeal form again.
Those feelings slammed into him so hard, he was amazed his legs didn’t buckle. It was only now that he was with her that it hit him just how much he’d expected Thorn to keep her in spite of everything they’d done.
But now that she was with him again…
Her face lit up in a way no one’s ever had before and it turned his emotions inside out. If he could have anything in the universe, it would be to always have her look at him like that. It was obvious she was as delighted to see him as he was to see her. She ran and launched herself at him.
Catching her leap, Dev staggered back as he held her close and inhaled the scent of her soft hair. The warm floral smell made him hard and aching. It was all he could do to not take her right here and now with Fang watching them.
But he would never shame her.
Sam knew she shouldn’t be doing this. Especially after everything Thorn had told her about Dev’s future if they stayed together.
She had to let him go.
Yet right now, she just wanted to feel him close to her. To have his arms soothe her fears and uncertainties. Gods, she’d forgotten just how good it felt to hold him like this.
"You okay, baby?" he breathed in her ear.
She laughed at that deep, precious voice that sent a shiver over her. "Yeah." It was only then she realized just how she’d wrapped him up in her body. Her legs were around his waist and he completely supported her weight. Heat stung her face at what she’d instinctively done, especially as she became aware of the sizable lump under his jeans that was pressing into her and making her wet.
Fang cleared his throat. "I think it’s safe to say she’s glad to see you, huh, Bear?"
Dev gave her a quick kiss to her cheek as she unwrapped her legs and slid to the ground in front of him even though that was the last thing she wanted to do. "I don’t mind it in the least. Kind of nice to feel welcomed."
Fang cleared his throat. "Especially after what we just went through…. Everyone still have all their fingers and toes?"
Sam held up both hands and wiggled her fingers. "Think so."
"Good." Fang gestured to the door over his shoulder. "Let’s all head home before Thorn changes his mind and decides to keep us here where time apparently has no meaning to anyone but him."