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2017 - Best Book of the Year

Release Date: October 31, 2016

"The point wasn’t to win a war that had been lost, or to stop a death that had long turned bones to dust. It was to heal a broken heart."

John Pierce has been in covert operations all his adult life. He doesn’t know anything else but that and being a Dom, because that’s how he blows off steam and balances the nagging emptiness inside of him. Since he was a kid, he’s carried around an infatuation that’s grown into an embarrassing obsession. He’s in love with a myth—Medusa.

“Mad Merlin” Maddock doesn’t think that’s crazy. He believes in powers deeper and stronger than men or gods, a connecting energy like the oceans. To those powers, healing a broken heart could create a ripple effect in the universe impacting all, even if that heart lives in the alternate dimension of folklore and myth. JP is the first one Maddock plans to send across those lines to bond with the woman he’s always wanted.

JP agrees to be his first guinea pig for two reasons. One, Maddock is so damn convincing, and two, the need for her has tripled since he met the guy. If Maddock can send JP into her world, JP will let nothing stop him from claiming her for his own and healing her heart, because he’s sure as hell she’s the missing piece of his.

He just has to make sure she doesn’t turn him into lawn ornamentation first.


© Copyright 2016 - All Rights Reserved

John Pierce Zeus laid the branding iron in the fire and stepped back, contemplating the shore. Sunset would come in a matter of moments, and he wanted to see it, since it would be the last he’d view in this lifetime.

There were other ways he could have done this. Ensorcelled contacts that Maddock was 99.9% certain would work. Eye drops that could temporarily take away sight.

“Science and magic can eliminate the need for noble sacrifices. Make them pointless. Idiotic—in case my sarcasm isn’t getting through your thick head.”

Maddock—“Mad Merlin” as they’d dubbed him—had delivered that scrap of wisdom in a tone as dry as coffee beans. But he’d also told JP that intuition was the key to finding his path on all of this. Stronger than science and magic combined, intuition was the closest kin to love, devotion, loyalty…need and yearning.

He had to do this the right way, the way she would understand. Not a happily-ever-after, but a battlefield, where blood and honor meant more than victory. He understood that path, too.

His chest expanded on a deep, painful breath as the sun approached the horizon, its movement accelerating as it always did, the decline of the day rolling the golden sphere toward the pocket of night. His throat ached, but he wouldn’t shed tears. It wasn’t his way.

His buddy Lot Lakeney called him Triple-D, the “Dungeons & Dragons Duke.” Lot said JP stayed fortressed in his head like a mother’s-basement-dwelling geek, yet he was built like John Wayne on steroids, and possessed the Duke’s cinematic stoicism in the face of any threat. He also had the best grasp of all the things Maddock had taught and told them. It was as if the information had always been inside JP.

But that was why he was here, wasn’t it? Every person Maddock had brought to his unlikely cause had been identified based on a specific criterion. Namely, that each one dreamed of someone who was the stuff of legend or mythology, someone whose story had been marked by tragedy. “Dreamed” was probably too kind a word. Haunted by, obsessed with, driven to…what? Fix it. Fix something the world believed was fiction, a legend or myth. And by doing that, the world would be a better place.

No, the drive was less altruistic than that. Each one of them believed that fixing it on the back end would balance something inside, fill an emptiness.

So he was here not just to save her, but to save himself.

He’d been recruited barely out of his teens into a world that was as opposite to Maddock’s world of magic and unicorns as Bubble Yum was to napalm. Maddock had had a hell of a time convincing him that he wasn’t fucking with him. But in the end, it was one point that brought JP to the table.

“The number of people who’ve done what you’ve done, for as long as you’ve done it, probably wouldn’t count up to a full set of fingers. If anyone deserves to get lost in a legend, it’s you, JP. I can get you there. I promise.”

The word “deserves” wasn’t a word that any covert ops agent wore comfortably. But Maddock had talked him into this, and here JP was. Because he needed to be near where she was, even if it was a fucking fantasy Maddock was creating in JP’s head, and he was really in a padded cell somewhere, thinking he was on a Mediterranean island.

It didn’t matter. He’d take that reality, because on the back end of twenty years of pretending to be part of the darkest underbelly of society, she’d become far more real to him than anything else.

He knew she’d been watching him ever since he’d arrived this morning. The portal was supposed to open up on the beach, but apparently there’d been a tide miscalculation, so he’d been dumped ignominiously in the water. Way to make a cool entrance, JP. Dripping and feeling foolish, he’d trudged onto the beach. Seeing the number of rotted boats and pillars of crumbled stone littered along it, useless pride had given way to sober realization of the challenge he faced. Some of the boats were beached on the sand, while others rocked in the shallows with a hollow creaking.

The view facing away from the beach was less ominous. The island had lush forests and plenty of fresh water sources, but the greenery and meandering streams decorated a variety of rocky peaks, the stone providing gray and earth-toned contrasts where they jutted up through the forest. In his world and time, centuries in the future, the island was a coveted vacation destination for advanced rock climbers. At the end of their day, they enjoyed the poolside bars, restaurants and exclusive resorts.

As he’d put down his pack and set up his camp above the high tide line, he’d sensed an attentive presence. Not close, but he expected she had a clear view from an elevated vantage point. Her home wasn’t readily visible, but he was trained to look for the hidden.

Based on the wreckage on the beach, he’d deduced she’d set her abode where she had a scout’s view of the best approach from the nearby populated land masses, several of which could be seen in hazy silhouette from shore. After some intent study of the island topography, he’d found it. A small stone and wood structure, carefully embedded in the surrounding rock formations and screening forest. It was at an elevation almost impossible to reach…unless one could fly.

He approved of her tactical skills, though it would present him some unique challenges if this went how he hoped it would.

After he’d figured out her location, and before he’d set up camp, he wrote his message to her in the dry sand, using a bucket of water to darken the letters. He’d made it large enough a plane would see it, like an SOS.

Returning to the present and the dying daylight, he smiled, thinking of it. What would she think of a plane?

I’m here to serve you, my lady. That’s what he’d written on the sand. Time to start proving it.

He’d find beauty and color through his other senses.

But gods above, he was truly going to miss sunsets. Not that he owed any loyalty to the gods. They’d pissed him off the first time he’d read her story, and he owed them nothing. His loyalty was to her. Which was why in about a minute’s time he was going to blind himself.

As he knelt by the fire, he pushed all other thoughts away but what tasks needed to be done. He had the necessary aftercare items, including antibiotics, a stack of clean dressings, and several bottles of fresh water. He’d taken careful note of where he’d placed all of them, but he wasn’t worried about being blind in unfamiliar surroundings.

JP had spent months blindfolded, training himself to not rely on his eyes as his primary sense. Him and Luke Skywalker, using the Force. Or rather, JP’s covert ops discipline and Maddock’s magic mo-jo.

He could have had Maddock take his sight before he left his world, in far more optimal and less painful conditions, but JP knew it had to be done here, where she would see him do it.

Or maybe his motives weren’t that noble. Maybe he’d hoped to have a chance to see her before losing the opportunity altogether. He’d brought a shield whose convex back offered blurred reflections, because Maddock had said an actual mirror wouldn’t work. The reflection would be too clear and JP would end up a lawn ornament. He’d take that blurred reflection, though. Any glimpse at all of her.

JP didn’t need to see her to confirm his decision. That was a decision of the heart, not the eyes, and he’d made that choice some time ago. No, he’d merely wanted to absorb her with every sense he’d ever possessed or ever would.

Taking a steadying breath, he laid his hand on the handle of the branding iron.

“What is this you do?”

He froze. His sword was staked in the sand next to the shield. A miscalculation on his part, since he couldn’t reach for the shield, no matter how carefully, without her thinking he was going for the sword. Not only was she supposedly in possession of a headful of snakes, but every scrap of information he could find about her had convinced him she could move as fast as one. She’d whip around an opponent and have him staring into her deadly eyes before his brain had a chance to tell him to shut his own.

“How will you serve me if you cannot see?” she asked, telling him she’d already figured out what he was about to do.

He wanted to answer her promptly, but he was caught up in hearing her voice for the first time. It sounded younger than he’d expected. He could deduce her age based on historic information about priestesses in Athena’s temple, though sources on that were often dubious. In truth, everything he’d researched was somewhere between educated guesswork and pure speculation. But thanks to Maddock, suddenly he was getting a whole lot of firsthand detail.

In the same way he’d been loaded up with vaccinations before he went on overseas assignments, Maddock had loaded him up with spell work to prep for this one. One of the things had been a translation spell, so he would hear her and respond in a common language, and they’d both be a little less lost by colloquialisms relevant to their respective worlds. The second was augmentation of his additional senses, to compensate for the loss of his eyes. Hearing, smell and taste, as well as proximity awareness, were enhanced threefold.

She had a melodious voice, as female as a dew-kissed flower with silken petals so delicate they’d bruise at a touch. He paid close attention to all the information a person’s voice could offer, but Maddock’s craft took him further, so he could hear even deeper nuances.

Her syllables were strained and flat, filled with suspicion. The former told him she wasn’t used to raising her voice, and the latter said she was prepared for him to attack. He didn’t hear fear. He was glad she wasn’t afraid of him, though that was far more likely due to her confidence in her own skills, not the belief he meant her no harm. She would have stopped trusting that sense a long time ago.

“I have taught myself how to do many things using my other senses,” he said, realizing he hadn’t answered her question. “I do not need my eyes to serve you, my lady.”

“A trick, to get close enough to take my head. With this.” The rasp of his blade being drawn from the sand made battle-ready muscles tense. He forced himself to remain still as metal heated by the afternoon sun notched against his throat. He could imagine her standing behind him, silent and imperious. There was no tremor in the weapon. She was more than capable of using it. His best play was to stay still and talk them away from that.

But sometimes you had to take the stupidest risks to prove yourself. Or to impress a girl. He could hear Lot’s tongue-in-cheek observation without him being here to make it. It didn’t matter. JP had spent so much time around the guy, it was as if their brains had been mashed together like two handfuls of ground beef.

Shutting his eyes tight, he ducked, spun. Her lightning-quick back step and shift of weight impressed him, but he was pretty damn good at this himself. He came up under her guard, clamped down on her wrist and wrested the blade from her hand. A hiss, and he jerked to the right. A snake scored his ear as it shot past his head, narrowly missing the likely target of his face or eyes. In the same unbroken motion, he released her wrist, pivoted and went down on one knee, the blade planted firmly and harmlessly beside it, his hand clasped on the hilt and his head bowed.

Eyes cracking to a slit, he saw he’d landed where he’d intended, at her feet. The skirt of her tunic fluttered against his shoulder. It was short, like a Greek soldier’s would be, revealing long slim legs, golden-hued from the sun. Inked drawings on her flesh showed serpents twining around flowers. The work was detailed and deft, perhaps a way to pass the time in her solitude. She had a silver toe ring on her right foot.

He’d smelled several different fragrances on her skin as she moved. Flowers, fresh fruit, earth and the sea, and a woman’s warm flesh. Despite its advantages, Maddock’s augmentation spell could also be a tempting distraction.

“I can hardly be of service to you if I’m missing my head, my lady,” he said, proud that his voice was steady, since his stomach had done a serious half gainer with a twist during their short scuffle. So much could have gone wrong there, causing this to be over before it started. But if he second-guessed himself like that, he’d fail.

“Indeed.” Her voice cracked. He’d startled her with a fight that was over before it could begin. Then her tone steadied. She had a warrior’s temperament, finding her center again quickly. “You have skill with a blade, but I wonder to what purpose, if you intend me no harm. There is nothing to fight here, except me.”

She paused. He wondered what she was thinking, seeing. At best, a nuisance; at worst, an enemy. “There is gardening and harvest, and minor repairs to maintain my home,” she continued. “Beyond that, there is the watching of tides, and the rise and set of the sun.”

Did she realize she spoke like a poet, measured and rhythmic like the rise and fall of waves? He could almost feel the caress of the syllables against his skin.

Focus. This isn’t like being undercover in a cartel, but she’ll still chop you up for hamburger if you keep daydreaming about her rather than talking.

He was channeling Lot again, obviously.

 “So you need a gardener, a cook and an occasional carpenter,” he said mildly. “I can be or do any of those things. I’m not without those skills. My fighting ability is just what’s always been most in demand from those who need me.”

Another silence, as if the straightforward answer had surprised her, and he expected it had. When was the last time she’d had an actual conversation with anyone? “I did not say I need any of those things,” she responded at last. “I take care of myself sufficiently without help.”

“No doubt, my lady. But I am here to serve you, and can take some of those burdens off your hands.”

She made a dismissive noise and moved on from that. “You have fought in wars.”

“In a sense. I worked on special missions to secure peace, aid in ongoing conflicts, catch criminals. Seems I’ve always been in that kind of work, even in past lives.”

That was according to Maddock. Your soul was born to protect and destroy, JP. The guardian angel or the boogeyman in the closet, whichever one’s most in demand.

The ancient Greeks knew the theory of reincarnation, even if it wasn’t a common part of their spiritual philosophy. She proved it now by not inquiring what he meant. Or perhaps she just had bigger priorities.

“I see no boat. You walked onto my shore at dawn. Where are your reinforcements?”

“I came to you through a portal in time and space. Not by sea.”

Additional silence. She was probably wondering if she should put this poor crazy bastard out of his misery with a one-shot from her lethal gaze. Or, more likely, she’d assume he was telling her a wild tale to cover the reinforcements coming from a different invasion point.

Part of the prep he’d done for this had included extensive think tank sessions with the other team members. They’d postulated what her life must be like, based on the data they had, so that he might be better able to anticipate her needs and help her lower her defenses with him. It had been strange for JP at first, working with a team on ideas that normally he had only himself to develop and hope he was on the right track.

Since Lot was the one in the group with the heavy military background, it wasn’t surprising that he’d looked at her life from that perspective.

“For however many years she’s been on the island, she’s had to stay aware of any threat and meet it. She’s going to mistrust everything you say, and frame everything in terms of threat assessment. If, as we suspect, there have been repeated attempts to take her out, she’ll be hypervigilant.”

JP thought of the wrecked boats and the crumbled stone. It angered him that she’d had to deal with any kind of threat, let alone so often. She might think he was crazy, talking about portals and past lives, but he was going to stick with bald honesty. If she mistrusted everything he said, the truth was the only way he’d get a leg up, if he was going to get one at all.

He opened his eyes to stare at her feet and the silver toe ring. While her soles had to be callused to go shoeless all the time, the shape of her feet and toes was pleasing and delicate, her nails neat and surprisingly clean. The only nod to her rustic environment was that the deep blue ink she’d used to draw the serpent coiled around her ankle was smudged over the joint bone. Perhaps she’d scraped her leg against a rock or tree, for the skin around it looked abraded.

She might be alone on her island, but she cared for herself as if she were in more civilized surroundings. She hadn’t lost herself to the animal-like instincts that could take over in extended isolation and from perpetual threats of violence. Which was probably another reason he was still alive.

“I can swear a hundred oaths that I intend you no harm,” he said. “That I’m here to do what I wrote on the sand, but words are meaningless when you know nothing of me. I ask for an opportunity to change that. If it is your pleasure I keep my eyes, I will stay blindfolded in your presence, and unarmed unless a threat comes against you. You need only to pull the blindfold away to gain the advantage over me.”

Something like braided rope worn smooth slid over his knuckles where he clasped the sword. Realizing it was a snake, he stayed still as the creature coiled around his wrist and the hilt, a loose figure eight that effectively hampered his use of the weapon. Clever and intriguing, the evidence of a communication link between her and her snakes.

He mentally thanked Delia, another of their team, for her suggestion that he volunteer at a serpentarium as part of his training. The typical kneejerk reaction to treat a snake as a threat had been overcome with a far deeper understanding of the reptiles’ nature and behavior.

While there was no doubt that the snakes physically attached to her had some differences from their counterparts in the natural world, he’d proceed on the assumption that they would have some qualities in common.

Medusa shifted, and something sharp and hard touched his knuckles. A claw? Was it part of her, or had she donned an ancient Greek version of a bear claw brass knuckle? The snake drew back, so perhaps the touch was a wordless command to bring the creature to her. Regardless, that small strip of skin where she’d made contact tingled with awareness. Skin was the largest sensory organ there was, and Maddock had augmented that, too. Again with the blessing and curse.   

“What you call my advantage is more deception,” she said. “You’ve proven your quickness and prowess with a blade. More time here gives you more opportunities to achieve harmful intent.” She sighed.

“I’m too weary for this. Begone, however you came. If you are not off my island when I seek you again, I will carry you out to sea and drop you. It will not matter to me if you are close enough to land to reach it before you tire and drown. If you swim at all.”

She’d just confirmed what her choice of home site had told him. She had wings. She could fly. There were so many accounts of what she looked like, only meeting her would allow him to verify anything. Once again, he longed for that one quick glimpse, to verify wings and claws, to see how she matched what he’d seen in his dreams of her.

Yet his interest in that was overtaken by the emotions he was picking up from her. She was being as honest with him as he was with her. He could hear the truth of her fatigue. She had no energy set aside to play games with an enigmatic stranger. Any natural urges for companionship were buried beneath a dump truck load of necessary defenses. He had to figure out how to remove some of them. Fortunately, he was experienced in winning the first vital scrap of trust from criminals, warlords and dictators who trusted no one. The only difference was that he had to win their trust with lies or modified truths. For it to work at all here, he had to be completely honest with her.

“My lady, you say you have no need for a warrior,” he said slowly. “I’ve no doubt you’re formidable. But maintaining a constant defense alone takes its toll. If you did have one other person here that you could trust, that burden could be shared.”

“I will not debate the improbable with you. Whatever your motives, I want you gone.” That strained quality in her voice had increased.

“Could you give me a day to prove myself?” he persisted. “I could familiarize myself with your living arrangements and show you the things another pair of hands might do. I don’t think you’ll kill me without cause, my lady, and I pose you no readily identifiable threat.”

“Why do you think I want any company?” she said coldly. “Let alone yours, a strange man who tells wild tales. I do not fear solitude. It has been the best of company since I came here.”

“Solitude is as necessary to the mind and soul as company,” he agreed. “I won’t impose on your solitude when you truly desire it. But when you don’t, I can be company.”

“No.” Her feet moved out of the range of his vision. She was walking away from him. “Heed my words. Leave before I look for you again.”

“I’m not leaving, my lady.” He set his jaw. “I’m going to do as I said. So if you’re determined to be rid of me, you’ll have to do it now.”

His pack was close enough he could snag it with one long arm. Removing the black lined eye mask from the side pocket, he began to lace it securely about his head. As he did so, it molded to his forehead, his eyes, the bridge of his nose and cheekbones. Hearing the friction of sand, and no further footsteps or wingbeats, he suspected she’d pivoted to watch him. Good.

He’d moved away from the sword to make it clear he didn’t intend to use it, even though he did intend to defend himself if necessary. Balancing on the balls of his feet, he adjusted to a crouch, flexed his hands and cocked his head. “Do your worst, my lady, or give me permission to learn how to be a help to you.”

“You are not listening,” she ground out. “I did not ask for your help. I do not want your help.”

He ducked and rolled, but not fast enough. He’d hit a nerve, a deeper one this time. He might consider that progress, except he was airborne. Those hard claws clamped on his legs, pinching cruelly, and he was tossed into the air, landing on his back in the water with a resounding splash. He should count himself lucky she hadn’t carried him out to sea. Instead she’d dropped him in water shallow enough he thumped uncomfortably on the sandy bottom. He rolled, sloshed back out. “Impressive, my lady. But—”

She used the cloaking sounds of his movements to seize him again, this time by the biceps, claws digging into his arm pit. Yanking him in the air by that hold could have dislocated his shoulder, except she released him quickly. Into deeper water this time, a warning.

One he ignored. He came out of the water, and was tossed back into it once more. He cursed his slowness, albeit there wasn’t much he could do about an air attack. Especially blindfolded and when he refused to do her any actual harm.

When she dunked him the fifth time, he detected an odd noise from her as she released him over the water. Replaying it in his mind, he realized what it was.

A chuckle.

It startled him to the core, and moved him. Of course. He’d detected the youthfulness in her voice, but as she’d continued to speak and he’d heard more womanly inflections, he’d realized it wasn’t so much a reflection of her physical age as her state of mind. She’d been young when she’d come here, and they’d estimated she’d been here at least five to ten years on her own. Someone to play with was another need, wasn’t it? One that could get buried but might not go away, not if other factors kept the desire for it alive.

He didn’t come out this time. Once he was where he could touch bottom, he stopped at waist height and listened. She was hovering above him at a…ten o’clock angle. He sent a sheet of water splashing up and out in that direction, and grinned at a gasp. He swallowed a laughing oath, as well as some seawater, when she retaliated with a veritable punch of ocean in the face. Had she used her wing to scoop up and fire the shot? If so, her wingspan was considerable. She followed it up with what felt like a wet hunk of seaweed, splatted in the middle of his chest.

A giggle and a flutter of wind told him she’d changed positions again.

Wow. He’d expected a lot of things in his first few moments with her, but this one beat all. He was grinning like a loon, but reminded himself not to get too swept away in it. They were a long way from being BFFs. She might be entertaining herself with a hapless victim, or toying with a viable threat, trying to ferret out his true intentions.

Yet that giggle charmed him, probably in a dangerous way.

Slogging back onto the beach, he flopped down on the warm sand, relieved when he wasn’t immediately picked back up and dropped again. A temporary truce. His lips curved as a couple drops of water and rhythmic flow of wind told him she was poised in the air above him. “All wet, my lady?”

“You’re far wetter.”

That was true. His tunic, a belted mid-thigh deal that likely came close to the soldier’s garb she was wearing, was plastered to his body with no underwear under the damn thing. Greeks weren’t modest. He didn’t worry much about that either, but he missed his jeans or even a proper wetsuit. He’d tried not to imagine what was wandering around in the water, looking to pinch off dangling appendages.

“We could go for a swim together and be equally wet. Do you swim?” he asked.

“Quite often. You seem familiar with it.”

“Yeah. I’ve had to do some amphibious missions, ones that involve approaching a target by diving gear or boat. Not as much as my buddy Lot, because he’s a SEAL, a type of special ops soldier where water’s kind of their specialty. Gotta say, though, this is far more fun.” He paused, letting the word fun sink in. Maybe it would give him another toenail sliver of access through a cracked door.

“You mentioned watching sunrises and sunsets, my lady,” he added. “I’ve been known to enjoy those myself. Might be nice to share them with someone else.”

“I do not need that.” Her voice went taut again. But it was the tension of rope, holding something back stronger than her words.

“You’ve never wished for company? Someone to share the burdens of life? To laugh with? Cry with? Go to sleep at night knowing another human was breathing nearby? Someone you can depend upon? Trust?”

Stillness. He curled his fingers into the sand, trying to appear relaxed when everything within him was coiled in anticipation of her next move. He’d heard a hitch in her breathing. Trying to interpret what it meant, what feelings he’d invoked, he hoped he hadn’t hurt her.

But it might be necessary, because piercing through heavy defenses sometimes required using some sharp weapons. That was something he knew quite a lot about, thanks to the primary way he spent his leisure time. Another reason he’d been considered the best fit for this mission. The only fit, because he wouldn’t have tolerated any other man taking it.

“You have given me nothing to trust you,” she said woodenly. “Not even your name.”

“John Pierce Zeus. People call me JP.”

“Zeus? You are a son of Zeus?” He sensed she’d hopped back a few more feet and was in the air. Before she could take off, he propped himself up on his elbows and spoke quickly.

“No. Not hardly. Where I’m from, it doesn’t mean that. It’s just a name. One that my very fanciful mother tacked onto me when she left my dad. She said he was like a cheating, faithless god who didn’t care what devastation he left in his wake.”

His mother had never considered what legally changing his last name might tell her son about how she felt about him, the offspring of that painful relationship. But Mom had been on and off different meds for years. She’d been sane enough to pass herself off as fit for parenting; crazy enough that her kid knew differently.

Rubbing the water off his face, JP sobered. “My lady, in your position, I would feel no different. You’ve no reason to trust me, but I sense you’d like to. You were maybe enjoying yourself there for a moment. Right?  Can we use that as a starting point? You can easily avoid me as I look around and figure out how to be a help to you. Whenever you wish to seek out my company, just give me a heads up and I’ll put on the blindfold.”

He set his jaw as she said nothing. “If you’re worried about my intentions, I will do as I first said, and strike myself blind for you. Then there will be no doubt of your advantage over me. You just proved it well enough by throwing me in the water. I couldn’t stop you.”

Well, true and false. If he’d had the sword and had been willing to use it to slice off limbs as she grabbed for him, he might have had a chance, but that wasn’t his purpose here.

“What’s the harm of giving me a couple days to see if my company is bearable?” he asked. “Yes, you risk that I’m lying, and I’m just a scout stalling until reinforcements get here, but you know this island in and out. You can spend the time making sure I’m telling the truth.”

“You could have others coming through that portal. I have no ability to prevent that.”

“Yes. That is true,” he admitted. “You have to trust someone you have no reason to trust. But I’m asking you to do so.”

“Why should I?”

“Because I’m different.” He said it staunchly. “Has anyone ever approached you the way I have?”

“Not exactly.” He detected a subtle distress in the response, but she didn’t give him a chance to question it. “Why do you wish to serve me?” she asked. “If I could understand why you were here, it might help.”

He flashed on his mother, bedtime stories, and dreams too haunting to ignore. None of that would work right now. The simple truth was too simple. Too unbelievable.

“That’s a tough one to explain up front,” he said, “and you already think I’m crazy, talking about portals and time travel and crap like that. I’ll talk about it now if you want, but I was hoping we could get to know more about each other first.”

“I think you must talk about it some, because none of this makes sense to me. What I do not understand, I cannot trust. How could you think of me, if you came from another time and place? I know you come from far away because your accent is unknown to me. You speak my language, but your word choices and mannerisms are strange. Foreign.”

She’d drawn closer. Still prudently out of reach, but he could feel her nearness. He’d practiced reading people when he was blindfolded—including in some very intimate ways, thanks to an idea Lot had had—but JP hadn’t considered the emotional toll of not being able to look at her and meet her gaze. Get a sense of what she was feeling as she looked at him, if she found him pleasing or intriguing. Or a menace.

In the presence of the woman he most wanted to look upon, desire was also interfering with that training. If he couldn’t look, he wanted to touch, and that was so not happening right now. She was giving him a slim-to-none margin of error to prove himself to her, a generosity he hadn’t anticipated having this quickly, so he better pull it together.

 “Stories of you have come down through the centuries, my lady,” he said, closing his fingers in loose fists to resist the destructive urge. “Greek mythology permeates our popular culture.” He flashed on the Nashville, Tennessee Parthenon replica with the forty-foot-tall statue of Athena inside it, but decided to hold off on explaining that. That was even trickier ground than he was treading. He needed to distract her before she asked—

“How do these stories portray me? What do they say or know of my life?”

Too late. “They are myths, my lady,” he said carefully. “A lot of dramatic embellishment for storytelling purposes. Plays, books.” He wasn’t going to give her a rundown of Clash of the Titans, either version.

Solitude could impose a dulling melancholy on a prisoner of extreme circumstances. But she’d sustained herself with the resources of the island and figured out how to protect herself from invaders, so isolation could also hone the mind willing to put in the hours to sharpen it. She’d already proven she had that kind of discipline, and she underscored it now by demonstrating she was no fool.

“A monster. A bedtime story to scare children.” She paused. “If you truly are not here as a foe, you have bought into the beginning of the story. The young, virginal priestess, raped by Poseidon and cursed by Athena, the Goddess she’d committed her life to serve. So you come to be brave and manly, defy the gods to rescue me from…what? If you come through time, John Pierce, you’ve arrived too late. A story is a story, as you said. Distorted past recognition.”

“So it didn’t happen that way?”

“Humans embellish,” she said, with barely concealed bitterness, fragile and sharp.

“I am here to do you no harm, my lady. I’d fall on my sword before I’d make that an untrue statement. Nor will I let anyone else bring you harm, not while I have breath to prevent it. What I said about company—”

“I seek no one’s company,” she reminded him edgily. “It is why I’m here.”

“With respect, lady, I think you have fled the kind of company no one would want. One that offers no kindness, mercy or forgiveness, no warmth or love, no laughter or friendship. You chose isolation, as anyone would. But that really isn’t a choice, is it? You can choose my company.”

“I can also not choose it. Or are you refusing to heed my wishes? If so, it makes you a poor servant.”

“I said I came to serve, my lady. Not be a servant. There is a difference.” When he purposefully injected an edge into his tone, her sudden startled quiet, that little catch in her breath again, sent a promising signal. Unfortunately, that included a stirring in his cock. He quelled it. Way too soon to focus on that.

“How about we set a deadline? Give me three days. If you don’t want me here in three days, I’m gone, back through my portal, poof. Like I was never here.”

“You said one day.”

“Three is a luckier number, better for balance.”

“We’ll see.” Though she sounded suspicious. “I reserve the right to change my mind.”

“I’ve never known a woman who didn’t.”

She touched him. Even with his enhanced senses, he hadn’t heard her approach. She must have crossed the ground on silent feet, for when she used her wings, he could hear their movement. Every muscle stilled as she explored the blindfold, the way it molded over his face. He felt her fingertips, but he also felt the press of the sharp claws along his forehead. She moved her examination to the lacings on the back.

“How curious. Take it off and give it to me. I will return it to you.”

If I don’t decide to turn you to stone first, was implied. Either she wanted a closer look at it, or she was testing how willing he was to trust her. He could answer that easily enough. “Very well, my lady. As I’m exploring, I assume you’ll announce your presence so we don’t find ourselves eye-to-eye. Unless that’s your intent.”

He wanted her to understand that he wouldn’t be trying to hide his gaze from the possibility of her popping up in front of him. He was going to trust his fate to her hands.

Removing the blindfold in the subsequent silence, he kept his eyes closed as he extended it. She plucked it from his grasp without making contact with him. The beat of her wings heralded a spray of water, what had collected on her wings during their splashing. Then she was gone.

Christ, what did it say that the loss of her presence, even after this one brief encounter, was like a blow to the chest? The reminder of their water play made him smile, though. He was sure she was feeling far less pleased, likely plagued with doubts and suspicions. He wished he could alleviate those in some instant magical way, like with a wave of the wand they were all sure Maddock was hiding somewhere with his pointy hat and blue robes.

Maddock had once told him human emotions could be manipulated with magic, but not ethically, even if the intent was for good. “People have to work their own shit out,” he said often, and bluntly.

JP had no assurances that she might not still drop him far out to sea as she’d threatened. Or save herself the trip and turn him to stone. As he opened his eyes and dropped to his heels, he noted the evidence of her presence. Footprints in the damp sand and a series of marks that suggested where her wings had touched. So they were long enough to reach the ground.

While feathered wings would leave a brushlike stroke, these marks were short, decisive crescents, like what would be made by a finger. Or a claw, he surmised, recalling the contact along his knuckles and face. Were the tips of her wings barbed like a dragon’s? Would it surprise her to know he’d seen a real life dragon? Pissing-oneself close, too.

He squatted to place his fingers in the foot print. Small. Perhaps a size five or six. When he’d grappled with her for the sword, he’d determined she was a small woman, but one who was extremely strong and flexible, like a sleek mongoose. As he traced the outline of the sole, he imagined the shape of her arches, the way her ankle would feel in his grasp, the smooth muscled curves of her calves…

He shut his eyes again to increase the potency of the imagining. Through his lids, he could tell the sky was still lit by twilight, something he hadn’t been able to surmise with the blindfold. The eye mask did an excellent job of putting the wearer in total darkness. Not only could he not see any details around him, he couldn’t determine the time of day except from the degree of sunlight on his face. Once laced in place, it didn’t shift and it couldn’t be quickly removed.

Being an experienced sexual Dominant with access to lots of dungeon paraphernalia had its perks. And that was another reason why Maddock had been sure JP was the perfect guy for this job.

JP had dreamed of her for too long to believe anything different. He prayed to any gods worth a damn that he wasn’t wrong.

Medusa was strong and dangerous, with an underlying fragility that called to him. She was a well-shielded, high-powered and damaged submissive soul, the ultimate test for a Dom who craved that challenge. Who craved her. Go big or go home.

He wasn’t going home.


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