Set Up: En route to the Nexus Portal on Neraldi, Eric tells Keriam why she's so important to him and his people. He still denies the GarJa bond, a soul deep connection between a warrior and his mate, between them but even so she's creeping into his heart and it scares him to death,
The woman reached inside her shirt and withdrew a thin gold chain. At the end of it hung a dark red jewel. "It's all I have of her, of our life before...."
Slowly, she pulled the chain over her head and held the stone in her palm. "She never took it off. She called it a legacy, said I was to have it when she..."
Her head came up, her eyes shone wetly. "We always thought it was just a garnet but if...if--" She thrust it at him. "Take it."
She dropped it into his outstretched hand. Eric examined the thumb-sized gem, then pulled the Gatefold key out of his shirt. The green stone glowed but the red one sat inert in his hand. "This has no power. It isn't the Heartstone."
"It's all she had."
He shrugged, ignoring the bitter stab of disappointment. "Then it must still be on Purlea."
With care, Keriam replaced the necklace around her neck and tucked it under her shirt. "Then I can go home?"
"Not until I have the Stone. Not until the Gawan-spawn on Earth are removed." He refused to look at her because he refused to admit the possibility that he needed her to find the Heartstone. "We still have a long journey ahead of us."
He laid his own blanket down on the hard ground. Stretching to his full length, he shoved his hands under his head and stared at the sky. As a child, he had often slept under the stars, watching them pinwheel over Antiare. As an adult, he had slept under alien skies between battles with the Gawan. Neither compared to the erotic sounds of a woman settling down for the night not two arm-lengths away.
Twisting, he saw she had positioned herself so that they were lying nearly head-to-head. For a moment, he stared mesmerized by the glimmer of firelight on her hair, the exotic, heady scent of her filling his senses. And deep within him, his heart paused, then gave one great stroke as if striking a huge sonorous bell.
His nerves, exposed, left him over-sensitized and defenseless. He yearned to reach out, to stroke those fire-lit curls. Instead, he turned, staring into the flames, and remained perfectly still.
From the depths of the forest, he heard the shrill cry of a predator, then the feather soft rustle of Keriam's blanket.
"What was that?"
"A night hunter. No threat to us, Keriamsadhe." He twisted to look at her. Studying her tense features for a moment, he deliberately lightened his voice to ask, "Are you afraid?"
Flicking a sharp look in his direction, she pulled the blanket up to her chin and grumbled, "I've been attacked by a mutant, kidnapped by a werewolf and nearly eaten by a psychedelic cow. What do you think?"
"I could protect you better if you were over here," he suggested, waggling his eyebrows and patting the ground beside him.
She gave him an arch look. A look wholly ruined by the upward twitch of her lips. He found himself grinning at the twinkle in her eyes as she lifted a stout branch from the folds of her blanket. "Don't worry. I've got a weapon. And I know how to use it."
She settled down once more. Minutes later, her breath evened, deepened as she fell asleep. Eric turned onto his side and rested his head on his arm, aware his breath had slowed to match hers, aware that his senses encompassed her.
He denied the emotion welling up in his chest but it was too late. It existed, warm and soothing.
And deeply painful.
The idea that he would have to take her to Gawan-infested Purlea left him sickened. He was not like her uncle, Benamont I'sadhe. He did not relish the idea of taking an innocent woman to an almost certain death.
Long before Helim rose over the horizon, Eric gave up. Undressing quickly, he shifted. In his alter-form, he raced into the dark woods, knowing no matter how far he went, he had already been doomed. The thought raised the hair on his back.
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