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Present day: Atlantis, the palace war room
Even those cursed to feel no emotion could experience its paler cousin, curiosity. Brennan had always assumed it was a more intellectual state. He tapped a finger on the photo of the woman staring up at him from the folded newspaper. “This is she?”
Something tugged at him; some flash of, what? Recognition? Admiration? The reporter’s face, even in the grainy black-and-white of the newsprint, was beautiful. But it was a quality in the look of her eyes that had captured his attention. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but it was almost as if he could read the sadness haunting them.
Or perhaps more than two thousands of years without emotion had destroyed his ability to discern it in others. Especially through such an inaccurate prism as that of a newspaper photograph.
High Prince Conlan nodded and resumed his pacing. “That’s her. She’s our reporter contact, and she has news of who—or what—might be behind the shifter attacks in Yellowstone.” Conlan shot a wary glance at his brother Ven, then at Brennan. “She’s also the one you, ah, the one—”
“The one you went miertus over and had some kind of convulsions about back in Boston,” Alexios added dryly.
As members of Conlan’s elite guard, the Seven, handpicked from among the best of the best of the Warriors of Poseidon, Alexios and Brennan had trained and fought together for centuries in the continuing battle to protect humanity from the dark forces that sought to destroy and enslave it. Both were masters at remaining calm and in control under pressure; Brennan through a god’s dictate, Alexios through decades of training.
Except, from what Alexios and Christophe had told him, Brennan had failed spectacularly during one crucial mission, going so far as to kill a vampire they’d needed to question. Also, even more unbelievably, he’d then threatened his own friends and fellow warriors—all over a human female.
He almost could not—would not—believe it. If it had been only Christophe who recounted the tale, he most certainly would not have believed it. Christophe’s sly sense of humor often caused him to find sport in mocking Brennan’s emotionless existence. But Alexios was a different matter. Alexios would never, ever lie to him.
And there was the small matter of the dreams. Flashes of what he now believed to be memories, persistent in spite of the curse. Holding the soft warmth of her body in his arms. Looking down into the bottomless depths of her dark, dark eyes.
“Thus, it must be true,” he murmured, coming to the unpleasant conclusion he’d refused previously to accept. Some of his control was finally cracking. After so many years, perhaps even the strongest of steel became brittle. Or—worse—the curse was coming to its fulfillment. Would that be worse or better? He dismissed the question as irrelevant; worse or better, what would be, would be.
Alexios leaned against the battered wooden table that had seen so many of their planning sessions, and stared off into the distance, studying the ancient tapestries that lined the walls. Or simply trying to avoid meeting Brennan’s gaze.
Ven, slouched in an overstuffed chair, one long leg thrown over the side, finally spoke up. “Look, we need to quit dancing around this. We’ve got to send somebody, preferably a team, to Yellowstone to help Lucas and his wolf shifters defend themselves against the attacks from outside and, even more important, I think, attacks from inside the pack. The threat of vampire enthrallment is growing every day. Tiernan is our contact, and she’s undercover doing the story on the science conference and the vamp regional leader there, so we need to work with her. So, major problem: can Brennan work with her or not?”
Brennan straightened and inclined his head toward Ven, then put a touch of frost in his voice. “If the vampires are truly able to enthrall shape-shifters now, which they have never been able to do in all the millennia of their existence, this matter is of crucial importance to our mission.” He flashed a glance at Alexios and then returned his gaze to Ven, whose relaxed pose could not quite hide the lethal danger of one named the King’s Vengeance. “I am perfectly capable, Your Highness. I am sure that whatever happened in Boston was a one-time aberration.”
Ven rolled his eyes and repeated his familiar threat. “Call me ‘Highness’ again, and I’ll kick your ass. I’m just Conlan’s brother, my friend. Leader of the Seven and uncle to one very adorable little baby boy. If we’re going to give young Prince Aidan an Atlantis that can rise to the surface, and a surface worth rising to, we need to solve the puzzle behind how these vamps are suddenly able to enthrall shifters when they never could before.”
“Tiernan says that whatever they’re doing to the humans is different, too,” Conlan pointed out. “She and her contacts have proof. Brain scans and the like. This isn’t just temporary anymore. The vamps are changing the humans’ entire brain-wave patterns to keep them permanently in thrall.”
“At this rate, the bloodsuckers will turn all of humanity into nothing but herds of sheep for their dining pleasure in a matter of years—or maybe even months,” Alexios added. “I volunteer to go. Lucas, the alpha of the Yellowstone wolf pack, is an old friend. He even gave me the honor of naming me second pack-father to his new twin boys, and I have yet to see them or bring a birth gift.”
Ven grinned. “And I’m sure the lovely Grace will bring along her bow and arrows and keep your ugly butt in line.”
Brennan was intrigued to see the dark red flush that rose in Alexios’s scarred face, partially hidden by the long waves of golden hair that had once so intrigued the women of Atlantis. Of course, that was before Alexios had returned from one of the darker levels of the nine hells, with his face and his soul scarred beyond—or so they’d feared—any hope of redemption. To be precise, only the left side of his face was scarred, a going-away present of sorts from the vampire goddess Anubisa after two long years of torture.
Grace had brought Alexios back into the light. Brennan wished he had the capacity to feel the joy for his friend that he knew everyone else shared. Alexios’s new lady love, who was both human and more, as a descendant of the goddess Diana, was indeed a formidable warrior in her own right.
“Grace doesn’t need to put herself in any more danger, especially now,” Alexios muttered, a look of grim resignation on his face. “But I may as well spit into the wind as tell her that.”
Almost as if on cue, the door opened and Grace walked in, accompanied by Conlan’s new bride and infant son, High Princess Riley and Prince Aidan.
Ven started laughing. “Busted! It’s like they have radar.”
Conlan swiftly crossed to his wife, who handed him the baby. The intense emotion on Conlan and Riley’s faces as they gazed at each other and then at the child stirred something dry and barren deep inside Brennan. He filed the sensation away to consider later. A curiosity, no more.
Riley suddenly looked up and cast a startled glance at Brennan. “Brennan? Was that you?”
He bowed. “I beg your pardon, my lady?”
She shook her head, sunshine-gold hair fl ying. “No . . . It’s nothing, I guess,” she said, her brows drawing together. “I thought . . . No. Nothing.” She laughed. “Being aknasha and a new mother certainly is interesting. Not only can I pick up emotions from everyone around me, but I’ve got an overload of my own to deal with. It makes my mind play tricks on me.”
Brennan raised an eyebrow, but she didn’t elaborate. He briefly wondered if her emotional empathy had sensed some emotion hidden deep down in his psyche, but he had to discard the idea as impossible. Although there had been that one time when Riley’s sister Quinn, an even more powerful aknasha, had claimed to feel buried emotion from him . . . But he’d doubted Quinn’s claim then, and he doubted it now. Poseidon’s curses were not so easily broken. He’d spent many lifetimes coming to that realization.
Grace, a study in lean elegance with her swimmer’s body, honey-gold skin, and long, dark hair, crossed the room to Alexios, whose entire face lit up at the sight of her. She leaned into him for a moment, then took a position against the wall next to him and flashed a saucy grin at Conlan and Ven. “So, boys. What’s up?”
Alexios looked simultaneously chagrined and amused. “You probably shouldn’t call the high prince and his brother ‘boys,’” he muttered.
Ven laughed. “Please. She’s fine. Great, even. Trust me, it’s way better than ‘pigheaded fool,’ which is what I got from Erin this morning before I’d even gotten out of bed. Seems like my suggestion I go along on her trip to Seattle to visit her friends was ‘being overprotective.’ It’s not like she nearly got killed by a traitor in that witch’s coven or anything.” His tone was light, but Brennan noticed that Ven’s hands clenched into fists at his sides at the memory of Erin’s brushes with death.
Riley shook her head at Ven. “You should know better by now. She is a very powerful witch and needs to work with others in her circle to refine her control over the Wilding magic. If you want to go along as the man she loves, that’s one thing. But as the big, tough guy who can protect the helpless little woman? Not so much.”
Ven snorted. “Women.” But then his eyes widened, and he jumped up out of his chair. “Maybe I’ll just go help her pack. Do we have this mission resolved? Alexios and Grace are heading to Yellowstone to see what they can find out, protect the wolves, so on and so forth?”
“Yes, it is resolved. Alexios and Grace and I will go to Yellowstone,” Brennan said firmly, leaving no room for them to doubt his resolve. “There is also the matter of the final missing gems from the Trident. We must discover where the tourmaline, aquamarine, and amethyst have been hidden and retrieve them, or Atlantis cannot rise.”
“I love the gem names,” Riley said. “Poseidon’s Pride, the Emperor, and the Siren. Has Alaric figured out which is which yet?”
“Not yet,” Conlan said, holding his son to his shoulder and patting the infant’s back. A resounding burp sounded in the room, and everyone laughed.
“He takes after his uncle Ven,” Conlan said, grinning. Then his expression turned serious and he aimed a measuring stare at Brennan. “Are you sure? We can’t afford an incident if you react to the reporter as you did before. I am inclined to trust you, of course, as my father and those before him have trusted you for two millennia. But something is off about your reaction to her.”
Brennan, who had never disclosed the full terms of the curse to anyone, not even the kings and princes he’d served, nodded slowly. He was quite aware of the wrongness of his reaction to Tiernan Butler. The sea god’s proclamation rang in his mind: only when Brennan met his destined mate would his emotions return to him. But then he would forget her when she was out of his sight.
Destined mate. Destined to reach the soul-meld? But the Atlanteans’ most prized tenet was free will. Even lovers who had achieved the rare and precious state of being known as the soul-meld could choose to part, though it stunned Brennan to think that any would give up such a precious gift.
No matter, though. If the curse were coming to the fruition of its terms, he would need to be very, very careful indeed around Tiernan Butler, although an almost primal need drove him to see her again. To test his hypothesis.
Perhaps, after all these long, long years, to finally feel again. Even if just for a very short time.
He realized everyone was staring at him. “I am aware of the seriousness of the dilemma and will take all precautions,” he said. “But the members of the Seven are spread precariously thin these days. Lord Justice has gone to England with Dr. McDermott, Bastien is busy with Kat and the tripartite alliance building with the humans and panther shifters in Miami, and Christophe and Denal—”
“They’ve gone on a mission for me,” Ven interrupted. “Yes, you’re right. I never thought to see so many of the Seven gone away on so many different tasks, but the world is changing, and we must keep up with it. Perhaps Conlan should appoint some of you as official ambassadors and select new warriors to become part of his personal guard.”
Conlan was shaking his head before Ven even finished his sentence. “No, I won’t break up this team. You’re right about the need for ambassadorial roles, but—”
“But this is something we can consider at another time, maybe?” Riley asked. “For now, your son and I would like to have dinner with his daddy.”
Prince Aidan’s tiny mouth opened and he let out a loud wail as if in vehement agreement, and Conlan laughed. “You’re right,” he said. “For now, Brennan and Alexios will go to Yellowstone, discover what they can, and report back as soon as they learn anything.”
“And Grace,” Grace added, raising her chin.
“And Grace,” Conlan conceded.
Alexios opened his mouth as if to argue, but subsided after Grace shot a narrow-eyed glare his way.
“The world is changing, and this is only a discover-and-report mission. No danger,” Grace reminded him. Alexios scowled down at her, but the heat in his eyes belied the ferocity of his expression.
Again, something inside Brennan twisted—just the smallest of twinges, but enough to drive him to conclude the meeting. “Shall we reconvene at the portal in an hour?”
“One hour,” Alexios said.
Brennan gestured for everyone to precede him out of the room. Riley glanced back at Brennan over her shoulder as Conlan took the baby and walked ahead, laughing. She hesitated for a moment, biting her lip, but then she offered a brief smile and followed her husband and child as they left the room.
When the last of them had gone through the door, Brennan picked up the folded paper and carefully tore out Tiernan’s photograph and put it in his pocket. For recognition purposes, of course. He’d need to recognize her when he saw her.
Or at least that’s what he tried to convince himself.