“Stop trying to change the subject until I finish my statements. I think you are exquisite,” Ji whispered, snapping the bands at both shoulders. He ran his fingertips down until he stroked both her breasts to attention. “Your species is as responsive as Earthlings to a soft, appreciative touch. And your more reserved Ethosian nature is quite the challenge for a Siren male to warm up. Your beautiful body represents the perfect blend of female physical traits for me.”
“And if I never return your poetic adoration? Can a Siren commit to a female with so little capacity for returning his compassion?” Seta asked.
Ji stepped away from her to delay his reaction to her challenge. He knew she hadn’t really meant it as one. Seta was just being her honest, doubting self, as was usual for her. It was the Siren’s call trying to convince him everything she said was meant as mating challenge requiring a firm answer from him.
To give himself some time to calm down, Ji unbuttoned his shirt slowly, stripped it off, and tossed it on the bed where all her clothes already lay. His braid fell forward over his shoulder as he bent to unfasten his pants and toe off the foot coverings he’d worn. When he raised his head, Seta was holding the end of his braid between her fingers and rubbing it back and forth. The reverently appreciative look on her face deflated his rising anger, but made the rest of him hard and hurting to have her.
When she raised her gaze to his, Seta looked to be in great emotional pain. His heart contracted with an emotional reaction so fierce it froze him in place. At the moment, he wanted nothing more fiercely than to love and comfort her.
“You know, I used to wonder if any of your bonding partners ever braided this for you after you’d been with them. That tiny little detail used to eat away at my imagination even though I felt no curiosity at all about what you did with them otherwise. I felt jealous only of someone performing that tiny intimate task—and to this day I have no idea why. All I remember is that a part of me wanted to be the only female who braided your hair for you.”
Ji swallowed hard. Though not a declaration of love, her statement was a declaration of possession, even if a veiled one. The thought of Seta longing to possess him in any way at all was more thrilling than if she’d simply agreed to be his mate.
“Since we are confessing—I will tell you I lost count of the females who passed through my bed on the Paladin. I remember only the last one just before you. I remember her because she was the first partner in my entire Siren life that I was unable to pleasure. All I could think about was she wasn’t you and you didn’t want to be her. My sadness over my seemingly unsolvable dilemma was so great my body wouldn’t respond even in a cursory fashion. My entire family would have been ashamed of my failure if they knew. After her, I stopped asking females for bonding and contacted Synar about coming to the Liberator.”
“So you really did give up being captain of the Paladin because of me,” Seta said.
Ji stepped closer. His braid hung between their naked bodies. “It wasn’t about leaving the Paladin or my work there. It was about needing to be with you. Even though I didn’t understand my true motivation at the time, I now think I knew on some level your destiny was following a stronger path than mine. We are together now and it keeps me sane enough. The least word of kindness from your lips makes me forget everything except remaining at your side. Needless to mention, your invitation to share a cleansing just made my whole trip here worthwhile.”
Seta shook her head and dropped his braid. They both watched it swing down the front of him and swish across proof of his extreme physical interest in her. The reality of their connection was an uncomfortable tightening in her gut. It signaled a stronger neediness than when he had consoled her while she grieved for Rena. It signaled something growing between them she had vowed never to let happen with any male. She would not be owned. And she had no intentions of giving control of herself away.
She had issued the invitation as a way of having a private discussion. Her error loomed large between his legs. “What if I changed my mind about the cleansing offer?” she asked.
Ji smiled as he walked around Seta until he could stop and bend close to her ear. “You can either relieve me with your body, Sweet Joy, or you can watch me relieve myself. If you choose the latter, we’ll consider it training for future times when you decide at the last minute you aren’t in the mood.”
He leaned in and traced the edge of Seta’s ear with the barest brush of his lips, then righted himself to walk away when she shivered violently. “Come with me,” he ordered, leaving her to follow. “You can decide which it will be after we’ve rid ourselves of Ethosian desert dust.”
After he’d disappeared from sight, Seta covered her breasts with her own hands only to have to acknowledge the ache for Ji to be doing it. Because of him, she throbbed between her legs, a sensation only the boastful Siren male had ever caused in her.
Whirling around she marched to the cleansing area, opened the cylinder, and climbed inside. Liquid ran in tiny streams over every muscle of Ji’s body. It even dripped off his face onto her as she crowded close to him in the small space. Realizing what she wanted to do, she closed her eyes and cursed him for having the power to distract her from her original intention. She shivered when his sexy voice whispered into her ear.
“The streaming liquid should cover our words well enough if that was your plan. Is that why you got us naked so quickly?” Ji demanded.
Seta nodded. Telling herself to focus, she kept her face lowered and her eyes closed. “Ineid knew precisely what we were doing and that I was being sent to fetch Endara. She said Suzerain Trax has already sent several males to try and retrieve her, but none have returned. Rumor is the miners are killing them. I suspected the quest was no more than a trap to lure me back to Ethos, but apparently it is also because I am expendable.”
When Ji leaned back, he nodded solemnly and stared at her. Weary of fighting her own reaction to the male, she lifted her hand and let her fingers interrupt the streams rushing down his chest. “How do you turn off your bonding interest enough to focus on the problems we face? I can barely think like a rational female at the moment, much less a warrior. Your power over my body makes me resentful.”
She didn’t catch Ji’s mumbled words in Siren, but her feet leaving the floor quickly got her full attention as did the cold cylinder wall against her back. His determined mouth on hers ignited her response to him like a fire flint being struck to thatch. Talented lips sliding against her neck elicited a groan which escaped a mouth that wanted to call him back to kissing it.
This was not the sweetness he’d shown her in bonding up to now. This was raw. Needy. Desperate. And his obvious need for her made her ache. Her hand slid between them to investigate.
“You are a divine creature. Please, Seta. I must have you before I go mad with longing,” Ji croaked. The begging question bypassed all the promises he had made to himself to not touch her, but he couldn’t find the strength to take it back or to stop what was happening.