But he’d come up the hardest way, in the Agoge training school of Sparta, where he’d clawed for every crumb he ever got. It had been true survival of the fittest, with Leo struggling to thrive like a desperate weed in the sundried bricks of that place. That was when he’d learned to face any challenge, physical or psychological. He’d brought that iron-willed strength to Thermopylae, to all the battles he’d waged in the old days and ever since, and he wasn’t about to start backing down now.
Daphne belonged to him; it was only a matter of fully claiming her before the Highest God himself. In his human life, he’d loved his wife Gorgo deeply, but now, all these years later, he could no longer recall her face, much less her touch. But when he kissed Daphne, something unearthly, mystical ignited inside his heart; it was an eternal love, the kind that could survive the bonds of death and rebirth. And if that bastard brother of hers continued to separate them by intimidation, Leo wasn’t above waging war against the cruel god. He’d done so already, besting Ares in two recent battles.
She slid both arms about his neck as he lowered her slowly onto her feet. She was light, so light, in his grasp—and yet so fully a woman that his breath hitched as her breasts pressed against his thick chest. For one long moment, their gazes locked—Daphne with her thin arms twined about him, her breath warm against his skin as she pressed her face into the crook of his neck. His lips parted slightly, and he nearly pressed his mouth to hers. But no . . . Not yet.
There was something he wanted much more than a kiss. To feel her body, that lithe, feminine body, beneath his own much larger, bulky one, just as he’d promised. Maybe it would be awkward, a bit inelegant, but he didn’t care. He always had been the bull dreaming of making love to a fairy queen, of holding a butterfly against his warrior’s chest. And he’d had plenty of practice taking Daphne without hurting her—all in his fantasies. He would be gentle with her now; he vowed it.
Rummaging in his saddlebag, he located his crimson cape. He’d brought it intentionally, with a particular plan in mind. Keeping one arm about her waist, he unfurled his crimson cape with a romantic flourish, making a blanket for them in the crisp field of grass. He watched the Spartan cloak settle, and swallowing hard in anticipation, he turned to Daphne. Her blue eyes had grown wide, a rosy flush infusing her cheeks as she stared at the makeshift bed. She chewed on her lower lip, seeming troubled. Wasn’t this what she wanted?
But then she turned back to him, her pale blue eyes flashing with heat and desire, all hesitation completely gone. He seized the moment, pulling her into his arms, and into a fervent kiss. Pain spiked through his right knee as they sank to the ground, tumbling together—the ancient war wound had been hurting more with every passing day. But for once, he ignored the torturous injury, losing himself in Daphne’s arms. Her hands were all in his hair, tangling in his thick, short curls, grasping as if she couldn’t possibly have enough of him.
Shifting his hips, he leveraged his thigh, parting her legs and settling heavily there. He was a large, bulky man, and she was so delicate and small by comparison. He tried to go slowly, but after all these months it was hard to rein himself in, especially when she drew her knees up about his legs. The shifting movement positioned his groin squarely against her intimate place, and he ached to feel her damp and wet with desire, to stroke her there.
She seemed to crave that very thing because she squeezed her thighs, lifting and urging him onward with a muffled, enthusiastic cry against his neck. In response, he began a subtle rocking motion, each thrust tightening his groin even more, every motion causing her to respond in kind, the two of them mimicking the act he so desperately longed to complete.
“Oh, gods, Daphne.” He released a low, hot groan against her neck. He could smell the sweet aroma of arousal on her skin, taste the way her pulse fluttered beneath his lips. “Daphne mine, you’re blessed torture.”
She smiled up at him, a gleam in her eyes. “I want to make you hot and bothered and unable to hold back. I want you begging me . . .”
He released a groan of frustration and desire. “So . . . that’s your evil plan. I hope you will see it through to the very end.”
She tangled her thin arms about his neck, pulling him closer. Pressing her lips against his temple, she whispered, “I intend to rule the universe, with you my only subject.”
He pulled back, gazing down into her eyes. “Are you saying you would consent to be my queen?” he asked, searching her face. He’d spent the past year so intent on simply capturing her that he’d never even contemplated formalizing their relationship.
She answered by holding him closer, drawing his mouth to hers for a kiss. He grew so aroused that he ached with it, his cock pushing painfully against the metal zipper of his pants, and his balls tightening like a bowstring.
But she didn’t shy away; in fact, she kissed him harder. She stroked her tongue against his in slow, tantalizing sweeps, each time seeming to taste him more deeply. Her hands roamed his back, his hair, his shoulders. In response, he cradled one palm beneath her buttocks, drawing her upward on a twin surging motion of their bodies.
After a moment when he felt drunk with that kiss, she finally pulled away. Sinking back against the ground, her breathing came in ragged, uneven pants. “Leo, I want you . . . more than I’ve ever wanted you.”
He stared down into her eyes, the clear blue of them like gazing into the Aegean . . . but with a tempest coming. He kept his body atop hers, suspended there, wanting her with more desperation than he’d ever felt before. And yet, an invisible force held him in check: the knowledge that she would likely leave him again after this. Every separation from her became only more unbearable—what would such parting be like once they became lovers? Unendurable, he was certain.
“Daphne.” He leaned up on both elbows, staring at her solemnly. “Promise me you won’t vanish on me, not after this. Not if we become . . . if I take you, uh . . . make . . .” His face flushed, and finally he clamped his mouth closed, giving up on the effort. Why did his asinine shy streak always surface with Daphne, and when he most needed composure?
“Go on, Leo,” she prompted, smiling up at him with gentle patience. She placed a cool palm against his heated face. “You know you can speak your mind with me.”
He drew in a sharp breath and dove in again. “If we are lovers,” he managed to force out, “then you will stay.”
She stroked his cheek, studying his face with an intensity he didn’t quite understand. As if memorizing his features, trying to ensure she knew every line, every scar. “I won’t go again, Leonidas, not this time,” she vowed, threading her fingers through his hair.
Suddenly her eyes grew wider, panic filling her gaze. Her hand froze, still twined in one of his short, wiry curls.
He frowned at her. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head mutely, her gaze flicking over his countenance with silent intensity. What had she just seen in him? What was causing her to be so fearful that she began trembling beneath his big body?
“Daphne, tell me,” he urged, but she responded by tugging his head downward decisively. She covered his mouth with hers and sank her tongue deep inside his mouth, as if she meant to consume him, take him into her very core and hold him captive. It was the most fervent, aggressive kiss she’d ever given him. She began pulling at the hem of his linen shirt, working it upward. He complied hungrily, only breaking the kiss long enough to strip out of the rough fabric.
Her small, warm hands swept over his back, a smooth contrast to the hideous scars that marred his shoulders and middle back. She didn’t seem to notice, kneading her fists against his muscles, moaning into his mouth as they kissed.
He cupped a firm hand along her nape. “Daphne,” he murmured against her lips, “I love you. I love you with all that is in me, and—”
He wasn’t able to finish—a hard male laugh rang out, piercing the field’s mellow, late day quiet like a pistol shot.