James pulled Ginny back through the hall, through the thinning crowd of pensioners, and across the other kitchen. It was the only purple door with a green triangle, just as Loki had said. Bollocks, he was acting like a brainless ape, like one of his brothers, but she’d completely blindsided him. What kind of game was she playing here? Pretending to cook and, what? Polluting and spoiling the food maybe, possibly making the old and weak sick. Famine was a corrupting factor. Was this proof of that corruption? His stomach clenched, and adrenaline raced through his body. He needed an explanation. Now.
He released her as soon as they made it into the kitchen, and she regarded him warily while he paced back and forth on the opposite side of the counter, his thoughts racing. It could mean she wasn’t as dangerous as he’d feared…or much more dangerous than he’d feared. Maybe it was best he turn her over to USELESS. He grimaced, the thought making him nauseous.
She sighed, and he stole a glance at her as she bent over and checked on her baking. The skirt of her dress hugged her bottom and revealed toned, creamy legs. She looked shagtastic. Not that there’d been much doubt after feeling it in his palms that first night when he’d caught her, then again last night when he’d carried her over the threshold.
He gave his head a shake and rubbed a hand down his face. Not that it mattered a whit. Nor should it have mattered that the entire kitchen smelled heavenly. Cranberries and some kind of spice. His mouth watered.
He may or may not have had a hard time taking his eyes off her ass. Again.
She turned and wrapped her arms around herself, but glanced at him only sparingly, instead staring at either the scuffed floor or her red Mary Janes. “So. Are you going to tell my parents?”
“Tell your…?” He’d lost track of reality somewhere along the line. He put his hands on his hips, scrubbed his hair again. “What game are you playing here? You could hurt those pensioners by spoiling the food.”
Her mouth opened, then she snapped it shut. “I…you think I’m spoiling the muffins?”
Well, he had up until two seconds ago. “Then what are you doing with them?”
Color climbed her pale cheeks, and her gaze skittered away. “I…” She took a breath, and met his eyes. “I bake them. And you didn’t seem to mind last night. Those were my muffins at the house.”
He let out a bark of laughter at the joke. But she wasn’t joining him. His skin began to tingle. “You bake them? Are you actually a Famine heir?”
She put her hands on her hips. “I’m sorry. Did you just accuse my family and I of lying about our heritage?”
“No! Well, maybe. Are you?”
“Yes, I’m Famine clan. Much good that it’s ever done me,” she grumbled.
This was getting them nowhere. He stepped forward and braced both hands on the counter top across from her, then waited until she met his gaze. “Sod it. I’m a Famine heir, and you’re the Famine heir, but you’re telling me you can cook? And no one can resist your food?”
She leaned over and braced her elbows on the table, and balanced her chin in her hand.
He tried really hard not to notice the way it allowed him a very tempting glimpse down the front of her dress.
“For the record, I’m not telling you any of that…not that it makes much difference at this point. But yes, I can cook. And bake. And do all kinds of wonderful things with food that have nothing to do with making it green and fuzzy.”
Still not exactly clear what that meant…or could mean. She was the Famine heir. They destroyed food and sustenance. Starved people. According to family lore, it was their raison d’être.
Maybe if he went at the topic sideways. Loki’s suggestion bubbled up to him again, even as James’s stomach growled at the smell of the muffins. One would think he’d never eaten the way his mouth watered for the things.
“What happened at your bachelorette party?”
She straightened and blinked. “The bachelorette party?”
“Yes. The one where, from what little I know, your friend ascended to become the personification of Pestilence. Perhaps it rings a bell?” he drawled, a brow rising.
She crossed her arms over her chest again, pushing up the bounty of her…muffins. Bloody hell, she seemed unaware of how appealing she was in that dress, how it hugged her figure to perfection.
“Someone’s been whispering secrets to you, have they? Fine. Yes, Piper gained her abilities. She’s risen to be the first of the four. She may have unintentionally unleashed a plague. The whispers about our rising started late last year among the seers, and I’m up next. It’s because of those rumors that your family agreed to the match in the first place, isn’t it?”
“It’s faster that way. The timer is going to go off soon, and I don’t want my muffins to burn because we’re fighting.”
“Is that what this is? A lover’s quarrel?”
The air thickened around them. Along with other parts of his anatomy. Ginny’s eyes rounded, while he wondered if she was still wearing the garter strap.
She swallowed, and frowned at him, her irritation forced. “I’m not sure this is a fight, but I suppose we have to clear the air.” She glanced back at the oven. “Three minutes. Why did you marry me?”
He opened his mouth, but she stopped him with a raised hand.
“Please, no nonsense of pleasing your family. You hardly said two words to them all of yesterday, and you didn’t even want to say goodbye even though your parents flew out last night.”
She was a hell of a lot more observant than he’d given her credit for. Mistake number…bollocks, at this point it was probably mistake two million and three or so.
“Do you have any proof or reason to believe you’re rising next?” If she was willing to be so open, all the better to find out what he could.
She hesitated, then reached into her pocket. Then plonked the biggest, ugliest grasshopper he’d ever seen down on the counter between them.
A squidgy feeling made the apple and tea less comfortable in his stomach. In the places he’d worked, he’d seen some ugly insects, even a literal plague of locusts. But then the bright green insect in front of him stood up on hind legs and seemed to cross its enormous front legs and twitch its antennae at him. As though waiting for a response.
“You’ve taken up bug collecting? And carrying them around?” he asked, lacking the courage to take his eyes off the thing.
Ginny snorted. “Hardly. This is…” She gestured toward the bug, then shrugged and crossed her arms again. “He’s my horse.”
Hmm. Maybe it wasn’t just him feeling like he’d lost the plot today. Ginny hadn’t been stealing the pensioners’ meds, had she? “The grasshopper…is a horse?”
“His name is Roger. He’s more metaphorical than actually…horse-like.” She shifted, as though perhaps even she realized how ridiculous her story was. “My friend has a book about all this stuff. You know—the horsemen, the legends, whatever she’s been able to track down. And it says the horses will arrive in a clan-related form appropriate to the horseman’s—me, in this case—level of ability. The fact that Roger’s an insect should tell you something.”
That book sounded like something he’d very much like to see in person. Though for now, James dared to lean closer and study the insect. Grasshopper, like the crop eating locusts, perhaps, who caused famine. The bug seemed to study James back with unnervingly human-like intensity. “Will he stay an insect?”
Ginny leaned down, and their gazes met over the grasshopper named Roger. “Probably not. Piper had a toad to start, but it grew as her abilities did. Next into a skunk, then a truck.” She bit her lip a second and took a little breath, as though preparing herself for the next words. “Did you marry me just because of my ability? To try and find some way to steal them, or use me?”
Bloody hell, but she was direct. Dangerously so. She’d been able to tell the last time he’d lied. So how could he answer and not get himself in trouble?
“I don’t want to steal your abilities,” he hedged. True enough. He didn’t want to steal them. USELESS wanted to, or rather, to render her harmless.
But, wait. Maybe after all this, he could convince her to see reason. Maybe they were on the same side after all. Maybe he could convince her to give up her abilities to USELESS, or vow an oath of non-harm. “Do you want to use your abilities to hurt anyone?”
“Why would I—” The buzzer on the oven cut off Ginny’s words, and she blinked, then turned back around and busied herself with oven mitts and pulling out steaming trays of those muffins, almost as delectable as the woman herself. She put all but one on wire racks, then reached up for a plate in one of the cupboards, and brought one of the treats back to the counter, splitting it open with her fingers.
She hissed and dropped it back onto the plate, cradling her injured digits.
He acted before he thought, and reached for her hand. Tugged her closer, even across the counter. And brought her fingers to his mouth.
They were both half leaning across the counter, a giant grasshopper and a steaming muffin between them. Her fingertips tasted like sugar, cinnamon, with just the slightest hint of something tart, possibly the cranberries. He’d been wrong last night. The muffin last night was a pale comparison in flavor to her. He suckled gently.
Her eyes widened, her lips parted.
Heat and lust shot through him with an intensity he’d never felt before, like he’d been struck by lightning. It’d never felt this good. He was aching and hard. He licked again at her fingertip, pulling her ever closer.
He leaned his free hand on the counter and felt the tickle of antennae against his wrist. A glance down showed the grasshopper…caressing him.
This kiss, letting desire distract him, was utterly mad. He’d finally been getting answers from Ginny, the answers he’d come half a world to find out, and maybe find an ally instead of an enemy, and he was willing to throw it all away because he was feeling randy?
He took her fingers from his mouth. “Ginny, I’m—”
She lunged the short distance across the countertop and pressed her lips to his, swallowing his words.
After a moment of acute shock, and the discovery his bride was a bit inexperienced in the kissing department—what the hell had been wrong with her first husband?—he twitched his hand away from the smarmy bug, and instead wrapped his hands around Ginny to pull her closer. And then deepened the kiss, tasted her.
He’d been mistaken about the taste on her fingertips being from her baking. It was her. She really tasted of sugar and spice…and something not quite as nice, but tart and challenging. Wild. Irresistible. It spurred on the wanting, the lust.
He angled her lips for better access and continued to explore while little mewls of pleasure vibrated up her throat. The blasted countertop was suddenly too big a barricade between them. Somehow it was natural to pull back only long enough to hop the counter, slide over onto the other side, and pull Ginny’s softness against him. Those breasts, those brilliant breasts. He might take up writing odes as he slid his hand up the soft cotton of her dress and tested the weight of those precious orbs.
Maybe not odes. That sounded a tad cheesy. Though true.
She pulled back for a moment, and they both panted for breath. “I’m sorry. I…I know we said we’d take it slow.”
“Bollocks slow,” he said, and stole her lips again. He tugged her more firmly against the ridge of his erection, her softness perfectly cuddling him, her skirts leaving little barrier. Was there a lock on this kitchen door?
The door swung open. “We ran out! Are those muffins re— Oh! I, um, sorry. I’m sorry,” the chef from the main kitchen said, her face bright pink. She stumbled back into the wall rather than the door, since she was trying to shield her eyes.
“Cupcakes,” Ginny muttered and pulled away, the mood cooling faster than the muffin on the counter. It still steamed. “Megan. Wait. I’m sorry.” Now it was Ginny’s face that was hot. “I know this is completely unprofessional. And in your kitchen…”
“Oh. No. You’re newlyweds. He’s hot. I, um, I… Can I look now?” The petite blonde faltered.
James cleared his throat, and swiftly put the counter to good use to hide what his trousers could not. “Quite all right. You’re here for your muffins? Ginny just pulled them from the oven a moment ago. None of this is her fault. I…”
Ginny stared at him, her face bright pink, her gaze faltering, making it clearer than words that she’d likely never been caught making out before. Why the hell not? Her first husband must have been a complete wanker. Another surge of lust, accompanied by thoughts of what he could teach her and what fun they could have with some ingredients from her kitchen. Whipped cream and cherries to start.
He should feel bad that she was embarrassed, but he’d happily repeat the kiss. Then again, there was growing evidence he was a complete prat.
“It was completely my fault,” he said.
Ginny’s gaze flashed up to meet his, and it didn’t matter that there was someone else in the room.
“Not that I can be honest and say I regret it,” he said, his voice raspy. “Because given half a chance, I’m likely to repeat my actions.” Only this time, he’d lock the door first.
A small, hopeful smile blossomed on Ginny’s face, and it felt like he’d hung the moon.
“O-kay. So, I’ll just gather up my muffins and leave you two alone, shall I?” Megan said, gathering muffins in the empty baskets she carried at incredible speed. She never looked up. “Or know what? Why not go back to your place? These seniors will probably be listening at the door.” The blonde promptly escaped as quickly as she’d collected her edibles.
Leaving he and Ginny once more alone. The spicy, delectable steam of the muffins swirled around them. The heat zipped through their bodies. Last night, he’d wondered if seducing her would be too smarmy. But today? It was clear her first husband had been a sad arse. She deserved all the pleasure he could give her. If she really was a Famine capable of cooking, maybe she wasn’t dangerous at all. Maybe this was the evidence he needed to convince USELESS to leave her be.
He just needed to be sure. “Ginny, about the baking…” He said, his voice thick with lust. He’d much rather have asked her where the nearest bed was rather than if she planned to end the world.
Ginny reached for the lone remaining muffin, the one on the plate beside—yep, the grasshopper was still there, too.
Still, even the bug couldn’t completely dampen the desire surging through James as Ginny picked a small piece of muffin off between her fingers, and held it up toward his lips. “Want to try my muffin?”
Now was it just him, or did that sound like a whole lot more than an offer to sample her baking? Gods help him if it was just wishful thinking.
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