Saving Verakko: Chapter 6


By the time the morning came, Verakko was prepared to stab any animal that moved with his small knife. Losing a night of sleep was one thing. Being left for dead, beaten and bloodied in the jungle, was another. But Verakko had learned something insidious last night.

Lily made noises in her sleep.

Some were breathy sounds of fear that made him want to rush over and pull her close. Others were small gasps and pants that caused her breasts to quiver and his fangs to ache. Worst of all, a few times during the dead of night, she’d moaned, and the faintest trace of arousal had lingered in her scent.

The sounds had been soft and short-lived, but the feminine exhalations and scent had had his shaft hardening and his mind wandering to dark places. He’d tried to focus on their current predicament instead.

They’d need to cover more ground today. Verakko didn’t know exactly how much venom the Strigi male who’d dropped him had been dosed with, but if he’d only received a scratch, he may be close to recovered by now. Would the male return for him? Strigi were notorious for their single-minded pursuit of their goal, and if capturing him for questioning had been the goal, then he had to assume the Strigi would be on the hunt as soon as he was able. It was at least a possibility he had to take seriously. Not just for his sake, but for Lily’s.

Verakko estimated they had another day of hiking out in the open before the threat would force them to travel in the forest, ensuring cover from overhead.

He didn’t know how Lily would react to his suggestion that they move through the forest rather than along the river. So far, he had let her take the lead, had traveled in the way she wanted, but if there was a threat to her safety, he’d need to insist, and he didn’t look forward to that inevitable argument.

How long was she expecting to stay out here anyway? Her friend was gone. Verakko sensed she may believe the same but wasn’t ready to admit it. He worried about what would happen when she finally did. She was so strong, so competent. But she was also caring. To a level he didn’t understand. The way her eyes had shone with tears yesterday morning. The pain on her face had just about floored him.

He hoped that when she finally gave up searching, she’d let him be there for her. Hold her while she cried and whisper reassurances into her mop of tangled, gorgeous brown hair.

Verakko’s mind latched onto his thoughts, and his head jerked back. What was happening to him? He hated it when people cried. A few weeks ago, he’d tried to calm Alice, who’d been on the cusp of tears. But the only reason he’d done it was because he’d been literally trapped underwater in a meeting room with nowhere to escape to. He glanced at his hands for the hundredth time this morning and let out an irritated hiss to find them unmarked.

From the stories he’d heard, most of the mates from his family line had recognized each other fairly quickly upon meeting. Even his great aunts, who’d been legendary for not getting their marks until a year after they’d met, had recognized each other as potential mates from the first moment they’d locked eyes.

But if Lily was to be believed, his eyes hadn’t changed.

Was it because she was human? Maybe if he got her out of the forest and they were both safe and comfortable, their souls would relax and recognize each other. It was a long shot, yet the odd jumble of feelings he was experiencing for her after such a short time begged to be explored.

He might not know exactly where he was, but he knew of this river and knew it would eventually lead to two cities. They’d need to travel to one of them. At this point, they were both closer in distance than Tremanta by a long shot. The prospect of visiting either city sat heavy in his gut. Staying out here and letting Lily suffer was not an option, though. He’d need to decide which city to move toward soon.

She began to stir, and like an overeager male fresh from husbandry school, he nervously smoothed his hair. Realizing what he’d done, he promptly mussed it again. He cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders. At least he’d be able to burn off some of this inner turmoil during their hike. At present, his mood was beyond foul.

Why in the name of the Goddess had he been dropped into the presence of this tormenter? If he’d only recognized her, this whole situation would be different. He’d be overjoyed, attempting to woo her at every turn. Instead, he had to now watch her stretch her arms above her head in the dappled morning sunlight and pretend the slice of skin exposed below her top didn’t make his mouth water.

She rubbed her eyes and then squinted over at him. The gold flecks in her irises were bright, and the dark smudges underneath were gone. “Wow. Thank you for keeping watch. I haven’t slept for a full night in…well, I can’t remember how long.” She studied him. “You should’ve woken me up so we could take turns, though. You look like crap.”

“Why would I care about how I look to you?” he snapped, caring very much about how he looked to her.

She raised her hands in surrender. “I get it. You’re not a morning person. Noted.” She rolled her eyes and rummaged in her bag, mumbling, “So, even aliens need coffee.”

“Are you ready to go?”

She shot him an exasperated look. “I just woke up. Would you cool it? I want to brush my teeth and take a trip to the woods, then we can go.” She pulled a small, frayed twig and wooden bowl from her bag, then swept her gaze around the camp. “Can you hand me that rock?” she asked, pointing to a small stone near his knee.

Lily pushed the ashes of the long-dead fire around with a stick and tentatively grabbed a piece of charcoal. Verakko watched in fascination.

She crushed the charcoal into a fine powder, mixed a few drops of water in until a paste formed, and used the substance along with her twig to clean her teeth. Damn. Why did she have to be so impressive?

“Wha…?” she said around a mouth full of black charcoal. She’d caught him staring.

“I can go get whatever it is you need in the woods while you finish.” He didn’t have the experience she did to survive in the wild, but he could take direction. Make himself useful by fetching her things and carrying their load. He’d wanted to carry the bag for her all day yesterday, but a weak part of him had desired to hear her request his help. It had struck him as both vexing and endearing when he’d realized she never would. Especially since the woven green bag was wider than she was and looked moderately heavy.

She raised a brow and flushed her mouth out with water. “That’s okay. I can do it.”

Heat rose on his neck. “I insist.”

She stood and dusted off her clothing. “It’s fine. I’ll only be a minute.”

Frustration, mingled with his long, sleepless night, forced him to his feet. “Lily, I need to help in some way. You stay here, and I’ll go get whatever it is you need.” He advanced. She backed away, eyes wide. She’d slept soundly three feet away from him all night, and he’d just destroyed all that trust in a moment. “Why do you have to be so…so…difficult?”

Her look of worry instantly transformed, lips pulling tight and eyes narrowing. She shoved her hands on her hips. “Okay, you really want to help?”

“Yes!”

“Then let me pee in peace!” Without another word, she stomped away.

Way to go.

***

Just when she was beginning to feel like she understood him, he had to go and get all pushy again. She used some of her water to clean herself up and then made her way back toward camp, being sure to take her time.

It makes sense he’s grumpy, she admitted. He hadn’t slept all night, after all. Had he stayed awake because it was clear she’d needed a good night’s sleep more than him? Or had he done it out of some misguided sense of male duty to sacrifice his own needs and protect her while she slept?

Either way, she’d have to force him to take a turn sleeping tonight. If this was his mood after two nights of no sleep, she couldn’t imagine how much worse he’d be in a few days.

When she reached the camp, she froze in place. “What are you doing? That’s my toothbrush!”

Verakko was cleaning his teeth the same way she had, using her toothbrush. He shrugged and reached for the water container she’d brought with her. When she didn’t hand it over but instead glared at him, he crossed to her and plucked the canteen out of her hand.

Lily seethed. She didn’t share toothbrushes. It’d taken her countless tries to find the type of tree that would have sticks fibrous enough to create a brush and soft enough not to tear up her gums. Now she’d have to do it all over again.

She made short work of gathering her belongings—apparently their belongings now—and slung the bag over her shoulder. She hadn’t made it two steps before the weight was gone.

“Hey!” She spun, and her breath caught. He was only a few inches away. Her eyes focused on his broad chest first, then traveled upward to meet his gaze. He smirked.

Reaching forward, he brushed a hand across her cheek and into her hair. She had to stop herself from leaning into his touch. “You asked me to put my muscle to good use.” She felt a tug, and his hand reemerged, pinching a bright yellow leaf. “Remember?”

She cleared her throat. “Fine. I need to find a new toothbrush anyway. The bag will slow me down.” Traipsing past him, she kept her breaths even and her chin high.

They emerged onto the riverbank, and Lily frowned. It was only morning and the air was already thick and hot, the last of the early morning sunshine blocked out by a sheet of gray clouds. Gloomy day, gloomy companion, gloomy me.  

“We’ll have to stop earlier than normal today. We need time to boil more water, scavenge for food, and find you a few water containers of your own.” Lily said, halting at the edge of a particularly hazardous hillside.

The steep descent was covered in slippery bedrock and about fifteen feet high. She wiggled her toes and winced in anticipation. The soles of her once-bright-red flats were wearing thin. Thanks to the ankle straps, she’d managed not to lose the shoes in her rapids ride, but the cheap metal buckles of the ankle straps had cracked four days ago. Although her feet were quickly becoming calloused, no longer hurting as much during her daily hike, rocks were always painful.

Before she even heard Verakko move, he was next to her. “I could carry you today. We’d cover more ground faster, and then we’d have more time to hunt and find some real food.”

Carry me? “I know you’re a strong guy and all, but seriously? That’s crazy. You can’t car—” She gasped as Verakko swept her up, one arm under her knees and the other around her waist. She threw her arms around his neck on instinct. “Put me down!” Lily eyed the steep, rocky pass.

She glanced back to him and saw he was grinning. “Hold on tight.”

Before she could blurt out her rejection of his request, he’d jumped.

She screamed and buried her head against his chest. This is how I’m gonna die. A stupid man comes and takes stupid risks. Trying to show off. This is it. No more soda. No more French onion soup. No mo—

Hot breath near her ear brought her mind to the present. “Lily, you’re safe.”

The way he said her name in that velvety voice, like he was savoring it, sent a flutter through her stomach. She was still clutching his neck, her face buried against the warmth of his shoulder. His scent toyed with her again, making her relax despite herself.

Cautiously, she peered around and her lips parted. His leap had cleared the rocky outcrop. She focused on him. “How did you do that?”

His eyes were a deeper shade of emerald green, and from this close, she could see they were almost translucent, like the inside of a gem. Hypnotizing.

Lily knew she should let go of him, but he was so damn warm and firm and he smelled so good. She was used to the bad smells that came from extended camping trips; it was one of the reasons she loved her assortment of scented candles so much. It felt nice to be held by her own personal scented candle. A stray thought concerning the amount of sex she’d have to have with this giant in order for his smell to rub off on her danced through her mind.

He was staring at her mouth hungrily. Would he kiss her? Then his gaze traveled lower and settled on her neck. He ran a pointed tongue over his fang.

Fuck no!

“Put me down.” She squirmed. No way in hell was she letting some super-hot alien gnaw on her carotid. A surprising jolt of electricity shot directly to her clit as she imagined his fangs brushing against the sensitive skin.

He set her back on her feet, but the arm around her waist stayed locked in place. “It’s easier this way. It would’ve taken you ages to climb down.”

Lily balled her fists and glared up at him. It was true. She couldn’t move as fast as he did, and she hated feeling less than. Hated feeling like she was holding someone back or slowing them down. “No one’s stopping you from going on ahead. I can take care of myself. Don’t let me hold you back.”

She could’ve sworn a look of hurt flashed over his face. “The only reason I’m out here at all is because of you. Why would I decide to leave you behind now?”

Gah! She wasn’t some charity case. “Because I don’t want you here!” The lie settled in her gut, cold and heavy.

He scowled, remaining silent, and his scent intensified.

Lily’s eyes drooped before she snapped them open. “Stop that! Whatever that whole smell thing is, turn it to zero.” Lily tried to move away, but he pulled her in closer.

“I told you, I’m not doing it on purpose. You smell whatever your brain wants you to. It just happens. And my scent should only be pleasing to you, not intoxicating.” A wicked grin spread over his face. He wrapped his other arm around her waist and pressed her into his body. Her heartbeat picked up speed. “Are you sure it isn’t just that you find me sexy?”

She sputtered. “No I don’t!” Hell yeah she did.

He frowned again, and a low, rattling growl escaped him. It almost sounded like a ragged, resonant hiss. Although she’d never heard a sound quite like it before, the intention was clear. She’d been warned. “Look, little female. I can’t control it, so stop complaining about it.” His hand shot up to grip the back of her neck, dragging it forward until his mouth was a breath away from her ear. “You don’t hear me complaining every time the scent of arousal floods your cunt.”

Lily choked on her retort as her sex grew wet. His warm breath on her ear, paired with the firm grip on her nape and the massive bulge pressing into her belly, had already muddled her thoughts. Now, hearing those dirty words uttered in a sexy-as-sin voice? If she hadn’t been so shocked by the idea that he could actually smell her arousal, she might’ve melted into him right there.

His grip tightened for a second before he jerked away, putting space between them.

He let out a sound of frustration. “Yes, that smell. You think it doesn’t drive me up a wall?”

Lily was left cold and weak. She’d been just about ready to throw caution to the wind and twine her arms around his neck.

“But I don’t constantly attack you for your smell. I know you can’t help it. It’s a natural physical response.” He stalked past her. “Stop pestering me about mine.”

Lily’s cheeks flamed. Was all that sexiness a ploy to seduce her into making a point? The nerve!

She sped after him. “I haven’t seen any men in a month. At this point, an old, hobbled Davy Crockett would garner the same response. Don’t flatter yourself.”

Lie. Lie. Lie.

Verakko aimed a death glare at her, then stalked forward at a pace she couldn’t match without jogging. Lily let out a pent-up huff and followed.

Forget about him. The sooner you find Alex, the sooner you can get out of here and ditch that overgrown chameleon for good.

The reminder of Alex served to cool some of her anger. The subdued dread she’d felt for days on end before Verakko had arrived replaced it. Maybe it was better to think about Verakko and her anger. Maybe then, the hollow guilt and worry wouldn’t claw at her insides, demanding to be acknowledged.

Lily continued on, taking her time to scan the water and land for any signs of Alex. How realistic was it that she would’ve floated this far? The river had a few spurts of calm, long enough for a floating person to swim to shore at least. Why hadn’t she found any evidence yet? Had it all really been washed away, like she kept trying to convince herself?

Lily swallowed a lump in her throat and tears burned in her eyes. She was grateful Verakko’s back was to her.

There was a possible answer as to where Alex had gone, but she didn’t think she could stomach it at the moment. If she got caught by a boulder or log and it pulled her under… Nausea roiled in her gut, and Lily had to stop. Alex is alive. She was tired and couldn’t make it, so she kept floating, and then the storm washed all signs of her away. That was all there was to it.

Just breathe. In. Out. In. Out.

“Do you need a break already? Water?” Verakko called from in front of her, his tone edged with irritation.

A spark of indignation flared, and she let it overtake her. “No, I’m fine!”

He crossed his arms over his chest and scanned her body in a way that made her skin tingle. “We’ve only been walking for an hour or so. Are you already tired?”

“I said I’m fine. I just had a pebble in my shoe.”

Verakko turned, grumbling about something under his breath, likely her.

They resumed their silent hike, him in front and her trailing behind. He slowed a few times, probably giving her the opportunity to catch up, but she made sure to slow her pace when he did. Sending a clear message that she wanted to walk alone.

Lily replayed what he’d said earlier about his scent. Could he really not control it? He’d compared it to the smell she put off when aroused. If that was the case, then did that mean she was smelling his arousal too? How could that be? She hadn’t even known that was something people could smell. He wasn’t exactly “people,” though, was he.

He’d said her brain was choosing what he smelled like. Could that be true? Her mind wandered back to a memory she’d thought about often over the years, and she knew why her subconscious had chosen crisp, burning cedar.

She’d been fifteen or maybe sixteen and camping in Turkey. Her parents had decided they’d wanted to hike the Carian Trail, and as always, they’d brought her along. Unlike many of their trips, this one was like a vacation for Lily. They’d followed a cleared path, slept in a tent, and packed food. They’d even brought a lighter with them that time. A real lighter, not a fire starter or a bow drill, but an easy-to-use one-click lighter.

Looking back, she suspected they’d done it because of her incessant whining. When you’ve been dragged around the world practicing primitive bushcraft survival techniques and hunting for all your food and water, even a bag of trail mix seems luxurious. There was another reason that trip had been so special to Lily too. There’d been people.

One handsome, tall teenage boy in particular.

His family and hers had both been headed in the same direction and had decided to hike together. The family was from New Zealand, and the boy’s parents had been fascinated by her parents’ descriptions of truly living and thriving in the wilderness. To her utter embarrassment, her parents had forced Lily to demonstrate flint knapping and point out all the edible plants she saw as they’d walked, claiming the education she’d received from them was far better than any she could’ve gotten from traditional schools.

When she’d gutted and fileted a fish without batting a lash, the boy had given her such a bewildered look. As if she’d had two heads. Looking back, she understood she hadn’t been a normal teenage girl.

She was so wrapped up in the past that she wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings and walked directly into Verakko, who stood staring at her with an odd expression. Just like the boy had.

Panic swamped her, and she glanced up to see the sun was shining high in the sky, peeking through the surrounding dark clouds. How long had they been walking for? “We need to go back!” she yelled, already heading in the opposite direction on the verge of tears. “I was thinking about something else, and I didn’t watch for signs of Alex. I could’ve missed her.”

Verakko wrapped a large palm around her arm and swung her around. “Calm down. I kept watch. There was no sign of her.”

Lily could still hear the blood rushing in her ears, but there was something else. Verakko’s voice echoed in her head again, trying to find somewhere to stick. Instead of pushing his words out like before, she listened and, despite herself, she calmed. “Really?”

“Really.” He ran his palms down her arms and gave her a lopsided grin. “I want to find her as much as you do.”

How could she have been so careless?

She eyed Verakko, and the last of her panic faded. He’d done something to calm her down with his voice. She knew that for sure, even if she was unclear as to how he’d done it. But he looked sincere, and regardless of their constant bickering, she trusted him not to lie about something as important as a missing person.

“Here, drink some water.” He held the canteen out to her expectantly.

“You first.” An anxious edge still lingered in her tone, and she amended, “I mean, you need to drink too. You haven’t had anything for almost two days.”

Verakko took a long breath and ran a hand through his somehow flawless hair. “How long can a human survive without water?”

Lily shrugged. “About three days, but it depends on myriad other things.”

Verakko’s eyes widened and concern creased his brow. “Goddess…three days? You only have two canteens. Why didn’t you…” He paused at the warning look Lily gave him and held the canteen back out to her with raised brows. “I can go two weeks.”

Two whole weeks with no water? “How?”

He shook the canteen at her when she didn’t move to take it. “I’m not a doctor. Do you know how you can go one day with no water?”

“Yes,” she said instantly, earning her a frown. Her parents had made it a point to teach her exactly how her body worked. If she were on her way to death, she’d know specifically which organs were failing and why. Lucky me. So far, her two butternut-squash-sized canteens had managed to stave off the warning signs of dehydration.

“Well, I don’t. We don’t have as many sweat glands as some of the other Clecanian races. Or humans.” He eyed her damp forehead and her lower chest, where she was sure a lovely line of underboob sweat was present. “That has a lot to do with it, I think. Our kidneys are different too. And our skin helps regulate temperature.”

Lily took a large gulp of water. She’d been holding back, wanting to make sure they both had enough, but now she felt okay about truly quenching her thirst. “At least you know some stuff, I guess. They don’t teach you about your own anatomy in husbandry school?”

Verakko pinned her with a dark look. “I can assure you, we were all more interested in learning the ins and outs of female anatomy to waste time on studying our kidneys.” He let his gaze roam down her body again, and she stifled a shiver.

“We’re probably very different. I mean, human women and your women.”

“As I explained before, we’re the same species.” He held her gaze. “You’re similar enough. I bet I could find my way around.”

Butterflies flapped around in her stomach, and her heart pounded furiously.

Verakko’s brows furrowed in thought as he looked at her. He gave his head a small shake and replaced the water canteen in the pack.

Lily was burning to know what he’d been wondering just then, but she clamped her mouth shut.

Verakko peered into the sky, and to her shock, a dark, translucent second lid slid down over his bright green eyes. Without thinking, she grabbed his face and wrenched it down to her own. “You have a second lid! How cool. You have no idea how many times I wished I had something like this. You go on a three-week trip into the Australian outback and lose your sunglasses the first day—trust me, constant squinting messes with your sanity, not to mention the wrinkles I must’ve accumulated. It’s like you have built-in sunglasses! This would’ve come in so handy if only for the flies. My God, they’re terrible there. You wouldn’t eve—”

A low, rattling vibration, more melodic than the growl he’d directed at her before, sounded from his chest, and she jumped away.

“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I just got excited. I shouldn’t have grabbed you like that. What was that sound?”

“It was nothing.” Verakko straightened, clearing his throat.

Lily stared at the spot on his chest where the sound had come from, then back to his face. She held back a wide smile at what she found.

Verakko, the sour, proud, strong alien, appeared…ruffled.

“As I was saying.” His gaze darted, and a deeper cerulean tinted his high cheeks. He glanced around again. “What was I saying?”

Lily bit her lip to keep from grinning. “Do you mean, what were you saying before you started blushing?”

His blush deepened. “I am not blushing,” he said, then stomped away. Something in the trees caught his attention, and he stopped again. He motioned triumphantly toward the tree line. “Ah! I was going to ask when you were planning to stop. There’s a guren tree here.”

“We can stop now.”

Without looking at her, he nodded and made his way over to the tree. Lily studied his six-and-a-half-foot frame as he plucked the guren nuts from limbs higher than she could reach while jumping, and smiled again.

What was that sound, and how can I get him to make it again?

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