I t was the most elaborate of dances, just like the old queens had shown her. The fantastic story she told on the beach had a foundation of pure truth, enhanced by exotic, graceful pivots and turns. Evasion was not done with malice, but from a solid place of love within her soul. None of what she told him was illusion as she peeled away onion-thin layers of his hurt, allowing each veil to flow over his ego and drop to the sand while she exposed herself to him bit by bit.

There was a family to maintain, crazy scientists still on their trail, men of knowledge without wisdom who had almost blown up the world. There were so many things out there that still went bump in the night. An almost-lover was still in another realm eating his heart out... but all of those problems could wait for another night to be resolved.

In all this mayhem that would probably never cease, she'd learned on this adventure that to fall on one's sword was not an act of weakness or surrender, but sometimes the most courageous thing one could do. She'd learned how to pull back, retreat, and live to fight another day-- something she'd never fully understood until now. She also understood from firsthand experience how her man had gotten himself into precarious situations, and would forever suspend judgment after all she'd been through. She'd definitely learned the power of an apology meant in earnest, and where the invisible border of the Land of Going Too Far was. In all these important lessons that were crucial for the development of a true queen, she'd figured out how to pace herself and prioritize.

Right now, the man sitting on the beach with her was that... a dear, sweet priority, who deserved time, attention, healing, and more. A good man who'd backed himself into an ego corner, had lashed out, and gotten hurt, but now needed her, his woman, to open the secret door to salvage his pride. So she danced a flowing dance, explaining all but not everything. She let his mind fill in the blanks during every delicate pause and breath.

’’Now does that make sense?’’ she said gently, still talking with her hands as they sat side by side.

Carlos nodded, but kept his gaze on the sand. ’’I thought you weren't coming back,’’ he admitted quietly. ’’After all the mess I've done, I couldn't blame you.’’

’’I wasn't going nowhere,’’ she said, hoping that he'd look up and see the truth in her eyes. ’’I had to be the one to go get the Caduceus... it has healing powers that only work from a woman's hands. Eve gave it to me, so it holds my charge, and I have to be the one to give it back to the queens for safekeeping.’’

’’That why they called you for the meeting?’’ He'd asked the question while digging a small hole in the sand with a shell.

She paused, evaded, but would not he to him. ’’They wanted me to learn some lessons.’’

’’Guess we both got taken to school today, huh?’’

She smiled when he looked up at her. But his eyes seemed so sad as he considered her disheveled condition and went back to digging in the sand.

’’Like I said, I can't say nothing to you about what probably went down... or whatever you had to do to get him to give up the staff.’’ Carlos shrugged absently and pitched away the shell. ’’I ain't mad;I don't have a right to be.’’

Damali looked over her revealing outfit and sighed. ’’They sent me in there with theater,’’ she admitted. ’’Thought it best if I went in unarmed, and appealed to his Old World sense of what a woman was supposed to be, instead of going head to head with him as a warrior.’’

Carlos nodded, the muscle pulsing in his jaw. ’’I know. I understand why you had to be the one to do that, and why I couldn't. It's cool.’’

’’They wanted me to catch him off guard,’’ she said quietly, ’’but not kill him.’’ She let her breath out hard. ’’They also didn't want me to kill you... and I told them that if I went too far, it would.’’

He looked up at her with a very quiet, unspoken yet urgent question shimmering in his brown irises. Then he looked at her hands. ’’Did they give you those?’’ he whispered, staring at his tattoo in her palms.

Damali turned her palms up for him to inspect. ’’I wanted to go in there very clear about what I would and would not do.’’ She could almost feel the silent one-ton weight lift from his shoulders. ’’He was very disappointed that I had only come for the Caduceus. But he'll have to get over it.’’

She watched Carlos swallow a smile as his quietly pleased gaze sought the sea. ’’I'm sorry that I allowed him to nick me in the throat,’’ she said. ’’That was wrong.’’

Carlos lifted his chin, pride putting tension in his shoulders again. ’’Like I said, it was cool.’’ ’’No, it wasn't,’’ she said softly. ’’But for the record, it didn't leave a mark.’’

He gave her a sidelong glance. ’’Hey, we don't have to talk about it. It's squashed.’’

She began digging in the sand between her feet with a small shell. Ahhh... Nefertiti was so wise, the queen's bath so mystical... ’’I want you to lean in, open your vamp radar, and inspect my throat.’’

’’That ain't necessary, D, after all we've been through and everything you told me. It's enough for me that you know what this asshole was trying to do against humanity, so--’’

’’Do it for me,’’ she said softly. ’’So I can sleep at night knowing you know, even if you don't care. Thinking that you still don't trust me, even if you do, will worry me beyond the grave. It's a woman thing... can you do that for me, baby?’’

Carlos gave her a slight scowl. ’’Only because Mar showed me how y'all's minds work am I gonna do this, Damali. But not because I needed to--it's because you needed me to. Okay?’’

She simply nodded. ’’I know. It's not for you, it's for me.’’

’’'Cause, if in the back of your mind, you really wanna be with this guy, not that I can blame you, after all the stuff you said this morning about what he was, and what I wasn't--which was the truth... hey. I messed up. You have a right. So, you know. I'm cool.’’

’’What I said on the beach this morning,’’ she murmured, ’’was coming from a fit of pure fury. I can't take it back, because once said, it's been heard. But I can tell you I was dead wrong to ever compare you to another man. That won't ever happen again, especially when there's no comparison.’’ She let out a sigh, but it wasn't theater. Truth was what had expelled it from her lungs. ’’I can also tell you that when I went before the queens, I challenged even their plan... because I knew who was the better man. They made Eve excuse herself from the discussion because the things I had to say and learn, no mother should ever hear about her son.’’

She paused as Carlos looked up at her, this time his eyes were filled with quiet pride.

’’The better man,’’ she continued, holding his gaze in an unbreakable lock, ’’he was with my family at the hacienda, not power tripping over in Nod. And I asked those old girls, tell me, what can I do to make it right? They told me to go get the Caduceus and heal my household before I tried to tackle healing the world.’’ She waited as more resistance left him. ’’Now will you inspect the bite... and I want you to tell me what you see.’’

Reluctantly, Carlos took her jaw between his forefinger and thumb and turned her head to the side. He almost cringed, half-afraid to see a huge signature left there by Cain's virile strike, but had to move closer when he couldn't detect a thing at all. Ausar had been so wise.

’’There's no mark,’’ Carlos said quietly, getting closer to make sure his eyes hadn't lied.

’’No,’’ she said calmly. ’’He ain't all that. It was a feed. That's it. At least for me.’’

’’But. . .’’ Carlos's words trailed off as he turned her head the other way and knelt before her.

’’That's your side, where I got my first mark. Do you think he could pattern over that?’’

Her words stilled him as her hands covered his. The warmth they contained and the love they exuded made him lower his forehead to rest against hers. He released his breath in a slow stream of relief. Oh, yeah, he'd rebuild from the ground up, from her crown chakra down. Never again. Everything the older king had said was the truth, and his ears tuned to Damali's voice to hear it for the first time.

’’You marked me as your wife,’’ she whispered. ’’Yeah, he tried, but he didn't have that much juice... and my soul wasn't willing, neither was my body. He came up out of that bite without even blood on his lips. I wasn't giving him anything, but what I wanted to... and I'd never give him your throne. I've only got one king.’’

He looked down at his queen who seemed like a shimmering, gold-dust-covered pixie. Hair wild, golden bands twisted through where it had once been swept up into a regal crown. Ripped and ragged scarves precariously covered her body, and yet a diamond still sat in her navel She had one earring missing. Her feet were bare. But even half-naked in another man's lair, she had held the line just for him.

His senses swept over her butter soft skin... skin that now seemed more satiny than it had ever felt before. Cain hadn't even held her or kissed her when she'd gone in after the rod. And yet, by rights, she could have if she'd wanted to--he would have never known... the profound gift that she'd given him was that she hadn't wanted another man's touch, hallelujah.

That truth rippled through him like clean baptismal water as he held her face and leaned his head against her third eye. The awareness that she'd silently opened her inner vision to him to let him see that truth, washed away so much hurt he almost wept. She didn't care that he couldn't release his old double-standard, that it mattered to him that she hadn't crossed the line. She let him feel it, know that she knew he still held it. But there was no bitterness within her, just a quiet acceptance of his character flaw.

With that knowledge of her gentle acceptance came power. He would never cross the line to break her heart again. What could he do with this off-the-hook woman but love her? She was such a gift, and he'd almost thrown it away. His hands trembled as he held her face as though it were made of fragile glass.

’’Let me heal my wounded lover tonight,’’ she whispered, rubbing her palms over his hands until they burned. ’’Let me show you some things that the old queens taught me... just for you, my king.’’

Carlos closed his eyes, almost unable to bear the sensations her voice produced as it murmured the truth. It bound his heart to hers, just as Ausar promised it would, removed all worry from his gizzard, and fed him with confidence. In six levels'deep, he was supposed to be aligning her chakras to his tonight, but for the life of him, he was in silver bondage to hers. The last pulsing one she owned outright.

She gently withdrew from him and pushed him to rest back on his elbows. Then she stood without effort and picked up the Caduceus. ’’I can probably only do this once. I was saving this just to heal you. After it goes back to the queens, I don't know.’’

Damali smiled and gazed at him tenderly. ’’I love you, baby.’’ He didn't need to know that some of Nefertiti's techniques would be with her forever, or that they were taught in an avatar seduction class. He didn't need to burden his mind trying to figure out what was taught by the queens, or how much of their private business she'd told them, or they'd learned, or even worry that what she was about to do was taught in part by his competitor.

While truthfully it was a combination of all of the above and she'd learned a few more things being out in the world, the important fact was she was saving that knowledge for him.

Tears filled her eyes as she looked at him, realizing just how much she loved him, and how close she'd come to losing such a gift. That was why he never needed to question the new things she was about to show him... things he hadn't taught her... and then attribute all that exquisite knowledge to another man. Cain didn't own it, she did. What he really didn't need to know was the mystical Caduceus also contained the magic of male ego placebo. She thrust it into the sand and let it form a gentle golden light beneath him.

’’I love you,’’ she whispered again. ’’Trust me and relax.’’

’’I love you, too.’’

Warmth penetrated his Light-encircled body as he watched Damali move a few feet away. She had danced for him before, but her sultry Egyptian eyes had never held such serene authority. Moon and surf was her backdrop. This woman was in control. The steady sound of the waves lapping the shoreline was like distant instruments as she began to sing. She'd sung to him before, too, but never like this. Midnight-blue heavens framed her while she moved and swayed as though water itself, dropping a scarf at each stanza until it was hard for him to breathe.

A small golden scarab ring that he'd never seen her wear caught his eye as her hands passed her beautiful face. For a fleeting moment he wondered if it had been a gift from Cain, then banished the thought with complete trust. It had to be an amulet, he knew his baby better than that. But she also wore a new scent... something incredible that he'd never smelled on her. The hint of her signature ripening was threaded all through it and wafted toward him as she danced.

He'd been so upset, he hadn't really processed it all before... and Cain hadn't been able to take her when she was wearing that?

Soon where she had been or what she might have done peeled away from him with each dropped veil. Whatever she was doing was healing more than his soul or mending his heart. She'd put the shield of Heru around his ego and given him an erection made of steel. When she dropped the last scarf and he saw her tattoo, it no longer mattered. ’’You went in there like that for me . . .’’

’’This is all yours,’’ she whispered. ’’Take your clothes off or they'll probably burn after I'm done.’’

He gladly complied, but when he started to stand to go to her, she shook her head, wagged her finger at him slowly, and kept her expression stone serious.

’’Don't move.’’

He didn't know what to make of her command, but had surrendered a few minutes ago when he'd spied his symbol on her clean- shaven mound. So he simply watched her come to him in her own sweet time in a se*y saunter forward. She dropped to her knees and then crawled toward him on the beach, her supple spine dipping beneath the moon as her gaze held his.

’’I am going to apologize on my hands and knees for ever taking you where I took you,’’ she whispered, nuzzling his neck.

In reflex his hand reached to touch her, but she gently shoved his hand back down.

’’I said not to move, didn't I?’’

Her voice was a warm wash against the Neteru symbol on his throat. If this was how female Neterus negotiated... oh, yeah, any night, any day, he'd confer with his queen. He could only close his eyes as her tongue found the beginning of the mark and traced it, producing a shudder. But there was something about her mouth, the new heat it contained that seemed to draw every pulse point within him to one agonized place on his skin.

’’Oh... Jesus . . .’’

Her delicate palm had found the center of his chest, and it felt as though the tattoo within it had connected to the one she suckled at his neck. The dual sensation caused mild delirium and made his scrotum contract. He had to touch Her, but she refused to allow it. As her palm gently circled his nipples, his head dropped back and he began breathing through his mouth. When her hand slid down his torso, he almost sat up.

What kind of magic did she own? What had she dredged from the Caduceus, he wondered, but didn't care. If he had known that it held such erotic healing power, he would have gone to Nod to get it for her himself.

His mouth hungered to taste hers so badly only a whimper escaped his lips. Instead of answering his unintelligible plea, she kissed his chest and pulled one of his nipples between her teeth. That's when his back hit the sand. His tattoo burned so hot he thought it might bleed. She had a flattened palm gently rotating against one side of his chest while her mouth nipped the other. His stomach was in knots;his hips lifted needing to move. He had to get inside her or die.

Then she stole all the atmosphere around him with one slow kiss that dissolved him. Before the moan could even come up from his diaphragm, she ran her hand down his stomach in a hot, lingering sweep and held him tight, pulled back gently from the kiss, found his throat mark, and bit him as she squeezed hard.

He lost it. Fangs lowered. He couldn't take it anymore. But she held him in her grip, gave him a look that spoke volumes, and swept her mouth across his stomach until new tears filled his eyes.

’’Let me work,’’ she murmured, and ignored his outburst, unfazed. The moment her mouth touched him and drew him in, he cried out. There was something so different about it, the siphon so damned hot. It felt like a double plunge, like she was working his throat at the same time and flatlining him with pleasure until he had sand beneath his nails. The sensation was causing cold panic sweat. Silver gold rushes. He was right there. She had him at the point of two seconds past too late, and he couldn't even stutter that fact.

Then she held his sac like she never had, cradled it in her palm in a slow, agonizing, but gentle pull. The tattoo in the cup of her hand burned pleasure all through it, and made his seed honor gravity and retreat. When she came away from him, he watched her-- spent, but not. She calmly blew on the strange white orb that pulsed in her palm for a few seconds and then it stopped. She hung it in the air just a few inches above his head and smiled. He was almost too exhausted to be curious, but still was.

’’That's one,’’ she murmured, and blanketed him. ’’Eleven more to go until your planets are properly aligned.’’

Oh... shit... he couldn't breathe as her satiny skin fused to his. The instant her mound slid over his length, he wept. He wasn't even in her, but it felt just as good.

Her kiss became a sea of untold pleasure as he willingly drowned in her mouth. Each gasp she released across his tongue sent a new tide all through him. Every slowly undulating motion of her pelvis set off depth charges he didn't even know he owned. But she was relentless as she continued collecting small orbs in different glowing colors, refusing to allow him to enter her or bite her. When she rolled over on her back, he thought she might show him mercy--but she didn't. She just pulled him against her, tapped into his spinal fluids with a touch, and took his back out with ecstasy prisms one vertebra at a time.

He heard his voice from outside his own body, ’’Baby... please... por favor, compasion.’’

She didn't have a heart. Master destroyer of a man's sanity, she was. Her hands covered the base of his spine and he saw stars. She didn't seem to care that he was trembling and sobbing or calling her name. She just smiled and ignored him, allowing her pinky ring to glide over his clenched ass, then gently force its way through a barrier that arched his back. He bit her on impact. Entered her with a hard slide. All language went void in the blackout. Vanishing point was his destination, or bust.

Every cell in his body began to deconstruct when she arched and moaned. Her voice hit a decibel that shattered his skeleton. He felt her hard climax contract around him then send shock-wave vibrations through the tiny gold ring that teased his outer rim. Carnal velocity stripped a gear and his mind right along with it. She'd never... He was almost pure mist, and then he heard her moan again. She'd cried out something about creation point, wherever that was, he didn't care. ’’Oh, God, yes!’’ Baby, take me with you . . .

Every planet she'd aligned in a ring around his head began to slowly split open. His new world would not be built until she willed it so. Translucent surfaces cracked, pouring primordial ooze from multiple internal eruptions. Lava. He was burning up! Gold sweat singeing sand. Lightning strikes within pulsing pleasure orbs. Hot mist. Steam plumes rose from his tears building pressure. Earthquake convulsions, but still he couldn't cum. His mind fractured. His heart stopped.

’’I got you, baby, just breathe,’’ she whispered.

And he did.

Instantly, a powerful vacuum suction to her universe drew him from his evaporated state. V-point eclipsed. He teetered on the outskirts of reality too ecstasy dazed to even cry out. His heart started. It skipped across her new oceans and formed land. Within seconds, twelve cataclysmic releases thundered against one another like heavily laden dominoes, then slammed him back into his own flesh and reconstructed him one cell at a time. He was clay for her to mold.

Blinding, rapid bands of color vibrated sound trebles through his system. His lids fluttered. Pinpoints of light created new stars behind them. Release implosions collided, choking him as his lungs fought the new density of pure pleasure. Then twelve patient and closely aligned heavenly bodies erupted and fused into one scorching mushroom cloud that centered in his groin. He almost swallowed his own tongue.

For a moment, everything went still. He had no body. He was weightless energy. There was no sound. There was no time. No past, present, or future. He just was. Then everything hit him at once-- supernova--he hollered her name and was made man. He wasn't sure how long he was out, only that if he could ever walk again he was healed. When he finally opened his eyes, he was lying in a ring of wet sand dampened from his own sweat. She lazily petted his chest and kissed him softly. He looked up at the sky, unable to move, then slowly rolled over still within her. There were no words. What she'd given him was beyond a religious experience.

’’You all right?’’ she whispered and dropped her head to his chest.

He closed his. eyes and shook his head no. He'd never be the same.

’’You want some water,’’ she whispered. ’’I can get that.’’

He didn't doubt it. She was creation itself. There was nothing in his male mind to cope with what she had just done to him. No registers of information that lingered from his Council-level experience of being on a vamp throne could touch it. This thing she did from the Light... uh-uh... she had to take the Caduceus back. It was a dangerous weapon. He was still trembling from its effects.

’’I only did it because I love you,’’ she whispered, brushing his mouth.

He kept his eyes closed, didn't have anything left within him to even lift his eyelids. It was all he could do to breathe.

’’You wanna go again?’’ she murmured, tracing a nipple.

’’Take it back,’’ he finally whispered. ’’Baby, please, take it back.’’

’’It only works that strong because I love you... that's what gives it all the juice.’’ She kissed his wet temple and then the side of his face as new tears spilled from beneath his shut lids. ’’Without that, everything else is just technique.’’

’’You stopped my heart,’’ he murmured.

’’Yeah, but I restarted it, didn't I?’’

He nodded with his eyes still closed, sucking in huge inhales. ’’I've never ...’’

’’Good,'cause neither have I. So now we're even.’’

’’I'm sorry, baby,’’ he murmured, trying without success to lift his arm to caress her cheek.

’’I know. So am I. Forgive me?’’

He nodded. ’’Oh, yeah... I don't even remember what were fighting about.’’

He felt a long, satisfied sigh of relief exit her body as he cradled her to him. He stroked her back, sending all the love he'd ever owned for her within the caress, and could feel the muscles under her skin vibrate and move to the touch.

’’I'll protect your heart,’’ she whispered against his chest with her eyes closed as his hand slid down her back to rest against her Neteru mark.

’’With all that I own, all that I am, I promise you, baby, I'll protect yours,’’ he murmured into the crown of her hair as her silent tears wet his chest. ’’I'm so glad you chose me... because I would die without you.’’

He felt the sob before it exited her body, but as he brought his hands over her hips and up her back to hug her, he froze. Where there should have been skin, delicate feathers grazed his fingers. Her shoulder blades were gone, massive wings had grown right out of them. His eyes opened wide. She was still nestled against him weeping with joy. The ocean's breeze was blocked by enormous white wings that slowly wrapped around him. A silvery sheen covered each fragile feather. He glanced around, wondering if they'd both died and gone to Heaven. But it was still night outside;the surf rolled in and out uninterrupted.

’’Baby,’’ he croaked, his voice failing into a panicked whisper. ’’You have wings.’’ Damali lifted her head to stare into his eyes, questioning.

’’Your eyes are solid silver,’’ he said, unable to stop staring into her transformed irises.

She glanced at his sides and saw the feathers. Tears streamed down her face. ’’Those aren't mine;they're yours.’’ She began crying hard in earnest, near hysteria, her words choppy and thick. ’’You took me someplace I've never... baby, not even the vanishing point felt like this.’’

’’They're yours, tresora,’’ he said, his voice cracking with emotion. ’’They're growing right out of your shoulders... dear God, you're a healing angel.’’

’’I'm a what?’’ she said, pulling back as he began to cry hard, and crouched above him on her hands and knees.

He just looked up at her and sobbed harder, briefly touching her face and allowing his hand to fall away to the sand. ’’Marry me... I promise I won't mess up.’’

She kissed his forehead, total alarm racing through her as she rolled her shoulders and saw that the wings unfurling from beneath him were owned by her.

’’Every prayer you sent up was answered with the quickness,’’ he choked, looking at her in reverent awe. ’’The Covenant came to me, because of you. The fires of Hell never singed you... the woman in Tibet even gave you tears from your kind... oh, baby, warrior angels were ready to take my head because of you... now I know why!’’ He sat up and placed his face in his hands and bawled. ’’Ausar was about to mount up the Neteru kings with Hannibal leading the charge to go get you in Nod, now I understand what the man was talking about. And I bit you... I bit you? Almost made you fall from grace? Oh shit... was I crazy?’’

Part of her needed to stand and back away from him just to take it all in. The other half of her was paralyzed. She'd never seen Carlos so undone. Had never even fathomed the possibility. She flexed her shoulders, mesmerized by the breeze that grew from them as the sand stirred. Now she knew inside her soul why she had trouble shape-shifting into hideous things and could only do feathered birds with ease... everything else hurt. Just like vindictive behavior hurt... but loving him and her family so deeply felt so right... like loving the world of flawed human existence felt so natural.

Her fingers trembled as they reached out to touch his hair. ’’I love you,’’ was all she could say at the moment. A slow dawning awareness filled her. Cain knew it;he'd called her that... an angel. Said he could feel something within her, just under the surface of her skin. Oh, Lord...

’’I asked for a sign from On High, and the signs were there all along,’’ Carlos whispered, now staring at her and wiping his face as he shook his head. ’’Total forgiveness, complete understanding, able to move the elements of the universe and produce life even from dead seed at vanishing point... all wrapped within a heavenly body, the voice of an angel. Able to raise the dead, heal. I should have known, but instead I couldn't cope with your potential, and it was even further beyond my comprehension. I should have known. I don't even deserve you. How can I even touch you or--’’

’’Shush,’’ she murmured as she came to him, held him, and kissed him tenderly, and then she enfolded him within her wings. The gentle action set off a new torrent of sobs from him as she stroked his back and gently rocked him against her. ’’But I would have never found out what was locked inside me without you. Marry me.’’


Three days later . . . I t was a small chapel wedding in the place named the peace, La Paz. White flowers from roses to orchids and lilies covered the pews and turned hallowed ground into an indoor garden. The paperwork could wait;all Guardians were in full attendance as witnesses to the sacred union. Father Patrick could barely get the words of the ceremony out as he peered at Damali, wiping his eyes.

The moment she came into view on Shabazz's arm, Carlos held on to Jose's shoulder for support. But he couldn't take his eyes off his soon-to-be bride.

She wore a simple, strapless silk white sheath, nothing about her neck except a platinum choker that housed all the stones she'd collected. Her smoky Egyptian eyes held tears behind her floor-length veil, threatening to spill over the rims of kohl set off with the barest hint of silver shadow. Her lips, virgin pale pink, quivered ever so slightly. Her hands trembled as they clutched a profusion of white roses and wildflowers, her hair set high upon her head in silver bands, pearl teardrops at her delicate earlobes... her best girlfriend dissolved in hiccupping sobs as she flanked her.

He didn't even look at his best man, Jose, as he accepted the twelve-carat blue-white heart diamond surrounded by platinum that he'd found just for her to replace the one lodged in his soul. Just for her... anything for her. She was his wife. Had taken the worst of him and brought out the best of him. Father Patrick had asked him a question, and he jerked his attention back to the ceremony.

’’Huh, oh, yeah, I definitely do.’’

Chuckles wafted through the chapel, and even Father Patrick smiled.

The elderly cleric let out a fatherly sigh and turned to Damali. Sweat crept between Carlos's shoulder blades, making the tux feel like second skin.

He couldn't get the image of wings sprouting from her back out of his mind. Wouldn't touch her again until they did the thing right. Couldn't. Wasn't trying to tempt fate ever again. But when she handed off her flowers and gave him her hand, quietly repeated words that he was too awed to hear, and softly said, ’’I do,’’ he nearly passed out.

He was a married man. Just like that. It had happened so fast. His angel had made his deepest wish come true. He had to take two deep breaths to steady himself as he lifted her fragile veil. She was his, had made the choice. No man could put that asunder. No forces of evil, come what may, she was his even beyond the grave. Heaven had not even intervened to stop it, and it was done on hallowed ground. He willed himself not to cry in front of his boyz, wishing Yonnie and Tara could have been there, too. But he was done waiting. Although he now waited for the words that seemed to take an eternity for the old priest to say, before claiming his bride's mouth.

’’I now pronounce you man and wife.’’

They both briefly closed their eyes. Marjorie and Marlene started crying. He could hear backs getting slapped as brothers broke out in jubilation somewhere far off in his mind.

There was only one voice he could hear;only one pair of eyes he could see... only one mouth that he slowly lowered his to. Only one pair of arms held him gently;only one heart beat against his chest and crushed his boutonniere. There was only one place he wanted to be-- alone, with her. There was only one whisper he wanted to hear, hers. Only one person he wanted to give his all.

Food, music, champagne, fruit, and a cake topped with flowers... the team could have it and party until dawn. A reception would require his maximum endurance.

Her mind opened to his. Just for a little while, okay?

He nodded as she drew out of the kiss. Anything you want, baby, as long as you let me feed you fresh mango and pineapple in bed. She kissed him again. That and more... you can turn off your silver and I'll go gold with you.

He had to remember that he was in a church. Rather than say another mental word, he tucked away her dear promise, simply nodded, and joined in the celebration with the team.

A private villa on the beach, not a lair, was what she deserved, and what he'd found just for his bride. The surf pounded beyond the deck, sea breeze blew sheers away from sliding glass doors. Fresh fruit and champagne on a silver tray waited patiently by the bed as she balanced the top of the wedding cake in her hands and laughed out loud as he lifted her over the threshold.

’’I'm smashing the cake,’’ she squealed, giggling, as he swept her up and nuzzled her neck.

’’So,’’ he chuckled, pacing toward the bedroom on a mission. ’’It's gonna get messed up anyway when we eat it.’’

’’We're supposed to save it for a year,’’ she said, still laughing as he stood beside the high four-poster plantation bed and his expression became serious.

’’I don't want to wait for anything anymore,’’ he said quietly, and kissed her softly as he deposited her against white silk and rose petals. He stood back and looked at her as she cradled the cake topper, willing himself not to use any special vamp powers except love when he was with her from now on.

’’All right,’’ she said softly as she gazed up at him, and then pushed the cake onto the nightstand, watching him slowly remove his bow tie. She slid her finger across a bit of the icing on the side of the dessert and she popped it into her mouth, playing. But his stone-serious expression stole her mirth and replaced it with a slow smolder as he loosened the knot at his neck.

It was something about the way he did it that made her breath hitch. He just pulled one end of the bow tie and slid the fabric away from his collar, then unfastened one jewel-black onyx stud at a time while staring at her in pure silver. When he dropped his jacket, she thought she'd faint. Men could do a seven-veils dance as well as any woman, and her husband was giving her a deep appreciation of that fact.

Her husband... she repeated the title in her mind on a soft chant... thank you, thank you, thank you, for once, something had gone so right... Her husband. He'd made her Mrs. Carlos Rivera, and that was so much better than anything he'd transformed her into thus far. She slid her hands behind her back and unzipped her dress, but he shook his head no.

’’I want to do that,’’ he whispered. ’’You're my gift, let me unwrap it.’’

Now she really couldn't breathe. He'd said it so low, with such quiet intensity that it drew a physical contraction from her. So she waited, watching him part with his clothes, late-afternoon sun kissing his bronze skin until she became jealous of the solar rays.

He'd left a pool of black-and-white fabric at his feet, and she had to sit on her hands not to reach out to him;his eyes told her-- don't move. If this was his first command as her husband, she'd gladly obey.

When he came to her, she leaned in to kiss him, but he smiled and kissed her calf instead, taking off her shoes. A gentle shove backward landed her in rose petals. Warm hands slid under her and slowly worked against gown fastenings then peeled fabric away from her skin in maddening increments. He was still the master. Damali closed her eyes.

Breathless and naked, she waited for him to blanket her. But he reached for a mango and a small paring knife and lay beside her, totally focused on the fruit. She didn't say a word. Her mind was on fire with anticipation. She watched his hands intently as though in a spell. He wielded the silver blade with care, creating a small slit at the top of the fruit and scoring down the side of it in a slow lateral drag, removing the dripping skin the same excruciating way he'd removed her clothes.

Sweet nectar ran through his fingers and down his wrists, splattering the silver tray, and she watched it ooze pressing her knees together, feeling as wet as the ripe fruit. Her lips parted on their own when he cut a thick wedge and put half of it in his mouth. Even though he'd told her not to move, she couldn't help it. She was drawn to his mouth just to claim a small bite. Their teeth gently collided as he allowed her to pull away a bit of mango with a kiss.

’’Want some champagne?’’ he murmured, not waiting for her to respond as he reached for the bottle and popped the cork.

She shook her head but accepted the filled crystal flute. She didn't want anything unless he was gonna pour it over himself so she could lick it off. But she acquiesced to his pace and took a sip from her glass. He rewarded her patience with a piece of pineapple chunk between his sucrose soaked fingers, which she sucked slowly, savoring him more than the fruit.

That made him briefly close his eyes;she could only hope that it would make him hurry up. Seeing his lids go to half-mast had made her nearly drop her glass as she leaned back on her elbows. When he took her champagne flute from her and sipped the contents slowly, then winced, her pulse spiked. Put the glass down... He smiled. ’’Want another piece of mango?’’

She closed her eyes and let her head fall back. ’’No,’’ she whispered. ’’I just want you.’’

’’It's so sweet though,’’ he said, putting a piece halfway in his mouth and crouching above her on his hands and knees.

She leaned up to capture it with a kiss, but he made it miss her mouth and drip on her chin. He dragged it down her throat, stopped at the V in her neck, kissed her deeply there, and then continued on a mind-bending path with the slick, sticky fiber. She gasped as he let it wet the hot place between her breasts, press down her torso, and leave a small puddle of juice in her navel. But as he pulled it further down her body, her legs parted on their own. Then he stopped, kissed her briefly pulled the mango into his mouth to chew, and swallow it.

’’You had your temporary mark renewed for me,’’ he whispered against her.

All she could do was nod.

’’And I've, created such a mess,’’ he said in a warm rush of sweet air that lifted her hips. ’’Lemme go clean up.’’

She opened her eyes, nearly panicked. He couldn't get out of bed to wash up. ’’I don't care.’’

He met her gaze with a sly smile and slowly unwrapped the silver bands holding up her hair. Soft velvet locks filled his sticky hands and he didn't care;he'd wash her hair for her later. Her crown should never be obstructed when he was making love to her--ever. It was the source of her inspiration, and he definitely wanted her inspired today.

Sadly, he hadn't even had time to buy her a wedding gift;he'd been in such a hurry to marry her... however... his wife deserved pearls. Carlos smiled. Yeah, a few Neteru powers were at his disposal, and what better way to let her know’’ how profoundly appreciated she had always been--pearls . . .

Briefly kissing the crown of her head, he rested his cheek against it for a moment, releasing a sigh so he could pace himself. He was many things, but a fool wasn't one of them. Ausar had said to put his household in order, feed her, and work his way from the top down--and he was the kind of brother that only had to be told once. Yeah, he got it.

The look on his bride's face was worth it all, even though he was losing his mind he wanted her so badly.

Her gentle caress down his sides almost made him give up his mis-sion, but no, she was so worth it. This time when he kissed the crown of her head, he allowed every dream they'd shared to enter it until the place he attended warmed under his lips. He collected the bead of pleasure that emitted from that place onto his tongue and saved it like a pearl beneath it. His forehead rested against hers, trusting her with his very life and all his darkest secrets as he offered her the unconditional key to his mental black box until the heat exchange caused them both to gasp. Pearl one.

Slowly he pulled away and watched a tiny, silvery version of her Sankofa light beneath her skin. It nickered suddenly to become his symbol in gold, and then went back to hers in the same hue before it vanished... but not before he deeply kissed her there and collected another precious pearled bead of her desire sheen from her forehead. Pearl two. He ignored her mouth, and found the beginning of his sticky mango trail at her chin, rewarded by her arch, which allowed him to savor her throat as her head dug into the satiny pillows. The sight of her symbol rising and changing at her throat chakra was beginning to make him forget his task. He kissed that place deeply, suckling her voice to the surface and then told her the blatant truth. Pearl three... and he'd string them together and deliver them in a way that she'd never forget.

’’'Mali, I love you so much, it hurts.’’

But he couldn't stop there, no, not there, not when she'd told him without words how much she needed him right now. So he collected another fragile bead of her want from her delicate throat, rolling it under his tongue in utter fascination until she moaned through tears. However, he paid particular attention to her sacred heart bridge... the one he'd almost damaged beyond repair and gave her the depths of everything within him while indulging his hands on her breasts. Pearl four.

Her quick pants were nearly his undoing as her body warmed suddenly and the surface of her skin dampened with silvery gold. But he demanded her solid gold promise, therefore, in his mind, she wasn't ready enough yet.

Salt tears, rose petals, mango, champagne, pineapple, and her filled his nose as he stayed on the path of righteous pleasure, collecting pearls from her belly, taking back each indignity and filling her with pure love until she moaned. Her deep alto response thundered within his groin and he was unsure whether or not he could even attend to her valley. He stopped at his tattoo that covered her mound and inhaled sharply;control was fading fast. She was his wife;arched under his hold, trembled for him--he could wait.

Pearl seven... and they all needed to be strung out.

He kissed her slowly until she openly wept and went limp. Although no musician, he knew how to use sound. This was all for her. He released a low, bass line moan into her causing a magnificent soprano response. Yeah.

The symbol she wore just for him went from supernatural silver to solid gold then white-hot. He collected that, too, and put it under his tongue, then slowly opened her to weave a lazy figure eight of pleasure around her bud and rim, releasing beads to wait for him to enter with each pass.

Her graceful fingers were in his hair and her voice carved at his scrotum, but this was his wife... never again would she have reason to doubt him or want anyone else.

’’Baby, put it in,’’ she whispered between her teeth.

’’Uh-uh,’’ he murmured into her sensitive folds, catching another orgasm and holding it in-state with his tongue. ’’You promised me pure gold.’’

’’I'm there,’’ she nearly shrieked when he allowed each unbroken bead to roll off his tongue to wait just inside her flooded door.

’’You sure?’’ he murmured, further teasing her with the vibration of sound, but had to stop playing as she thrashed and clutched the sheets.

Yeah... he was beyond gold, going platinum, as she writhed soaked with perspiration. When he covered her slowly, he watched her pores leak the divine energy from every pulse point, every place he'd ever nicked her, each chakra quickly transitioning blur of light beneath her buttery smooth skin--his symbol, her symbol and back again, her system so fired on that he entered her hard.

She hit a note that shattered the flutes on the nightstand;champagne was everywhere. Wait;how? He was just a man.

The sound of her voice sent trebles and cymbals up his spine, elicited a low register he didn't know he owned. Her immediate acapella reaction created an offbeat syncopated rhythm;she returned thrusts twice for his every one while the beads of ecstasy he'd planted and strung began to quickly burst.

He didn't know the phenomenon was connected to him or had tangled him in it. This was supposed to just be for her, but they were one. Wasn't prepared for the psychic disturbance or the fast, hot, elongated molten melody that dredged his sac in spasmodic sound waves.

Every promise he'd made to himself evaporated--he'd sworn to God he'd never bite her again, not his angel. But nature was nature, and oh God, she felt so good.

Fangs dropped on their own accord, the sudden strike was impossible to hold back. Mango and pineapple and champagne and her. Sweet blood, sweet Jesus, her arch was lightning liquid fire. He couldn't stop cuming. White feathers and white rose petals stuck to his mango-drenched hands, his gold-sweat-doused chest, her hair between his fingers, her satin skin in his palms, afraid to break a wing but unable to stop moving between her legs. Baby, forgive me, but you feel so damned good!

Vertigo spiraled down, the earth dropped out beneath him. A hard roll and his stomach was practically in his mouth from the sudden change in direction. His head jerked, sought the pillows, dug into them as she kept moving, drawing broken pleasure beads through his shaft embedded in molten seed. Her straddle was a vise, doing her like this one, too, but he couldn't even stop when she'd presented wings.

She was his wife, she was his wife, Lord, she was his wife!

He forced himself to be a witness and opened his eyes. Sunlight was behind her;the halo effect rimmed her in a brilliant afternoon glare of pink and orange. Her head was thrown back. A trickle of golden blood trailed from her neck, splattering a six-foot white wingspan, every chakra burning gold with his symbol, her movements quicksilver until he had to close his eyes or die from lack of breathing.

Carry for me, baby... carry my child.


When the last bead burst, he couldn't retract fangs, just heaved hard in a pleasure seizure as she bit him and made white light blind him behind his shut lids. Her name got all tangled up with the Almighty's, then became hers again, no separation, no beginning or end, as his sanity temporarily slipped into another dimension. He could now define infinity.

She collapsed against him, winded, sobbing, trembling, and all he could do was hold her.

’’You are my husband,’’ she finally whispered.

He just nodded for a moment, trying to catch his breath. He still had fangs in his mouth.

She pulled back to kiss him, he turned his head to give her his cheek and chuckled.

’’I can't make 'em go down.’’ He ran his tongue over his teeth and nicked it.

She grabbed his jaw firmly and kissed him hard, nicking her lip. ’’I love you. I don't care.’’

’’I don't think we were supposed to do this,’’ he said, slowly recovering.

She laughed and laid her head on his chest. ’’Have we ever done what we're supposed to do?’’

’’No,’’ he said, a rumbling chuckle of satisfaction vibrating beneath his Adam's apple as he stroked her wings. ’’But I think we just made somebody new.’’

’’Ya think?’’ she laughed softly, nipping his chest.

Then they both became very still. They pulled back and looked at each other at the same time, their words nearly colliding.

’’You've got fangs, I've got wings,’’ she said, her eyes containing new awareness.

’’I know,’’ he said, partially sitting up. ’’Uh... you think, baby, that could pose a problem? Not trying to be funny... but, uhmmm... you think we shoulda told at least Marlene?’’

She offered him a sheepish smile. ’’Nah... if we woulda told anybody about the wings, they would have made us wait to get married until they could get an answer, yada, yada, yada. Did you wanna wait?’’

He shook his head no. ’’Not in a million years. But if I'm part human, part Neteru, and uh, have a little bad boy in me... and you're the same, with a lotta good girl in you--’’

’’It'll be all right,’’ she said, sweeping his mouth with a tender kiss. ’’Besides,’’ she said with a shrug, ’’don't we always make it up as we go along?’’

’’Yeah,’’ he murmured, allowing his hands to revel in the feel of her skin as he held her hips. He motioned toward the dresser. ’’Didn't exactly see that wedding present get delivered, so I guess it can't be all bad. Musta happened when everything went white light.’’ He laughed quietly and closed his eyes. Man, if the older brother had seen all that . . .

’’The sword of Ausar?’’

She almost jumped up to go get it, but he couldn't allow her body to unsheathe his when it felt so good.

’’That must be a good sign, right?’’ she said, her voice hopeful yet still carrying a note of concern.

’’Either that or Ausar figured I'd really need it now.’’

Carlos just laughed and kept his eyes closed, too content to figure it a11 out at the moment. Bottom line was, she was his wife!

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