They ignored her as Syn took a seat on one of the tall stools in front of her kitchen bar.
Nykyrian handed him a glass of spara juice. “Are you staying for dinner?”
Syn looked at her. “Do you mind?”
Wow, Syn had manners. Who knew?
“No,” she said, surprised by the honesty of the statement. For some reason, she liked Syn despite his unorthodox looks. His black hair was pulled back into a short ponytail. His deep brown eyes were ringed in black eyeliner, giving him the look of a feral hunting beast. Not to mention he had a small stud in his left nostril that matched the two small hoops in his left ear.
He was definitely not the type of man who attracted her, but she had to admit, he was oddly handsome.
He took a drink of the juice and cursed. “What is this shit? Poison?”
Nykyrian took his acerbic tone in stride. “You can’t live on alcohol.”
“Wanna die?” Nykyrian pushed the juice back toward Syn. “Drink it and quit bitching.”
Syn mouthed those words back mockingly and added an extremely obscene insult to it. “You know, you’re a little hairy to be my mother.” He pulled out a small flask and added it to the juice.
Nykyrian let out a deep, fierce growl that actually scared her.
Syn ignored it as he drank the alcohol-laced juice. “Much better.”
Nykyrian went back to cooking, but there was a tic in his jaw that betrayed the anger he was doing an amazing job at hiding.
Kiara shifted her gaze to Nykyrian as he talked with Syn. He seemed far more at ease with Syn than he had with his other two friends.
As Syn made another joke, she realized Nykyrian never smiled or laughed. She couldn’t remember ever seeing him do either.
What could take away someone’s laughter?
Severe military training. Like her father. He seldom smiled either.
But unlike Nykyrian, he did on occasion.
Her chest tightened as she considered the life Nykyrian must have lived. No parents, no laughter, a League assassin. In truth, it was a miracle he was still alive. The normal life expectancy of an assassin on the job was five to six years. Tops. Seldom did they make it to age thirty.
Never did they make it to thirty-three.
Yet he appeared to be a year or two older than that.
She sat down on the stool next to Syn. “Out of curiosity, why are you keeping me here?” It was against military protocol. In the past, whenever her father had “protected” her, she’d been moved to a safe location.
Nykyrian took a drink of his juice before he answered. “When you’re being hunted to the extent you are, there’s no real safe place. You’re famous, which makes it all the harder to hide you. Better to keep you here where you have the advantage of knowing the terrain and are most comfortable.”
“Not to mention, we’re using you for bait.”
Nykyrian cocked his head at Syn. “Are you that drunk?”
Syn’s eyes widened. “What? I wasn’t supposed to tell her that?”
Kiara was horrified. “I’m bait?”
“No, you’re not bait. Ignore the alcoholic whose view of reality is distorted by his brain-damaged hallucinations. What the psychologists have found is that people in your position cope best when there’s as little interruption as possible in their routine.”
Kiara swallowed. “Not to mention we both know the one truth neither of you is talking about.”
“And that is?”
“That I’m really nothing more than a waco.” It was an assassin’s term that meant walking corpse. “I’m not going to live through the night, am I?”
Nykyrian went still at the cold fear in her voice. It touched a part of him that he’d forgotten existed.
And, for some reason he couldn’t name, he wanted to comfort her. “You’ll survive, mu Tara. We’ll make sure of it.”
She shook her head, her eyes shiny with unspent tears, which was one thing he admired most about her. Most of the time she had the best control of her emotions of any civilian he’d ever been around.
“You can’t guarantee that. You said it yourself. Even you’re living on borrowed time, waiting for one of them to kill you.”
Syn added more alcohol to his glass. “And you said I was scaring her? Damn, bud. You’re socially awkward to the extreme.”
“Syn . . .”
He ignored Nykyrian’s warning. “Don’t worry, princess. We’ve been living that way our entire lives. There’s nothing they got that’ll touch us. If they did, we’d already be dead.”
Nykyrian inclined his head to Syn. “I was born fighting and we’ve wired your place to such an extent that we’ll know if an uninvited cockroach visits a flat ten stories down. Not to mention we have exit strategies for any and all scenarios. They won’t get you without getting us and believe me, we’re not about to make our enemies happy and die here.”
Syn laughed. “Damn straight. We have too many people to continue pissing off.”
She frowned at him. “You’re really not afraid?”
“No,” Nykyrian answered honestly.
Syn inclined his head to Nykyrian. “Death is just a new beginning . . . at least in my religion. And extreme inebriation seriously helps.”
Kiara wasn’t amused by his quip. “Mine, too, well, the religion part, not the alcohol, but I’m in no hurry to meet my maker.” She let out a tired breath. “I don’t see how you guys live the life you do.”
Syn shrugged. “There’s an old Ritadarion saying. You’re never more alive than when you walk hand in hand with death.”
“Or crawl inside a bottle and stay there.”
He met Nykyrian’s gaze. “Yeah, well, it’s not my death that bothers me.”
Nykyrian clenched his teeth as he felt his friend’s pain. No, it was the brutal loss of his family that haunted him and for that Nykyrian couldn’t fault him at all. Syn had been put through a meat grinder by life. The fact that man could still get up and make it through a day without blowing his brains out amazed him. It was a call he waited daily to receive and he had more respect for Syn’s continued survival than he’d ever had for anything else.
He glanced to Kiara and by her face he could tell she understood Syn’s tone and had the decency not to question him about it.
She swallowed as she fidgeted with the ring on her finger. “I’m really sorry about the way I overreacted to the shields. I just don’t like feeling trapped and to not be able to see outside . . . You have no idea how many times I’ve been barricaded inside a box in my life. I know it’s for my protection. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” She glanced up at Nykyrian. “I promise it won’t happen again—I’ll be more cooperative in the future.”
Syn pushed the glass aside and started drinking straight out of his flask. “Don’t worry about it. We’re used to being told to go screw ourselves. And that’s from the people who actually like us. You should hear what our enemies say.”
Nykyrian didn’t comment. There was no need to. He understood why Kiara had overreacted. According to her file, she’d been kidnapped at age eight and held in an underground container for twelve days with her mother while her mother had been brutally tortured in front of her. Once her father had paid off her abductors, they’d killed her mother and put three burns into Kiara before they’d left her for dead. The file had said that she still couldn’t stand to be in total darkness.
Funny how internal scars never healed. They were the souvenirs of the past. But then he knew that better than anyone. And it wasn’t like he didn’t have enough quirks of his own. He wasn’t about to fault her for hers.
He handed a plate to Syn. “Put something in your stomach to absorb the alcohol before you spontaneously combust from the fumes.”
Syn laughed. “Yeah, it’d be a damn shame to blow my internal organs all over your new shirt.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time that happened.”
Kiara was amazed that they could joke about such horrible things. “You know, that’s really not funny.”
Syn snorted. “Baby, it’s either laugh or cry and crying takes way too much energy. If you can’t find humor in the shit life heaps on you, you really will grow miserable.”
Nykyrian clinked his glass against Syn’s flask in a silent salute.
Kiara took her plate and wondered if she’d ever be able to find the peace during chaos that these two seemed to have found. The fact that they could come to terms with it . . . She could only pray for a time when she might be so fortunate. “So I take it you guys are going to stay inside my flat and not out in the hallway like my father’s guards?”
Syn scoffed. “You know that’s the most pathetic way to guard someone.” In a falsetto he added. “Please protect my life by being outside so that when they come in and kill me you can’t hear it.” He shook his head. “You want to live, right?”
“Then we’re where you are, bathroom breaks being the only exception—unless you’re in public, and then we get to risk additional arrest records.”
“Great,” she said, feeling weirded out by that. “No more privacy.”
Nykyrian set his drink aside. “Don’t worry. We won’t bother you. Just pretend we’re not here.”
Looking up at his huge, gorgeous body, she realized that was much easier said than done. He and his crew tended to take up a lot of space and she wasn’t used to having someone in her flat. This was her sanctuary away from the world and she liked having it to herself.
But as her father would say, life was about making adjustments. And her life had just been seriously altered.
Kiara was talking to her father over the secure telelink when Syn took his leave. Nykyrian listened to her soft voice, which was punctuated by occasional light laughs, drifting from her room. Her silken, dulcet tones pierced him. Used to the deadpan voices of assassins or the deep baritones of men, he’d never realized until this moment what a typical female voice sounded like in conversation.
No, not entirely true. There had been a handful of females he’d listened to when he was younger. And Jayne, but her voice was unnaturally deep like a man’s. It’d been decades since he’d heard a typical woman talk to someone. It was different than the rehearsed conversations on vid broadcasts or even interviews. This was natural. A voice filled with true, spontaneous emotion.
And she was just in the next room . . .
Like that matters to you.
Get your head in the game, chiran.
Because if he didn’t, she would die. They both would.
With that thought foremost in his mind, he retrieved his laptop from the bag Hauk had left for him on the floor.
Nykyrian took a seat on the couch. Kiara’s laugh rippled again, distracting him. She had the most amazing laugh. Light and soft.
Get to work, dick.
Shaking his head, he turned his computer on and focused on what he was supposed to be doing. His thoughts back on his job, he pulled his glove off to scan his fingerprints and allow it to boot up.
And again, her soft voice caught his attention and made him instantly hard.
Shoot me . . .
Maybe he should have assigned Syn watch duty tonight. If only Syn hadn’t made plans with Caillan. But since he seldom took time off, Nykyrian had given him the night. Not to mention, Syn was using the night for his “other” company.
Damn, this mission.
He’d spent the entire dinner wanting her, feeling her presence next to him. If only he hadn’t allowed her to touch him at the theater, he might have been able to focus better. Having felt her touch, it was hard to get it out of his mind.
No one hugged him. Ever. And it was now seared in his memory like a stinging brand.
Nykyrian scoffed at himself. Who was he trying to fool? It didn’t matter that she’d touched him. Since the first performance he’d seen her in three years ago, she’d haunted his dreams like a stalking phantom out to steal his rotting soul.
No matter where he was, she was never too far from his thoughts.
The logistics of this just sucked more than normal since he really couldn’t escape seeing and hearing her.
Smelling the sweet scent of her body.
He sighed heavily, wishing he could think of some way to clear his head that didn’t involve removing body parts.
After a few minutes she finished her call and entered the front room with a warm smile on her face as she looked in his direction.
Kill me . . .
Nykyrian’s blood heated in response to her gentle expression. No one had ever looked at him like that.
Like she was glad to see him.
She glanced around the room with a frown. “Is Syn gone?”
That didn’t seem to please her. “I thought there’d be more than one of you to guard me. Isn’t that standard protocol?”