Eavesdropping isn’t the Valkyrie way. Neither is promising Sváva one of the books under my bed so she’ll let me guard Odin’s private room while he talks to Ares.
Doesn’t stop me from doing both.
I wasn’t sure sound would travel—and that would be a waste of a book—but when I press my ear to the wall, I make out what Ares and Odin are saying.
“Can’t you use Loki?” Ares speaks our language? Why didn’t he say so sooner?
I shove away my questions, so I don’t miss what Odin says next. “Loki is bound to Valhalla, even though the giants’ blood in him lets him traipse Midgard. I cannot see through him. Will you allow me to see through you?”
Silence. Did I miss Ares’ response? Not that I expect him to agree to Odin’s request, from what little I’ve seen of him. I can’t say with any certainty that I’d willingly allow Odin to see through me. Luckily, it’s not my decision to make. Like Loki, I’m bound to Valhalla.
Ares’ words sound so clear, he might be standing next to me. “I need to think about it.”
Huh. That was way more civil and diplomatic than I anticipated. Good for him.
I barely have time to turn so my back is to the secret room, when Odin says above me, “Tilgivelse, prepare a room for our guest. He will be spending the night. And make sure he is comfortable.”
His throne is rising toward the false skies, and the corners of his lips twitch when I look up to acknowledge his order.
To Ares, he says, “Pick up a sword and join the einherjar. We will dine together tonight, and you can rest up before giving me your answer in the morning.” He frowns and faces me again. “Get him a fighting outfit, too. This”—he indicates Ares with a sweeping gesture—“cannot possibly allow for proper range of movement.”
I lick dry lips. Ares’ clothes do seem constricting. “I’m on it, Allfather.” I spin on the ball of my foot and head toward the cabins. Not checking to see if Ares follows is difficult, but I focus on making every step sure and solid. I don’t need to check. He’s close behind me. I can sense his proximity. The odd warmth in my core has followed me home from Midgard, and I’m starting to suspect it has nothing to do with the plane of existence and everything to do with him.
This is what Brynhildr has warned me against, time and again. What romance novels have been promising. But the novels end where the hard stuff begins. Brynhildr said that too, when she found them and made me promise not to be reeled in by the lies in them.
The last cabin on the left is empty. I know, because it wasn’t there when I left this morning. Or was it yesterday morning? And why do I insist on trying to keep track of time, when days meld together here? Anyway. Last cabin’s empty, and it’s obviously there for Ares, so I lead him to it and hold the door open for him to enter.
“I will be back with your battle gear.” I’m half turned to go, when he peels off his shirt. Skítr. I see half-naked men on a daily basis. Bulging muscles aren’t something I gawk at. Except now, I do. Ares’ torso isn’t glistening with sweat, and it’s not adorned with battle scars, but I still want to run my fingers through the short, dark hairs on his chest. I want the hard muscle pressed against my breasts, grazing my bare skin.
He drops his hands to his waist and pops the top button of his jeans. “I’m okay with you watching, but maybe close the door?”
My cheeks burn, as I slam the door shut between us and march straight to the armory. Need to get him dressed, before I make a bigger fool of myself.
By the time I’m back, my skin is no longer on fire. I knock on the door instead of barging straight in.
“Come.” Ares’s voice is a seductive purr that caresses my neck and slides underneath my tunic, to harden my nipples. How can a single word have my heart racing?
I huff and focus on a memory of Brynhildr’s glower. Pulse back to normal, I open the door. “Here.” Without looking inside, I wedge the armful I’m carrying—pants, boots, and leather and reindeer-fur armor—through the opening. I didn’t get him a helmet or weapons. He can choose those for himself.
I’m used to holding a sword, so it takes a while for my arm to get tired, but I eventually begin to feel the weight of the armor. “Will you take these?” Why am I speaking Greek? In Old Norse—which is so odd to think of as that—I add, “Or are you too scared to test your skills against the einherjar?”
A hand closes around my wrist like a vice and tugs. I stumble—hope nobody saw—but find my footing and manage to mostly cross the threshold as if I meant to.
Ares is naked.
Ares is naked.
At least, he seems to be. He has fur wrapped around his hips, but it hangs low and there’s no underwear in sight. Not that men around here wear underwear, but as a rule, men around here don’t make me pray to Odin for their loin covers to drop.
Ugh. Did Odin hear that?
I’m being paranoid. Odin doesn’t pry. This is the lingering effect of my prolonged exposure to Midgard. It’ll wear off if I stop visiting for a while.
It’ll definitely ease up once Ares throws some clothes on.
I squeeze my eyes shut and blindly throw my haul at him. “Here. Put these on.”
His chuckle is dangerous. It calls for me to undress, drop to my knees, and crawl to him.
No. I don’t kneel or crawl for anyone. And I don’t let men see me naked. Unless, maybe, if they’re healers and I have a life-threatening wound. Which also never happens.
“Won’t you help me?” Ares asks. His Old Norse sounds impeccable. When did he learn? Does he possess powers he didn’t let on?
I sigh. “What with?” I’m not gonna risk opening my eyes to that.
“Don’t know what goes where.” He sounds genuinely perplexed, so I suppose he does need my expertise.
I crack a lid open and see him reaching to secure a strap behind his back. His ass is bare. And perfect. And I’m an idiot. What constitutes a perfect ass? No such thing. All asses are made for sitting, and balancing on those hard, rounded buttocks must be daunting for the poor man.
Ignoring every instinct that cried for me to sink my teeth into his bare flesh—seriously, where did that come from?—I walk up behind him, take the strap from his hand, and wrap my arms around his body to reposition the protective plate he has on upside down.
I’m still fiddling with the leather, when he flattens his hand over mine, pressing it to his stomach. “Don’t I need to wear something under the armor?”
His body heat spreads through my palm, up my arm, and to my chest. It expands in my ribcage, taking my breath away. “You’re good,” I say. “Any chaffing will heal overnight, and you don’t want these guys out there to think you’re too sensitive to wear armor like a Viking.” Good job on forming coherent sentences, self. Didn’t think I had it in me.
“And how do Vikings protect this?” He skates our hands lower. And lower. And curls my palm around his long, hard, throbbing erection.
Panic. Pure panic. It chokes the words in my throat and makes my heart stammer and my breath come out in pants. But I’m not panicking because I don’t want to be holding his dick. I’m scared out of my mind with how good it feels in my grip. How I want to feel more of it.
Ares lets go, and I see this for what it is. My opening to leave. Run out, to my normal life, where no male would ever dare touch me.
Or I can savor his smooth strength in my palm. He grunts when I give an experimental tug, and the sound travels through my veins, setting my nerve endings on fire in its path. I lean my cheek against his bare back and feel his heart thudding. If I pull again, can I bring him to his knees? And if causing that sound of pleasure makes me tingle to my core, what would it feel like if he touched me?
“Well?” Ares asks.
Does he expect me to answer his question, or express an opinion as to his girth? I hear the smirk in his voice. He’s mocking me. Can he tell what he’s doing to me?
I clear my throat and give him a hard squeeze. “Well, for starters, they keep them away from women carrying sharp objects.”
I’d feel proud for my glib tone, if I didn’t ache with need. For him.