The scar on Rune’s thigh particularly offended Carling. Normally she disposed of things that offended her with ruthless efficiency, but the scar was different. She couldn’t dispose of it. She couldn’t put it at a distance.
She couldn’t stop looking at it.
She couldn’t stop remembering the terror that had frozen her heart when she had seen the monster that the Djinn Malphus had turned into strike at Rune and fling him into the freezing water during the battle on Hart Island.
The way Rune had landed, striking his head on a half submerged rock and sinking unconscious beneath the waves, his femoral artery nicked.
She had almost lost him, this funny, sexy, dangerous, brave man. She had lost so many people and lifestyles over her very long life, you would have thought she had developed better coping skills by now.
You would have thought she would have learned to have a corner of her soul held back in reserve, no matter how deeply she fell in love, but she didn’t. She had given all of her heart and soul to Rune, and so they had almost died together on Hart Island.
Which was why the scar offended her so very much.
She had watched Rune as he recovered quickly, despite the life-threatening severity of his wounds. He had such immense, inherent strength and healing capability. The freezing water had slowing his bleeding just enough, and fast acting medical attention had saved him—saved them.
Within two days, he was on his feet, carefully limping across the hospital room. Within a week, he started physical therapy exercises, to stretch and condition the scarred area. In two weeks, after they returned home to Florida, he began running. He was constantly working the leg, and she knew he wouldn’t rest until the injury no longer affected him in any way.
One evening, he returned after a particularly long run. The sun had set, but it was still quite light out, and the colors of the sunset lingered on the water. They had a pool that had been positioned carefully between the house on the west and the beach that lay to the east, so that after sunset but while the heat still lingered in the day, the pool lay in shadowed safety.
Carling had taken work out to a lounge chair by the pool, but she had set it aside to enjoy the fresh air and the view. Rasputin lay underneath the chair, panting gently. The little Pomeranian carried a lot of hair in the sultry Florida heat, and they made sure to keep bowls available both indoors and out, filled with fresh water for him.
From where Carling was, she could hear the metal sound of a key turning in a lock. Rune let himself into the gated pool area and strode toward her. He wore running shorts and shoes, and nothing else, and his whole golden body was perfection in motion. Her gaze touched on his windblown tawny hair, his smiling lion’s eyes, the ripple and flow of graceful muscles underneath tanned skin.
Then her gaze fell to the white scar on his powerful thigh, and she looked away.
He came over to her, nudged her legs to one side and sat on the end of the lounge chair. He had lost that easy, handsome smile of his that charmed so dangerously and could hide so much. “Darling Carling,” he said, cupping her knee with a callused hand. “We should talk.”
Pulling away from his touch, she stood, walked to the edge of the pool and dove in. Lately, her heart was in a state of constant riot. She didn’t know what to do with herself.
Swimming hard, relishing the pull of her body through the warm, silken water, she came to the opposite end of the pool and crossed her arms on the edge.
A moment later, Rune glided up behind her. His long, hard body fit against hers as he trapped her against the pool’s edge, one hand braced on either side of her. Nuzzling her neck, he said again in her ear, “We should talk about it.”
She breathed hard and gritted her teeth. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You’ve not said a thing since it happened, but you keep watching me. Watching my leg.” He kissed the sensitive skin underneath the lobe of her ear. “Normally, I like it when you look at my legs. They are pretty cute, if I do say so myself.”
She didn’t want to laugh. She wouldn’t. His big body was warm, and she loved his warmth, craved it. It penetrated deep and kept her heart alive.
Now, that warmth melted her resistance. She leaned her head back to look at the darkening sky, and he adjusted his position so that the back of her head fit in the hollow of his neck and shoulder as he slid one arm around her waist.
Carling said to the sky, “Marriage is stupid.”
“Of course. You’ve said so before, and I don’t disagree.” He splayed his hand against her ribcage and played his fingers along her skin.
“It’s an archaic institution, a social contract meant to limit and constrict both individuals, but most often women.” She leaned her cheek against his.
“I’m not sure how a discourse on social contracts fits into this conversation, but okay. I’ll go with it for now.” He slipped his other arm around her, cradling her close. “Especially if it means I’ll get sex afterwards.”
A small exhalation of laughter escaped her. “Damn it!” she told him in a cranky voice. “I don’t want to laugh right now.”
“I’m so sorry,” he crooned in her ear. “I know, I’m a very bad man.”
He was the only man. Turning, she wound her arms around his neck and held him tight, letting her legs twine with his. She whispered, “I almost lost you. I’m not over it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be over it.”
He clenched her tight. “That was a terrible, tragic fluke. It will never happen again. You will never lose me.”
Swallowing hard, she blinked away tears and told him, “I’ll never lose you, because I’m going with you wherever you go. No matter where it is, even death.”
He was the only man, and the look in his gaze was everything. Strong, steady, utterly adamant. “And I am going with you, wherever you go. You’re my mate. You’re mine. I will always fight for you, always love you. Always be by your side. Always, Carling.”
At last, after weeks, the tightness around her chest began to ease. She took a deep breath. “So, even though the institution of marriage is normally evil and stupid, and I dislike it intensely… will you marry me?”
As she watched, a slow, incredulous fire lit his gaze.
He said, “Yes.”
The tension went out of her body, and he cradled her close and kissed her. When he lifted his head, the incredulous fire had taken over his expression, transforming him with fierce delight.
As she watched, his delight changed. He said, “Please tell me we can get married in Vegas.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” He was utterly serious. She laughed. “Well, where else would we get married?”
“Exactly.” He smiled and kissed her a second time, his mouth warm and lingering, and they didn’t talk again for a very long time.