Atum asked me a question, his voice a velvety caress behind me.
I closed my eyes, basking in the heat from the glowing At logs in the faux campfire Atum had created to warm the cavern. Even if I had never seen the man—the god—with my own two eyes, I would have found him irresistible based on his voice alone. So deep and rich, with the perfect gentle rumble.
“Tarset?” Atum touched my shoulder, a mere skim of his fingertips, but even that faint contact sent pleasure zinging through me.
My eyelids snapped open, and I craned my neck to peer up at him. His shadow appeared enormous on the pearlescent At wall behind him. His dark features were sculpted to perfection, and his eyes were pools of midnight swirling with stars, threatening to swallow me whole.
In the weeks since we left Men-nefer, jumping south to his hidden cavern across the river from Waset, any doubts that we were potential bond-mates had long since vanished from my mind. The gravity between us was too strong. If I closed my eyes and walked blindly in any direction, he would be where I ended up. His soul called to me, a siren song I couldn’t ignore. Resist, perhaps. For a time. But never ignore.
I licked my lips, unintentionally drawing his attention to my mouth. “I’m sorry—what?” I had absolutely zero clue what he had said.
Atum clenched his jaw, his nostrils flaring. He pulled his hand away from me and raised his chin, taking a deep, steadying breath. At least I wasn’t alone in this attraction. He felt the lure just as strongly as I did. The only problem was that he wasn’t resisting. I was alone in the desire to maintain my soul’s independence. Atum wouldn’t push the matter until I had decided; he had made that very clear. He was respecting my wishes far better than I would have been doing were I in his shoes and he was the one resisting me.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“Oh.” I shook my head, tearing my stare away from his to look at the imitation campfire glowing in the sunken pit in the middle of the cavern. Wood was scarce in the Nile Valley, and with Atum’s ability to pull At into the physical realm and imbue it with properties like heat or a gentle glow, it just made sense not to fuss over an actual fire. Besides, we were in a sealed cavern, and we weren’t interested in killing ourselves via smoke inhalation.
“No, I’m perfect,” I said, smiling in his direction but not quite looking at him—to prevent myself from being ensnared by his gaze once more. “Thanks.”
The sand that had blown into the cavern on the hot summer winds crunched under Atum’s sandals as he made his way to the far side of the sunken fire pit. “Tefnut will reach Waset tomorrow,” he said, crouching near the edge of the faux campfire.
We had been waiting for his daughter’s return after her seafaring trip of delivering my mom and Kiya to the mysterious island of Rostau. I would have asked why we were waiting for her and not simply crossing the river ourselves, except I wasn’t remotely eager to return to that place—that palace of nightmares. And despite Atum’s notable ability to travel through time, we couldn’t simply hop forward to the moment Tefnut would arrive. Apparently Atum and his children could only shift between eras via Rostau, like the island was their own personal time travel hub.
Atum settled on the ground, his elbow resting on his one upraised knee. The position stretched the white linen of his schenti, affording me a tantalizing peekaboo view of the smooth, dark skin running the length of his inner thigh.
I narrowed my eyes at him. Was he doing this on purpose? Was he taunting me with his body, showing me what I was missing out on? I pursed my lips. Maybe he wasn’t respecting my wishes quite as well as I had thought. He was just being extremely subtle with his seduction.
“When we return to Waset, I will be wearing a disguise,” Atum said, a note of wariness in his tone.
A mental image of him wearing a pair of those plastic joke glasses with the ridiculous attached fake mustache flashed through my mind’s eye, and I choked on a giggle. I cleared my throat and suppressed my amusement. “Will you be Temu again?” I asked. The muted, human version of himself was the only disguise I had ever seen him wear. Well, I had seen him cloaked in shadows deep enough to make himself invisible, as well, but I preferred not to think of those dark days.
When I did, I was forced to recall that Atum hadn’t stepped in to put a stop to my torture for weeks, giving voice to insidious thoughts that spread doubt through my mind. What did it mean that he let Inyotef torture me? How could he have let it go on if he truly cared about me? Would it be a mistake to choose him over my family when he hadn’t chosen me over the timeline?
Atum shook his head, his expression serious, his stare locked on me. He inhaled, and his reticence made my muscles bunch with tension. “When we enter Waset,” he said, “I will look like Inyotef.”
My heart lurched, and my stomach twisted. I swallowed audibly and shook my head. Inyotef, my tormentor, was dead, killed by Atum’s hands right in front of me. I wasn’t supposed to ever have to see him again, to look into his cruel, calculating eyes.
Even the thought of hearing that psychopath’s voice again sent a shiver down my spine. My rib cage seemed to constrict around my lungs, making it harder to draw in a full breath. Tears welled on the brims of my eyelids, and my chin trembled as I fought to control my breathing.
I sensed Atum’s stare on me, but my focus drifted inward until I was back in that dungeon beneath the Waset palace. Alone. In pain. Not only waiting for death but hoping for it. I could feel the cool, dry air, smell the earth and urine and smoke from the torches, hear the screams—my own screams and those from strangers in other cells. My shoulder joints throbbed with a memory of the agony of being strung up by my wrists.
I recalled how Inyotef’s pet priest had spent hours upon hours experimenting upon me, exploring the boundaries of my Nejeret healing abilities and jotting down everything he learned about the inner workings of a living body on his papyrus scrolls. Atum must have been aware of what was happening to me, but he had let it happen anyway—for the sake of the timeline. To guarantee I wouldn’t cave under enough pressure and put the timeline at risk in order to save myself. To test my commitment to preserving what must be.
We hadn’t spoken about my imprisonment since my recovery time in this very cavern. Atum had apologized for the part he played in my suffering, but he had let the suffering happen. A not-so-small part of me still resented him for not stopping it sooner. He wanted me—desperately—that much was apparent. But how deeply could he truly care for me, the person I was on the inside, if he wasn’t plagued by guilt over what he had let happen to me? Maybe he thought about it all the time, but there was no way for me to know without asking him.
“If there were any other way,” Atum started but trailed off. He let out a heavy sigh. “But there is not, and this is the cost of ending Inyotef’s life prematurely. The timeline demands it. There was much left for him to do, and now I must step in and finish his life’s work for him.”
I swallowed, but there was no saliva in my mouth. There was only glue. I cleared my throat, and when I spoke again, my voice was weak and thready. “How closely will you resemble him?” I asked, blinking back to the here and now, focusing on Atum rather than my memory of Inyotef. “Will it be just your appearance? Or will you sound like him?” My throat convulsed with the threat of a gag. “Will you smell like him?”
Atum studied me for a long moment from across the firepit. “Let me show you,” he said gently. “Just for a moment, so you will know what you must prepare yourself to endure during the coming weeks.” His stare searched mine, an apology written across his features. “And then, when our work here is done and we leave Waset, I swear to you I will never resurrect him again.”
I squeezed my eyelids shut and nodded. “Do it,” I whispered. “Do it now. I don’t want to see you become him.” I couldn’t have that image forever linking the two of them in my head, waiting to haunt me every time I closed my eyes.
A faint, electric crackle touched my ears, and the tingle of otherworldly energy sizzled over my skin, more intense than when Atum pulled solidified At into the physical realm, but not so bad as when he jumped me from one place to another.
“It is done,” Atum said, except it wasn’t his voice that uttered those words. It was a voice dragged from the worst of my nightmares, and I had plenty of awful dreams vying for the role.
I inhaled shakily and braced myself for what I was about to encounter, and then I forced my eyelids open.
The shock of seeing Inyotef again stole my breath. I stared at him—at Atum, I consciously reminded myself—for long seconds without moving. Without breathing. Between one heartbeat and the next, I became prey, caught in the sights of a predator.
Atum stood, wearing Inyotef’s lighter skin and smaller frame. Slowly, he made his way around the firepit and knelt beside me. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually look at him.
“Tarset,” Inyotef—Atum—said softly. “I am not him.”
A quake racked my body. His voice. His smooth, deep, horrible voice. It was spot on. Absolutely perfect. I knew this wasn’t Inyotef, but my mind couldn’t make sense of what was happening, and I began to lose my grasp on reality. The knowledge of who was truly beside me conflicted with what I was seeing and hearing. My body remembered what those hands had done to me, and it refused to believe they weren’t still a threat.
My breaths came shallower, quicker. Truth and reality twisted up inside me until I couldn’t tell what was real.
I am not him, he had said.
I shook my head, panicked and confused. Who was the him he referred to—Inyotef or Atum? Which man was he really? And which was he not?
“Look at me, Tarset,” he—whoever he was—commanded. “You must be able to face me looking like this and keep a clear head.”
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I forced my head to turn. As I forced myself to look at the visage of the man who had taken joy in tormenting me, in torturing me. Everything about the man beside me was Inyotef. Everything except for his eyes.
Atum’s midnight eyes stared out from that handsome, hated face. “Inyotef is dead,” he told me. “I killed him so he would never hurt you again.” He reached for me, and I was too stunned to move away. He took my hand, clasping it tight in both of his. “I will never let anyone hurt you ever again.”
My nostrils flared, and my chin quivered. My next blink set a fresh stream of tears free.
Atum’s stolen features softened until he wore an expression I had never seen on the real Inyotef’s face—genuine concern. “Close your eyes,” he murmured. “I wish to show you something else.” The corner of his mouth tensed, Inyotef’s thin lips hinting at a smile. “Something you will enjoy.” He tilted his head to the side. “I think.”
I stared at him a moment longer, taking refuge in his familiar eyes. And then I let my eyelids drift shut, hoping he was returning to his true appearance, because I certainly enjoyed that.
“All right,” he said, his voice having changed again, becoming somehow both softer and rougher than Inyotef’s. Something about the unique timbre tickled my memory. “Open your eyes.”
Curious about the familiarity of the voice, I lifted my lids. And when I saw who sat beside me, my mouth fell open.
Atum had become the friendly boatman who had ferried me back and forth across the Nile, his lips spread into a cautious smile that revealed the slightly crooked white teeth I remembered. His sun-kissed skin was darker than Inyotef’s but still far lighter than the skin tone I had expected. His eyes glittered with amusement, now a hint of brown in his irises to temper their divine inky shade.
I shook my head, my eyes opened wide, at a complete loss for words.
“Perhaps this was a mistake,” Atum said under his—the boatman’s—breath.
“I—” I searched his face, his friendly gaze. “I don’t understand.”
Atum withdrew the hand that was atop mine and reached into the folds of his linen kilt. When he pulled his hand out again, his fingers were curled into a loose fist. He turned his hand over and extended it in front of me, and when he uncurled his fingers, a gold cone-shaped senet piece about the size of my thumbnail rested on his palm. It was a perfect replica of the one I had given the boatman as payment for his services.
Except, I didn’t think it was a replica. Just as I didn’t think Atum merely looked like the boatman.
Brows bunching together, I looked from the gold game piece on Atum’s disguised hand to the mask he currently wore, of the man who had befriended me and helped me when I had first arrived in Waset possessing little more than the clothing on my back.
“It was you?” I puzzled aloud. “You were him? You don’t just look like him, do you? You were—are—the boatman?”
Atum nodded, a single dip and rise of the boatman’s chin.
“You helped me,” I said, my voice wavering as I processed what this meant. I glanced down at the gold token. “And you’ve been carrying that around with you ever since?”
When I looked up at his face again, the boatman was gone. He was Atum once more, in all his dark glory, the only spots of light on his body the golden scars he cut into his skin at sunrise every morning to help him honor the thousands of lives he had ended in service to his sworn duty to protect the one true timeline. Twenty-six new, long scars ran the length of his forearms.
Atum’s thumb traced slow circles over the back of my hand, and he curled his fingers around the senet piece. “You can’t have it back,” he said, the corners of his mouth tilting upward. “I earned it.”
The absurdity of that statement cut through the tension in the air between us, and laughter bubbled up from my chest. Suddenly, I felt a thousand pounds lighter.
“Keep it,” I told him and fluttered my lashes dramatically. “A token of our love.”
I regretted the words as soon as they were out of my mouth, but I held my easy smile, hoping Atum would take them as a joke and not as something more. I wasn’t quite sure which they were.
His gaze heated, and his focus dropped to my lips. “It could be,” he said, continuing to graze the pad of this thumb over the back of my hand. His stare returned to mine. “If you let it.”
Well, shit. I was in trouble. Atum definitely wasn’t happy to sit back and wait for me to decide whether or not to give in to temptation and bind my soul to his. He just had far subtler, sneakier game than anyone I had encountered in the past.
“I, um . . .” I pulled my hand from his and stood. “I need to pee,” I said, blurting the first thing that came to mind. I approached the shimmering barrier of At blocking the cavern entrance shielding us from the rest of the world. “Will you let me out?”
I heard Atum approaching behind me before I felt his heat against my back. “Of course,” he said, reaching an arm over my shoulder and pressing his palm flat against the impenetrable barrier. He leaned in closer, and when he spoke next, his breath caressed my ear. “I would let you do almost anything.”
I inhaled sharply, and a jolt of need shot to my core.
A tingle of otherworldly energy tickled my skin, and the At barrier melted into a rainbow mist before evaporating completely. Below, beyond the ledge of the cliff, the floodwaters from the Nile gleamed atop the submerged barley fields.
Atum’s fingertips skimmed over my collarbone and shoulder as he pulled back his arm. “I’ll get dinner started,” he said, as if his words hadn’t just instantly flicked the on switch for my libido. “Let me know when you’re done, and I’ll join you on the path.”
But that was the problem. I wasn’t sure I would ever be done with him. It would be so easy to just give in. To let him become my whole world. To give up everything for him, including the chance to ever go home to the future.
I wanted to do it—to seal our fates together, forever, despite my doubts. I had only known Atum for a couple of months, but I wanted him more than anything.
And that scared the hell out of me.
I couldn’t get comfortable on my cushy At bedroll, and I tossed and turned in a fruitless search for sleep. Atum and I had been waiting in the cavern for weeks, just the two of us, so I should have been used to sleeping in an enclosed space with him by now. I had been used to it. The last week or so, I slept soundly, comforted by the knowledge that with Atum nearby, nobody could get close enough to hurt me. That Inyotef was no longer alive to hurt me.
But pain and fear were the furthest things from my mind as I stared up at the curved cavern ceiling, the smooth At gleaming as it reflected the glow from the faux logs in the firepit. I couldn’t stop thinking about Atum and that senet game piece of gleaming gold on his dark palm.
Atum was the boatman. The boatman was him. The layers of significance concealed within that revelation boggled my mind. Every time I learned something new about Atum, the puzzle pieces of him in my mind had to rearrange, ceaselessly shifting until I figured out how to fit them back together.
I had known he had been watching me before we met at the market, but I never would have guessed we had already met. That he had helped me, back when he was still deciding whether or not he needed to kill me—a time anomaly, an unknown threat to the one true timeline. Back when logic and duty dictated that he should have killed me. What did that mean—that he had stayed his hand? That he had preserved my life at notable risk to the integrity of the time tapestry? Was it the potential to bond? Had he been able to sense it, even then? Did his sparing my life then negate all the suffering I experienced after?
Glancing at Atum lying beside me on his own bedroll, but just out of reach, I pushed the layered linen blanket off me, letting the cool night air kiss my bare legs. All my rolling around had bunched the hem of my shift high on my thighs, and I didn’t bother pulling it down. Atum’s back was to me anyway, so I hardly needed to worry about sending him mixed signals with my show of skin.
I inhaled deeply, releasing the breath in a sigh. Why was I even trying to prevent the bond? It wasn’t like I had any way to travel thousands of years into the future to get home anyway. I wasn’t even sure if Aramei, the only time traveling Nejeret I knew of who had lived in Egypt during this general era, could or would transport me back to my family in the future. She wasn’t even alive yet to ask. In all likelihood, I was doomed to take the long, slow road home, living each and every day between this moment and the one I had left behind four thousand years in the future.
Which meant I could either stand at Atum’s side for four millennia, fighting the urge to jump his bones, until I finally reached the time I had abandoned. Or, I could get it over with already. Do the deed. Ride the stallion. Seal the bond.
True, consummating our relationship and igniting the bond would bind our souls together for eternity. Our bodies would become addicted to one another’s bonding pheromones. I wouldn’t simply crave him; I would require him to continue living. I would die without him, as he would without me. If I bound my ba to Atum’s, I would never go home, not even if I took the slow, four-thousand-year road.
But would I even want to return to the life I had left behind after being Atum’s companion for four thousand years? Would I be able to find any joy or fulfillment in my vapid existence as a pop star?
Oh, who was I kidding? I wasn’t delusional enough to believe I could resist Atum for even four thousand hours, let alone four thousand years. I had never been known for my self-restraint. Self-indulgence was more my thing. I would have bet my life that I would give in to the urge to bond with Atum long before I even reached the time of Aramei’s birth, let alone my family and fans in the distant future.
Again, I glanced at Atum, studying the strong, smooth lines of his back exposed above the edge of his blanket. The gold scars from his sunrise ritual peeked over his shoulders, but the rest of his back was pristine, unblemished skin, looking like gleaming onyx in the gentle glow from the firepit.
I should just do it, I thought. Right here. Right now.
As I thought of finally, intentionally putting my hands on Atum—of exploring every inch of that glorious body—my breaths came faster, and my suddenly racing heart thudded in my chest. A tsunami of arousal surged within me. My blood felt electrified, making my entire body sizzle with anticipation. A needy ache blossomed in my core, and my pulse throbbed insistently between my legs.
Holy hell, if just thinking about being with Atum had me this turned on, what would it be like to truly be with him? I was more than ready to find out.
“Atum?” I whispered, rolling onto my side toward him. “Are you awake?”
When he remained still, saying nothing, I sat up and crawled closer to him. I craned my neck to peer down at his face. His eyes were closed, and his features were relaxed, but the pulse jumping along the side of his neck told me he wasn’t truly asleep. He was faking it.
Still, he didn’t respond.
I narrowed my eyes at him. I didn’t know what game he was playing, pretending to be asleep, but after his taunting promises earlier, I wasn’t about to let him play hard to get now.
“Atum,” I sang softly, tracing my fingertips over the fluttering pulse point on his neck. “I know you’re awake.”
He inhaled, then held his breath for a few seconds. “Get some rest, Tarset,” he said without opening his eyes. “We have a trying day tomorrow.”
I leaned over him until I was so close that I drowned in his honey and spice scent. “I can’t sleep,” I whispered. “I’m too anxious.” I trailed my fingertips over his shoulder and started down the length of his muscular arm. “Maybe you can help me relax?” I suggested, leaning closer to graze my lips over the skin of his throat.
A low, rough noise rumbled in Atum’s chest, and he caught my wrist in one large hand.
My breath caught, and I raised my head enough that I could see his face. His eyes were still closed, but his jaw was clenched, his features tensed. “Atum, I—”
The words died on my tongue as his eyelids lifted, and he peered at me sidelong. “I don’t believe you are thinking clearly.”
“My thoughts have never been more singularly focused,” I countered, twisting my wrist free of his loose grasp. I slipped my hand under his blanket, brushing my fingertips over the ridges of muscle on his abdomen. “Of that, I can assure you.”
“Oh, I believe that,” Atum said, his nostrils flaring as he inhaled deeply. He made a rough, pleased sound and rolled onto his back, then sat up, forcing me upright as well. “But focus and clarity are not one and the same.” He stared at me for long seconds, his gaze shifting back and forth as he searched mine, apparently weighing my conviction. He leaned in until his lips were a hairsbreadth from mine. “Perhaps I could help you clear your mind,” he murmured. “I would hate for you to make such a significant decision in haste.”
I licked my lips, swallowing roughly as I knelt beside him. “What did you have in mind?” I asked breathily, squeezing my thighs together in anticipation.
Atum made that rough sound again, like a cross between a laugh and a groan, and it lit my kindled insides on fire. “Nothing too strenuous,” he murmured, his hand settling lightly on my knee.
“Right,” I breathed. “Big day tomorrow.”
“And nothing too permanent.” His fingers inched up my thigh between my closed legs, the movement slow but deliberate, filled with promise. “Lie back, Tarset,” he murmured. “And I will thoroughly clear your mind.” The tip of his fingers skimmed the crease of my bare sex, already damp with arousal. Bless this sweet, ancient time period for being oblivious to underclothes.
I sucked in a shuddering breath. “That’s not where my mind is located,” I said, my voice shaky. But despite my words, I eased backward onto my bedroll, stretching out my legs and resting back on my elbows.
“Is it not?” he said, nudging my legs apart as he traced up and down my slit. He was teasing me, never quite reaching high enough to touch the swollen bundle of nerves that ached for his attention. His gaze remained locked with mine, his voice a low purr. “Is this not currently the focal point of your every thought?”
I tilted my pelvis, seeking a very specific point of contact, but he anticipated the movement and slid his fingers lower again.
Atum chuckled. “I know what you want, Tarset,” he said. “But I’m not ready to give it to you.”
I whimpered as he dipped his fingers deeper between my lips, teasing my entrance. “Atum,” I pleaded.
He moved closer, kneeling beside me, and reached out with his other arm to push my knees farther apart, exposing me to him completely. Even in my lust-fueled delirium, it was not lost on me that we were in essentially the same position as we had been on that hillside in Waset, only this time Atum’s hands were on me in place of my own.
“What if I told you there was a way for you to go home?” he said, pushing a fingertip inside me. “Would you still want to do this?”
“Yes,” I breathed, not fully comprehending his words, only that yes was the word I needed to say to keep his hands on me.
He sank his finger further in. “Would you still want me inside you?”
“Yes,” I hissed, drawing out the s.
“Would you still want me to claim your body?” He added a second finger, pushing both into me. “To claim your soul?”
“Oh dear gods, yes,” I said, letting my elbows slide out from under me and falling back onto the bedroll. Pleasure mounted in the core of my being, and the tension spooled tighter within me. My inner muscles fluttered, teasing what promised to be an epic climax.
“Would you still want to bind your ba to mine,” he said, pumping his fingers into me, “knowing it would seal your fate with mine?”
“Atum,” I panted, my hips lifting with each thrust of his hand. My fists clenched in the bedroll. If he would just touch that throbbing point at the apex of my sex, I would be done for. Just one brief brush of his thumb. Just a flick of his nail. Gods, if he simply blew on me there, I would likely fly over the edge into blissful oblivion.
“Knowing it would mean you could never go home?” he said, the velvet gravel of his voice like another form of caress.
“Yes!” I proclaimed, not hearing his words at all, just the sound of his voice. “Yes, Atum. Anything. Just finish it, please,” I begged. “Please.”
“Would you give up your family for me?”
I closed my eyes, sinking into that tantalizing rumble. “Please…”
“Say it,” he demanded. “Tell me you would give up everything for me, and I’ll give you your release.”
“Yes,” I sobbed, thrashing my head back and forth as he continued to thrust his fingers into me, keeping me expertly teetering on the brink of ecstasy. “Everything. Anything. Take it. Take it all. I just need you. I just need you to—”
He buried his fingers inside me and swept the pad of his thumb over my aching bud.
My words died in a choked groan as pleasure exploded from my core. My back bowed, my shoulders lifting off the bedroll, and my mouth opened in a silent scream. Wave after wave of ecstasy pulsed through me, and for a brief eternity, I lost myself to the pleasure.
I melted back onto the bedroll as the climax waned, and I let my eyelids drift shut. My muscles felt like Jell-O, and the featherlight caress of Atum’s thumb sent tiny aftershocks of pleasure shooting out from my core.
“Mmm,” I purred. “That was—” My eyelids snapped open as my mind finally—finally—processed Atum’s words. I lifted my head, propping myself on my elbows once more. “Did you say there’s a way for me to go home?”
“See?” he said, withdrawing his hand. “Clarity.” He flashed me a tight smile and angled his head to the side, raising his eyebrows pointedly. “Not the same as focus.”
“But how—” I shook my head. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”
Atum stood, smooth and graceful as a panther, and stalked to the shimmering At barrier blocking the cavern mouth, his back to me. “Because I wanted you,” he snapped. His shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was even, calm. “Because I wanted your help,” he amended. “I was never going to kill you—not once I came to know you. Not once I understood your conviction to protect the timeline was just as strong as mine. If you didn’t want to help me, I would have sent you home.”
My emotions were a tangled ball of confusion. Brow furrowing, I sat up and adjusted the skirt of my shift to cover my lower body. “How?” I asked softly. “How would you send me home?”
“Rostau,” he said, still facing the At barrier. “The same way I am able to travel through time. From Rostau, I can create temporary portals to any era, even one-way portals to times outside the boundaries of the timeline to which I am bound. I can send you there, but I cannot follow.” He was quiet for a moment. “That is what I will do when we reach Rostau, if it is your wish. I will create a portal to your home in the future.” His shoulders rose and fell with another of those deep breaths, and he turned his head, peering back at me. “But first we must clean up the mess in Waset. The dissonance we—I—created by killing Inyotef is the most extreme disturbance of the timeline I have ever encountered. I will need your unique effect on the lifethreads if I am to have any hope of correcting it.”
I laughed bitterly under my breath. “One chaos bomb, at your service.” I stood, my legs still a little wobbly, and approached Atum. “And when we’re finished in Waset, we’ll travel to Rostau?” I asked, coming to stand beside him.
Atum’s eyes searched mine, and he bowed his head. “You wish to return home, then.”
“I didn’t say that,” I corrected him, slipping my hand into his.
Atum’s brows drew together, his expression turning puzzled. “You wish to stay?” he asked. “With me?”
I gave his hand a squeeze. “I don’t know,” I said truthfully, flashing him an apologetic smile. “I wish to get to know you better, so I can make a decision based on more than, well…” I glanced down at my bedroll, my cheeks heating. I cleared my throat. “In my time—in the future, I mean,” I said, “people usually spend time together before they commit to forever.”
The corner of Atum’s mouth tensed, then quirked upward. “You wish me to court you.”
My smile widened, and I nodded. “But only if you wish to court me.”
His eyes narrowed. “I wish to do many things to you,” he said, leaning in and letting his gaze skim down the length of my body. “Many, many things.” He pulled away, once again facing forward. “I have never courted anyone before,” he said. “At least, not as myself.”
A deep loneliness resonated from that last statement, and I leaned into him, resting my head on his broad shoulder. “I have every confidence in your ability to sweep me off my feet.”
He pressed a kiss to the top of my head. “You are a remarkable woman, Tarset.”
I wrapped my arms around his middle, wishing I could soak up some of his loneliness. I wasn’t the remarkable one. After all he had done to protect the timeline—and through it, the entire universe—and with all the ghosts he lived beside every day, he was the most incredible, determined, resilient person I had ever met. But I knew from experience that he wouldn’t appreciate me mentioning the burden of his duty. He would not welcome my sympathy for all he had been forced to do.
So instead, I held him, reassuring him that, at least for right now, he wasn’t alone.
Thanks for reading this preview of Darkness Between the Stars! Keep an eye out for the release announcement on Thursday, 4/27. :)